A rhino with a trimmed horn, which can make them less of a target for poachers.
A rhino with a trimmed horn, which can make them less of a target for poachers.
Photo: Lynne MacTavish

Live wildlife markets have temporarily closed across China and air pollution is dropping in cities around the world under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s given nature some space to breathe even as the virus takes a toll on humanity. But in southern and eastern Africa, the risks to wildlife are rising as poachers become more brazen in countries on lockdown.

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Most wildlife tourism in Africa has stopped overnight in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, bringing income for many of the people working at or near national parks and game and private wildlife reserves to a shuddering halt. Most of these wildlife conservation areas rely completely on tourist money to hire anti-poaching rangers, leading to fear they may be laid off if the lockdown continues.

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Conservationists told Earther that with little or no human presence in parks as tour operators shut up shop, the conditions are perfect for poachers to move in. While many animals will be hunted for meat or for parts, organized poaching is especially likely to target rhinos, which are killed for their valuable horns.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, rhinos were hard hit by poaching. Almost 8,000 rhinos were killed illegally between 2008 and 2018 in South Africa, where 80 percent of African rhinos are found. With only around 5,500 black rhinos and 18,000 white rhinos left, poaching at this level could wipe them out within our lifetimes. Before 2008, conservation efforts had led to dramatic increases in both species. If the poaching stopped, rhinos could bounce back again.

But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown efforts to curb poaching into disarray. While lockdowns only started recently in South Africa and Botswana, anecdotally there has already been an increase in rhino poaching. Nico Jacobs, a helicopter pilot with Rhino 911 in South Africa, told Earther that over the past 10 days, he has gone out to investigate and try to save nine rhinos attacked by poachers in two national parks. None survived, but in two cases, the calves had been spared, and he flew them to a rhino orphanage.

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“I’ve done this job for 15 years, and I’ve never been so busy,” he told Earther. “Now it’s still not even a full moon. First full moon over the lockdown period, we’re going to be in for a hell of a surprise.” When the moon is full, poachers can move without flashlights, meaning they are less likely to be detected by anti-poaching patrols.

In South Africa’s North Western Province, Lynne MacTavish is desperate to save the rhinos on her reserve. Anti-poaching staff patrol the reserve around the clock with jeeps and dogs; MacTavish herself gets up at 4:30 every morning to do her shift. Determined to keep paying her 21-person team, she slashed management wages by 50 percent and stopped drawing any income for herself. She knows that if she lays off any guards, the rhinos on her land will be at immense risk as will the guards’ 131 family members who are directly dependent on her team’s wages. However, she told Earther that giving up is not an option.

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“We love our rhinos,” she said “They were born here, we know their individual personalities. If we stop looking after them, there is nowhere for them to go.”

A rhino calf recently orphaned after its mother was killed by poachers before being transported to a orphanage.
A rhino calf recently orphaned after its mother was killed by poachers before being transported to a orphanage.
Photo: Nico Jacobs
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Protecting rhinos is an expensive business. As well as anti-poaching teams, MacTavish also trims the horns of the rhinos on her reserve. This painless procedure reduces the likelihood of the animals being killed by poachers. Made of the same substance as finger and toenails, rhino horn regrows, which means that costly horn trimming needs to be done every year.

Tim Davenport, the director of species conservation for Africa at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he thought it too soon to say whether coronavirus was already causing more rhino deaths in eastern Africa. But he expects a wave of poaching in the weeks and months ahead as people shelter in place.

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“Organized crime syndicates don’t send poachers where there is high human density,” he told Earther. “With fewer people about, it is inevitable that illegal activities will occur.”

Davenport said that, unlike hunting for meat, elephant and rhino poaching are highly organized criminal activities. It takes well-funded, heavily militarized groups with high caliber rifles to take down large animals like rhinos and international connections to move rhino horn to the countries where it is bought. Most groups involved in organized poaching are, at least in the upper ranks, also involved in other illegal trades such as drugs, guns, and trafficking women.

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Everyone Earther spoke with was worried about money. While even small donations make a difference —for example, $12 is a tank of fuel for an anti-poaching jeep—longer term funding is needed to keep patrols going. As well as the lack of tourist money, conservation NGOs who rely on big donors and philanthropists are already feeling the squeeze as a recession ramps up.

Anti-poaching scouts Jonas and Kagiso train on MacTavish’s reserve.
Anti-poaching scouts Jonas and Kagiso train on MacTavish’s reserve.
Photo: Catherine Read
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“We’re up against organized syndicates who make a lot of money from rhino horn,” Map Ives, director of Rhino Conservation Botswana, told Earther. “We can’t raise anything like the money they have. We need tens of millions of dollars a year, and we are lucky if we get one million. Governments in Africa have to focus on uplifting their people. So they can’t fund conservation, even when their economies rely on wildlife tourism. We need money from outside.”

While everyone Earther spoke to stressed that the horn trade is driven by wealthy buyers and well-funded criminal gangs, rising unemployment seems likely to drive ordinary people into scouting for poachers.

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Drought in line with climate projections has already taken a toll on wildlife and tourism in many parts of southern and eastern Africa and brought misery to millions of people. If the coronavirus lockdown leads to further poaching, the economies of countries like Botswana—where tourism contributes one in every seven dollars—will struggle to recover. While the long-term sustainability of flying tourists across the world is questionable, right now it is critical to conserving Africa’s iconic species and supporting local livelihoods. Davenport hopes that people will make the links between our treatment of the natural world and the current pandemic, and start funding environmental work much better.

“There is a perception that conservation is some form of luxury,” he said. “The corona crisis shows it is not, and that we need it now more than ever.”

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Claire is a tropical batgirl turned science and practice interface explorer, now freelance science consultant and writer. She’s into environmental justice, civil disobedience, and human-wildlife co-existence.

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