SO FAR this year 633 rhino have been illegally killed. On most days, men armed with guns have crept up on a rhino somewhere in South Africa and shot it. Then they have taken their machetes and hacked off the animal’s horns.
These poachers are the first strand in a highly organised criminal network involving couriers, middlemen and international traders, and ending with consumers in Asia whose belief in the mythical medicial properties of rhino horn has driven the price higher than that of gold or platinum.
The price of rhino horn is now so high that some people buy it simply because it is expensive. It has become a status symbol. Asian markets even sell little bowls with graters for consumers to grate the horn, some of which is sprinkled on food at dinner parties simply to show off.
The number of rhino illegally killed this year so far is nearly double the 333 killed in 2010, and 3000 percent more than the number killed in 2007. It is not just rhino that are being taken illegally: so are elephants, plants and fish, plundered as part of a global illicit wildlife trade worth around $28bn a year.
A report released by WWF International last week rates wildlife trafficking as the fourth largest illegal global trade after drugs, humans and counterfeit products. And the report says we are failing to control it, primarily because governments have not made it a priority.
This is a mistake. Properly managed, the exploitation of wild resources can provide livelihoods for many people, particularly in rural areas. If not properly managed, over-exploitation can bring some species close to extinction - as has happened with abalone in some areas of our coast - depriving present and future generations of livelihoods.
Governments will have to change their approach to illicit wildlife trafficking to match the change in the trade itself, from a small-scale, sporadic affair some years ago to the highly organised international phenomenon it is today. Illicit trade in wildlife on this scale is a matter to be tackled by many government ministers together. And the penalties must be tough enough to outweigh the rewards.