Rhino horns still lure poachers

Despite recent poaching of four endangered rhinos, the population in Kenya is slowly recovering.

The poachers usually shoot the animal first, felling the powerful beast before approaching. Then they hack off their $4,000 horns, and leave the body to rot. And so it was recently, when four endangered black rhinos - three adults and a calf - were found dead and dehorned in the enormous Tsavo East national park in eastern Kenya. It was the first such killing in eight years - and, many fear, a possible signal that poaching could return.

Kenya's elephant and rhino populations were almost completely wiped out in the 1970s and 1980s when Somali tribesman would regularly come across the border to poach, often assisted in their endeavors by corrupt Kenyan park officials.

In 1970, according to data compiled by wildlife expert Esmond Martin, Kenya had more than 19,000 black rhinos - almost a third of Africa's total population. Today there are 420. Tsavo East, meanwhile, went from having 8,000 rhinos to just 15 in the early '90s. A successful attempt to reintroduce rhinos to the park from the Nairobi National park raised the number of rhinos in Tsavo to 53. And today, after the recent poaching, there are 49, with conservationists worrying that more may have been killed.

In 1989, when conservationist Richard Leakey took over as director of KWS, he aimed to fight poaching and overhaul the troubled park system. He convinced President Daniel arap Moi to back an antipoaching policy of shooting-to-kill the poachers, and raised awareness of the problem. The number of rhinos and elephants in the parks began to climb, and KWS became a shining example of how effective the conservation efforts in Africa could be.

Lately, however, the service seems to be in some disarray. Its most recent director, Nehemiah Rotich, was unexpectedly suspended late last month, and there are rumors of infighting, confusion, and even corruption within the body. Some conservationists suggest KWS insiders might have colluded with poachers last week.

"It takes time for poachers to do this," says the regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) , Michael Wamithi, stressing that it is hard to believe poachers could have entered the park and killed so many rhinos without being detected by the armed guards - who were said to have been standing about 1,200 acres away from the scene.

"Perhaps someone was kept away from his duty post, or someone from the inside gave out information. You cannot rule out anything," he says.

Martin Mulama, coordinator of the rhino program at KWS, rejects these accusations, saying he has no doubts about the integrity of the park rangers. The killings were shocking, he admits, but not completely unexpected.

The Tsavo East park, Mulama explains, is a free release area - meaning that it is not fenced in on all sides - and as such, he says, "we always are aware of the possibility that bandits would enter."

In addition, he suggests Somalis may have a motive in the lucrative poaching trade. Somalia has been listed by the US as a possible haven for terrorists, and it has seen its main financial institutions shut down in response. Each rhino carries an average of 3 kilos of horn, and each kilo is worth approximately $1,300 on the market today.

KWS has launched an investigation and is intensifying security in the parks, he adds.

Although international trade in rhinos and their products has been banned since 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), there is still demand for rhino horn in certain parts of the world. In Yemen, the horns are prized for use as handles on traditional daggers known as jambiyas.

In 1970, Yemen was importing 3,000 to 4,000 kilos of rhino horn a year. While steps have been taken there to stem the trade, and use of water buffalo horns is encouraged instead, an estimated 50 kilos of rhino horn is still imported illegally each year.

The Chinese, in turn, have stopped making buttons out of rhino horn, but they still use it for medicinal and magical purposes.

A few days after the killings, Kenyan wildlife wardens issued a statement saying they had detained a Somali man in the coastal town of Mombasa as he arrived at a hotel with "three fresh-looking rhino horns" planning, presumably, to sell them.

Catching the poachers and traders, says Wamithi, is crucial - however, it is even more important to figure out how the system failed to protect them, and to ensure this one sad incident does not turn into a killing spree.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.