Hannah Rayner, one of our destination specialists, has just got back from South Africa. Speaking with her, I was struck by two wild-Africa specific things. First, South Africa remains, as frequently shared, an extraordinary destination. Both Madikwe and the Kruger's concession Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve are, says Hannah, as wonderful as ever. Second, it is also the frontline of a battle waged over the future of the southern white rhino, whose horn is valued in parts of Asia – China, Vietnam and Cambodia - for its supposed magical properties, variously an elixir, aphrodisiac or curative.
If you've been watching the news, then I'm sure you'll be aware that the white rhino is once again facing possible extinction. I say once again and possible because until circa 2008 the southern white rhino was considered an unmitigated success story. A century ago there were only 50 left in the wild. A bundle of conservation strategies have brought it back from the brink. At a population of roughly 20,000, it has fared much better than the northern white rhino and much, much better than all subspecies of black rhino. It is currently designated as 'near threatened', so neither endangered nor critical.
Even so, with south-east Asia's economies booming, so the rise in demand for rhino horn, which is reported as retailing for $60,000 a pound and constitutes a black market worth $20 billion – in pounds sterling, nearly £39,000 for just under half a kilo in a market worth £13 billion. No wonder, then, the increased poaching, which while suitably contained elsewhere, is a special concern in the Kruger, its size and position alongside the Mozambican border making it especially vulnerable to operations that, as well as being heavily bankrolled, are planned with military precision.
Taken as a whole, figures released by OSCAP illustrate the incremental jumps in rhinos poached in South Africa: 333 (2010), 448 (2011), 668 (2012), 1004 (2013), 1215 (2014) and 1023+ (November 2015). Broken down into key areas, the main concern, as said, is the Kruger, which accounts for the vast majority of kills, while KwaZulu Natal and Limpopo largely account for the remainder, though not exclusively. Most alarmingly, this year's dramatic decrease in the number of poachers arrested, which in November sat at a paltry 138, and hardly compares with 2014's count 386. Reasons for the fall are unclear, though the likes of conservationist Louise Joubert place the blame firmly at the feet a general lack of political will, the permeability of Mozambican border, the increased sophistication of poaching operations, and laws easily adapted to the defence – rather than prosecution – of poaching.
So, while this year's educational took Hannah to the most wonderful places - Madikwe in the dry season a game viewing bonanza, Sabi's consistent high numbers of Big 5 species making it a first-time Africa traveller must destination - almost every conversation she had led back to the impending crises. Joubert believes the 20,000 count of southern white rhino inflated, claiming earlier this year that it is more like 12,000. Whatever the truth, the perception among those in the know is that we need to act now.
In the short term, this would mean cauterising the Kruger’s problem. No easy task, but no question: an absolute necessity. It would mean working closely with the Mozambican authorities, and with local communities, especially so as to help eradicate the growing trend that sees bush meat poachers utilised by the poaching operations as on-ground intelligence. It would mean a developing a plan of action for hitting the operations not just on the ground, but also higher up the chain of command, thereby disrupting distribution networks. It may even mean taking the relatively drastic decision to delineate a well-policed rhino friendly zone within the Kruger itself.
However, whatever the short term gains, none of this will come to anything unless we can do something about tackling demand, and there the only answer is an internationally co-ordinated approach that seeks to educate a market away from believing the rhino horn possesses life enhancing properties, and that holds the rhino up as being one of wild South Africa’s most valuable assets, one that once gone is gone forever.