Rhinos in crisis – poaching and illegal trade reach highest levels in over 20 years

15 January 2013 | International news release

Escalating levels of poaching and illegal trade in rhino horns are seriously undermining rhino conservation efforts, putting the survival of these species at risk – according to a report by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and TRAFFIC.

The report examines the conservation status and trade in African and Asian rhino species.

“The findings of the report are alarming,” says Tom Milliken, a rhino expert from TRAFFIC. “Today, rhino poaching and illegal horn trade are at their highest levels in over 20 years, threatening to reverse years of conservation effort, particularly in Africa. There is no doubt that rhino species are facing a serious crisis.”

According to the report, by the beginning of 2011 there were 20,165 White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) and 4,880 Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Africa. However, at least 1,997 rhinos were poached between 2006 and September 2012 and over 4,000 rhino horns have been illegally exported from Africa since 2009, with an estimated 92% of these coming from rhinos specifically killed to obtain their horn.

South Africa, home to 83% of Africa’s rhinos and 73% of all wild rhinos worldwide, is the principal source of rhino horns in illegal trade. A record 668 rhinos were poached there in 2012, according to official government figures released in January 2013.

Illegal trade in rhino horns involves highly organised, mobile and well-financed criminal groups, mainly composed of Asian nationals based in Africa. These networks have recruited pseudo-hunters including Vietnamese citizens, Thai prostitutes and proxy hunters from the Czech Republic and Poland to obtain rhino horns in South Africa on the pretence of trophy hunts for illegal commercial trade. Pseudo-hunting has significantly reduced as a result of a decision to prevent nationals of Viet Nam from obtaining hunting licenses and changes to South African law in April 2012. However, there remains a continued need to ensure that only bona fide hunters are granted permits, according to the report.

“Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are seen as highly desirable status symbols in parts of Asia, notably Viet Nam, but also increasingly in China,” says Bibhab Kumar Talukdar, Chair of IUCN Species Survival Commission’s (SSC) Asian Rhino Specialist Group. “Horns are also increasingly used for non-traditional purposes such as hangover cure and body detoxifier, especially in Viet Nam.”

In Asia, although conservation action in Nepal and India has resulted in increased numbers of the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the situation in Indonesia and Malaysia remains serious for the world’s two rarest rhino species— the Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus). The Javan Rhinoceros, with only around 35 to 45 surviving individuals, is confined to a single park in Indonesia after the last animal of its Indochinese subspecies, Rhinoceros sondaicus annamiticus, was found dead, its horn removed, in Viet Nam in 2010. The report calls for enhanced protection and biological management of the remaining Sumatran and Javan Rhinoceros to prevent their extinction.

Thefts of rhino horns from museums and zoos have increased worldwide, creating the need for improved law enforcement, monitoring and enhanced information management with regards to rhino numbers, sales and translocations, the report finds.

“Trade in rhino horns is a global problem that needs to be addressed by the international community by putting pressure on those countries that are driving illegal trade in rhino horn and those with inadequate wildlife legislation, such as Mozambique,” says Richard Emslie, from IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group. “At the same time, increased poaching is negatively affecting rhino conservation incentives and budgets, threatening future rhino population growth.”

The report was compiled by the IUCN SSC African and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. It was mandated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and aims to inform the rhino horn debate at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES, taking place in March 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand.

For more information please contact:
Ewa Magiera, IUCN Media Relations, m +41 79 856 76 26, ewa.magiera@iucn.org  
Richard Thomas, Global Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC, m +44 752 6646216, richard.thomas@traffic.org