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TRAFFIC’s engagement on African rhinoceros conservation and the global trade in rhinoceros horn

TRAFFIC is working tirelessly to save rhinos. If you can afford to, please consider making a donation to help us in this vital work.

African rhinoceros populations
The White Rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum, a grazer, and the Black Rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, a browser, are found in Africa. Three other rhinoceros species live in Asia.

Southern White Rhinos Ceratotherium simum simum © Martin Harvey / WWF-CanonThere are approximately 20,150 White Rhinoceroses in Africa, all descended from fewer than 100 individuals in South Africa in 1900. The White Rhinoceros is classified by IUCN as Near Threatened. The last remaining wild population of the northern subspecies, from Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo, is considered probably extinct.

Black rhinoceros Diceros bicornis © Frederick J. Weyerhaeuser / WWF-Canon Only 4,840 Black Rhinoceroses survive and the species is classified by IUCN as Critically Endangered. There are three surviving subspecies: Eastern Black Diceros b. michaeli, South-central Black D. b. minor and South-western Black D. b. bicornis. The Western Black subspecies D. b. longipes was confirmed extinct in November 2011.

At one time there were as many as 100,000 rhinoceroses throughout Africa, but the White Rhinoceros was on the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century. Populations of both species have steadily increased from the mid-1990s (when there were only 7,560 White and 2,400 Black Rhinoceroses continent-wide).

The majority of rhinoceroses occur in four countries; Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where remnant populations are generally heavily protected and closely managed.

Rhinoceros horn use

Rhinoceros horns and other products, such as blood, skin and urine, have long been important constituents in traditional Chinese medicines used to reduce fevers, headaches and other illnesses. Records of rhinoceros horn use as a medicine in China date back to the period 200 B.C.–200 A.D. Chinese dynasties have a history of ornamental use of rhinoceros horn also.

Contrary to popular myth, rhinoceros horn has never been used in traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac.

From the 1970s to the mid-1990s rhinoceros horn was in high demand in the Middle East, especially Yemen, for the production of dagger handles or jambiyas (summary, 192 KB scanned PDF full report, 5 MB). 

A recent upsurge in rhinoceros poaching (see below) is closely linked to increased demand for rhinoceros horn in Asia, particularly Viet Nam, where it carries prestige as a luxury item, as a post-partying cleanser, and as a purported cancer cure.

Poaching threats in Africa
South Africa holds by far the largest number of rhinoceroses, so is the most heavily targeted country by poachers. Zimbabwe has also been subjected to high levels of poaching.

An April 2012 graphic illustrating rhino numbers and the poaching crisis and more information about Javan and Sumatran Rhinos, both graphics by Memuco

South Africa
From 1990 to 2007, South Africa lost an average of 13 rhinoceroses to poaching each year. Since 2008, the number of rhinoceroses poached has risen rapidly: 2008 (72 poached); 2009 (122); 2010 (333); 2011 (448); 2012 (668).

In 2011, 252 of the rhinoceroses poached were in Kruger National Park, the largest park in South Africa, which runs along the border with Mozambique. Authorities have been arresting poaching syndicates with rhinoceros horns within the park since March 2008. In February 2009, a poaching syndicate comprising three Chinese and eight South Africans and Mozambicans were charged with smuggling about 50 rhinoceros horns out of Kruger National Park.

The rise in involvement of organised crime syndicates in rhinoceros poaching and illegal horn trade in South Africa can be traced back at least as far as the arrest of two brothers in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve in July 2007.

There has been a rise in so-called “khaki-collar crime” in South Africa, where rhinoceroses are darted and drugged so horns can be removed, presumably by wildlife industry insiders and veterinarians.

In June 2009, South Africa placed a national moratorium on rhinoceros horn trade and authorities there have shown an increased judicial response, with heavy prison sentences imposed on those convicted of rhinoceros poaching.

Black Rhino poached in Zimbabwe © Anti-poaching Unit, Zimbabwe

Elsewhere in Africa
: A breakdown in law enforcement against rhinoceros poaching and horn smuggling threatened to undo more than a decade’s work restoring rhinoceros populations in Zimbabwe. There are signs Zimbabwean authorities are taking such crimes more seriously, however, with a poacher gaoled for 17 years in 2010.

Zambia: In March 2009 Zambia Wildlife Authority arrested four people, including two police officers, over their involvement in the smuggling of 72 elephant ivory and five rhinoceros horn pieces.

Namibia: In 2009, two men appeared in court charged with attempting to sell rhinoceros horns.

Kenya: The poaching wave has been slower to reach East Africa, but in January 2010, 12 people were arrested in Kenya in connection with rhinoceros poaching.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Rhinoceroses are believed extinct: the most recent sighting of a live animal was in 2006.

Rhinoceros horn demand

Global threat
There is a huge global demand for rhinoceros horn, meaning that all sources are at risk. International crime syndicates are targeting museums and other sites where rhinoceros horn is stored.  For example:

  • in February 2012, a trio was suspected of stealing a rhinoceros horn in Vienna, Austria, and was also wanted in connection with the murder of a possible witness to their crime;
  • in June 2009, five armed men held up security guards in Addo Elephant National Park and made off with 10 kg of rhinoceros horns;
  • an auctioneer in the UK who stole a client's rhinoceros horn and sold it to dealers in the Far East was given a suspended prison sentenced and fined in December 2009;
  • in January 2010, Customs officials at Shannon Airport in Ireland seized 10 rhinoceros horns.

From September 2010, the UK Government announced a ban on the export of rhinoceros horn after evidence of antique rhinoceros horn and horn products being legally imported from across Europe for re-sale in the UK then exported, often to East Asia. 

Demand from Asia
Rhinoceros horn traffickers have been arrested in Viet Nam and China, including Hong Kong, and there have also been arrests of traffickers with links to Myanmar, Malaysia and Taiwan. Rhinoceros horns have recently been seized from shipments to mainland China including Hong Kong [1], and Thailand.

The recent upsurge in rhinoceros poaching is closely linked to increased demand for rhinoceros horn in Asia, especially Viet Nam, and through TRAFFIC’s work as far back as June 2007, Vietnamese citizens have been linked to the illegal trade of rhinoceros horn from South Africa. Related incidents include the following:

o   in June 2008, five White Rhinoceros horns weighing nearly 18 kgs were seized from a Vietnamese man at Tan Son Nhat Airport;

o   another man, believed to be Vietnamese, was arrested in Pretoria in South Africa in April 2009 after rhinoceros body parts were found at his home;

o   in August 2011, a Vietnamese man found guilty of illegally possessing 12 rhinoceros horns received a 12-year prison sentence;

o   in recent years, Vietnamese citizens have been involved in “pseudo-hunts”, whereby legal sport hunts of White Rhinoceroses are used to obtain horn for commercial use in Viet Nam;

o   two Vietnamese nationals were arrested at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport in December 2011 attempting to smuggle two rhinoceros horns.

In October 2011, the last Javan Rhinoceros in Viet Nam was shot and its horn removed, meaning rhinoceroses were confirmed extinct in Viet Nam.

TRAFFIC’s work to conserve rhinoceroses

Policy and practical solutions
TRAFFIC was the first to identify the increased volume of rhinoceros horn entering illegal trade since 2000:

  • TRAFFIC raised the alarm about the upsurge in rhinoceros poaching, particularly in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in June 2007 and raised the issue at the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora);
  • in response, CITES established a Rhinoceros Enforcement Task Force in August 2008, consisting of 20 top law enforcement officers representing wildlife authorities, Customs, investigations, national parks, the police and enforcement agencies in twelve countries;
  • in July 2009, TRAFFIC, IUCN and WWF highlighted major concerns to CITES about the substantial increase in rhinoceros poaching in southern Africa and also relating to sport-hunting of White Rhinoceroses in South Africa;
  • in November 2009, TRAFFIC and IUCN documented the decline in law enforcement effectiveness and dramatic increase in poaching intensity in Southern Africa in acomprehensive report to CITES CoP15. The report led countries with rhinoceros populations to agree actions aimed at reducing illegal killing and horn trade.
  • in August 2012, TRAFFIC launched a major report into rhino poaching and trafficking between South Africa and Viet Nam, detailing the situation that led up to the poaching crisis and profiling the user groups creating the demand for horn in Asia.

TRAFFIC facilitated a major breakthrough in the fight against rhinoceros horn smuggling from South Africa to Viet Nam, when governments of the two countries met in Viet Nam to increase collaborative law enforcement in 2010. In September 2011, five undertook a return visit to South Africa to develop a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate actively to stop the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn. In the same month, TRAFFIC also facilitated a Rhinoceros Horn Trafficking workshop for CAWT (the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking) in Johannesburg (26-27 September).

TRAFFIC and WWF facilitate the use of wildlife detector dogs at several European airports, seaports and postal distribution centres to detect wildlife products such as rhinoceros horn. Dogs are also being trained for use on the Mozambique/Tanzania border.  Training of Environmental Management Inspectors (EMIs) by TRAFFIC has also helped in identification and detection of illegal wildlife products, including rhinoceros horn.

Factsheets on African rhinos (PDF, 400 KB) and Shutting down the rhino horn trade (PDF, 400 KB)

Government-held-rhino-horn-stockpile © Simon Milledge / TRAFFIC TRAFFIC identified and facilitated the monitoring and registration of rhinoceros horn stocks with recommended minimum standards and best practices for Rhinoceros Horn Stockpile management.

High-profile media
TRAFFIC has been involved in a number of high-profile publications to raise awareness of the poaching surge:  

o   In June 2011, a major article in TIME Magazine featured TRAFFIC’s work on the crisis, and also uncovered plans to import and farm live rhinoceroses for their horns in China. 

o   TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken was also interviewed as part of a hard-hitting documentary hosted by Dan Rather revealing the extent of the rhinoceros horn trade to Viet Nam and rhinoceros horns openly on sale in Ha Noi were filmed.

o   Last Stand: Trafficking rhinoceros horn, an NBC documentary broadcast in February 2012 also featured extensive interviews with TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken about the crisis.

Further information
More about TRAFFIC's work on rhinoceros conservation is available from reports in the Publications section of the TRAFFIC website, under PERISSODACTYLA

The Mackenzie Foundation and WWF South Africa are thanked for supporting TRAFFIC’s work on rhinos.

The Mazda Wildlife Fund are thanked for their ongoing support of TRAFFIC in South Africa.

Rhino Wines SA are thanks for their support of TRAFFIC's conservation work in southern Africa.

The Rufford Foundation is thanked for supporting TRAFFIC’s communications work.


[1] Hong Kong Customs records are separate from those of mainland China