South Africa's Rhinos Are Nearing a Tipping Point to Extinction

The African nation with the most rhinos saw another record-shattering poaching season.

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May 13 2015, 5:35pm

The number of rhinos killed in South Africa reached record highs in the first few months of 2015, according to new government figures, as the poaching epidemic threatening the animals continues to worsen. According to conservation experts, rhinos are nearing a tipping point that could come as soon as the next year, where rhino deaths will outpace births, and many species could face extinction.

South Africa has the highest concentration of rhinos in Africa; it's home to nearly 20,000 white rhinos. In a press conference this week, South Africa Environment Minister Edna Molewa said that as of the end of April, 393 rhinos were lost to poachers in the country this year––an increase from 331 in the same time period last year.

In 2014, a total of 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa, according to AFP, marking a steady increase in recent years. 1,004 rhinos were killed in 2013, 668 in 2012, and 448 killed in 2011.

"If poaching numbers continue to climb, the 'tipping point' at which deaths outpace births will be reached very soon and populations will go into decline," he said. "It is impossible to accurately predict when that could occur, we just have to reverse the increase in poaching as soon as possible and do everything we can to increase growth." A report from Save the Rhino International claims that "rhino poaching has reached a crisis point, and if the killing continues at this rate, we could see rhino deaths overtaking births in 2016-2018."

Save the Rhino International

While it is hard to predict when exactly this tipping point will occur, WWF Program Officer Nilanga Jayasinghe said there are five species of rhinos and some are at higher risk than others.

"For species like Javan and Sumatran rhinos, extinction in this timeframe could be possible if urgent action is not taken to actively manage these populations," she said.

Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are ground to powder and consumed for their purported healing powers in some countries. The demand for the horns has gotten so high in Vietnam, a single rhino horn was worth half a million dollars or more two years ago. They have only been continuing to increase in value, according to Rachel Kramer, a Program Officer at TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring network.

"The prices fetched for a horn on the black market are so high, it's a challenge for governments to manage the demand for poaching," she said. "The numbers of rhinos poached are even higher than last year, which was our highest year on record. This is an alarming continuing trend, and something we've been addressing though a lot of work in reduction in countries."

There is a wide range of efforts in place to help the rhino population in South Africa, including airlifting the animals to neighboring countries to 3D-printing horns to lessen the demand. Some of those solutions may be doing more harm than good, however, according to the WWF.

"Our position on that is it's a creative idea but because of the nature of the market, there's so much demand that increasing supply the current conditions in Vietnam it would exacerbate the problem," Kramer said. "We don't think it would have an impact on reducing poaching levels."

Others have suggested legalizing and regulating the trade of rhino horns to lessen poaching, an option the South African government announced it would look into in February. Kramer said while approaches like this, including farming in-demand species like ostrich and crocodile, have worked in the past, rhinos are "a whole different situation."

"There's no way to reliably farm them in a way that would address current demands and relieve pressure on wild rhinos," she said. "It would be such an expensive endeavor you would still have poaching as a low hanging fruit and a way to procure access to this high value product illegally."

Instead, TRAFFIC focuses on creating interventions at all stages of the trade chain to prevent poaching, including supporting rangers who stop poaching in action, working with customs and other organizations in transit points to prevent the trafficking of rhino products, as well as working with the private sector to prevent the sale of products and enact targeted demand reduction.

"It would be amazing if there were one silver bullet solution, but really you have to have major investment in all three chains to have the kind of impact we need to see in this," she said.