How exactly are rhinos poached? Do poachers often have connections to the international black market, or do they tend to be local people trying to find a way to survive?
The vast majority of rhino poachers in Africa operate in small, mobile, professional gangs and can be likened to bank robbers. They prefer to infiltrate a rhino area quickly, kill one or more rhinos, and get away as quickly as possible. They then market their horns through syndicate leaders (“organisers”) who have contacts (often corrupt officials or politicians) in the supply chains that convey the horns out of Africa. Each gang may be consistently comprised of the same trusted individuals, or may show turnover of members from within a broader syndicate, especially since they often fall out between themselves. They will seek guides and informants within local communities and workforces, but are generally not rooted within these communities, who are inclined to be law-abiding and to welcome strong punitive action against commercial poachers whom they see as thugs marauding through their areas.
In Zimbabwe, and in many other areas, it is a myth that the poaching arises simply from local poverty that drives community members to seek income for their families. Hardcore poaching gangs may range over hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, often cross-border, sometimes also involved in elephant poaching, drug smuggling, etc.
In November 2017, Robert Mugabe’s 30-year reign as President of Zimbabwe came to an end. What does the future now hold for Zimbabwe’s wildlife in this new era?
On the one hand, we hear that the new leadership will make Zimbabwe “more open for business” to encourage investment, both commercial and philanthropic, that will be directly helpful to rhino conservation as well as indirectly beneficial in helping rebuild Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and reducing factors that are conducive to illegal activities. On the other hand, it remains to be seen if the more militaristic influence in the government structures results in interference in conservation programmes by military people who know little or nothing about conservation. Current signs are mixed, and rather negative in the conservation field. However, in general, it is hard to see how things could not get at least somewhat better than they were under Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.
More recently, in March 2018, the world lost its last male northern white rhino, making the subspecies functionally extinct. In light of this tragic event, what value do you feel lies in ensuring the survival of our remaining rhinos?
It is my view that much of the blame for the extinction of northern white rhinos lies with the international zoo community that did too little, too late, to take action to combine “their” remaining rhinos in larger groups in more free-range, natural situations that would stimulate breeding, and even to allow mixing of northern and southern white rhinos to retain the genetic diversity of the latter within the species as a whole (I recommended that two decades ago). I believe that current approaches to “intensive management” of Sumatran rhinos similarly risk over-managing this species to extinction. We have to see the value of rhinos as spectacular animals that show complicated evolutionary adaptations (behavioural, ecological, etc.) within natural ecosystems for which they serve as flagship species.