A global increase in demand for rhino horn to supply the traditional Asian medicine market, where it is wrongly believed to be a cure for everything from nightmares to dysentery, has intensified the situation in recent times.
Emerging markets in Vietnam and an upsurge in the supply of arms used to hunt rhino, have further added to the problem. This attrition is being driven by the astonishing street value for rhino horn, which fetches £40,000 a kilo - more than gold. The black rhino is under serious theat.
However, Chester Zoo is attempting to combat this by paying ‘informers.’ It is essentially rewarding anyone who can ‘shop a rhino poacher’.
For those who supply concrete information leading to the recovery of rhino horn, the reward is 20,000 Kenyan shillings, the equivalent to £138. Intelligence that leads to the arrest of dealers is worth KSh 30,000 (£207).
Scott Wilson, Chester Zoo’s Conservation Officer, said: “To underscore the importance of intelligence gathering - one decent piece of intelligence can potentially be more vital than a month’s worth of 24/7 patrolling.”
The scheme - which is being trialled in the Laikipia district of Kenya - has the approval of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) who see it as critical for rhino protection.
Orphaned rhino calves are a frequent by-product of the rhino poaching crisis. Hand-rearing them (as here, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy) is an expensive and time-consuming business, before they can be “re-wilded” to rejoin the Laikipia District’s metapopulation of black rhinos. © Save the Rhino International.
After the black rhino population fell dramatically at the hands of indiscriminate poaching in the 1980s, the Kenyan government adopted a principle of strict protection to safeguard the surviving rhino.
And so, they teamed up with private land owners to create huge, heavily guarded, rhino sanctuaries. The Association of Private Land Rhino Sanctuaries (APLRS) was formed which, mandated by KWS, helps with the conservation of rhinos on private land.
Currently, the APLRS has nine member sanctuaries - Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Mugie Rhino Sanctuary, Ol Jogi Game Reserve, Solio Game Reserve, Maasai Preservation Trust, Oserian Wildlife Conservancy and Borana Conservancy.
However, with rhino horn currently worth more per gramme than cocaine, poachers are now encroaching onto private and guarded land. Which is why Chester Zoo is supporting this new ‘informer’ project.
Mr Wilson added: “The guards, patrol teams, sanctuary owners and management do an incredible job and put themselves in danger to protect rhinos on an almost daily basis. But the situation is becoming so dire, and rhino poaching such a problem that they need help.
“What this project is doing is offering funds in return for intelligence and information leading to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of rhino poachers in APLRS member sanctuaries.
“By improving the information and intelligence-gathering mechanisms on these sanctuaries we hope we can far better counter any poaching threats.”
The Maasailand Preservation Trust’s Game scout and rhino programme employs over 100 people, and uses a plane, vehicles, donkeys and tracker dogs to assist their anti-poaching operations.
It’s very early days but already the ‘intel’ project does seem to be working. Some of the sanctuaries have informers on retainers and have even introduced a bonus scheme for the supply of particularly good information. Both the zoo and Save the Rhino International – who are also heavily involved with the scheme - hope it could be a tactic that serves to calm poaching elsewhere in Africa.
Cathy Dean, Director of Save the Rhino International, said:
“Ultimately, the success of the intelligence and informer network scheme will be judged by the overall performance of Kenya’s rhino population on private land rhino sanctuaries.
“While it is unrealistic now to stamp out poaching altogether, the ultimate goal must be for rhino populations to breed at such a rate that the net gain each year is a minimum 5% as stipulated in Kenya’s 2012-2016 Draft Black Rhino Strategy Plan, even after any poaching losses.”