Closing the loop

African Wildlife Foundation Chief Science Officer Dr. Phillip Muruthi has been involved with every link in the chain of illegal wildlife trafficking, which has decimated iconic African wildlife over the past decade. As part of his educational mission, Muruthi takes every opportunity to impress on authorities that loss of key wildlife will lead to systemic, economic degradation.

Dr. Muruthi acknowledges many weak links in the chain, especially where law enforcement does not always take wildlife crime seriously.

“Many [criminal poaching] cases fail in court because prosecution did not do due diligence,” Muruthi says.

This means wildlife criminals, apprehended at the cost of so many resources, are often just walking away.

“So we train investigators: ‘Which laws did you use?’ We have hired a prosecutor [Didi Wamukoya]. She’s been trained in prosecuting [wildlife cases].”

Wamukoya gives trainees a rundown of the laws relevant to wildlife trafficking and conviction. Based on her court experience, she is also able to coach justice professionals in effective prosecution strategies.

They continue to draw on experts in wildlife crime to support ongoing workshops.The

“It is very important to bring in the other agencies,” Muruthi says. “We’ve worked with Interpol [the International Criminal Police Organization]. We are also bringing in expertise from United States, the American College of Environmental Lawyers [ACOEL]. “

The program is scalable and replicable. The tools it passes on can fan out across the fractured poaching landscape, where solid criminal wildlife convictions will bolster other committed efforts on the ground.

“This is not traditional wildlife conservation,” Muruthi admits.

But a decade ago, neither was training sniffer dogs for airports.

It takes a village to save a rhino – the good news

Dr. Muruthi’s work is not all poachers, traffickers, and security trainees. The future they envision lives in a sustainable place where wildlife, humans, and habitats flow together.

“In the short term we want to cut [illegal wildlife] traffic,” Muruthi explains. In the long term, I don’t think we will have sustainable development in Africa if we don’t conserve our species, our wildlife, and our wild lands.”

Two next-generation sustainability initiatives African Wildlife Foundation has its sights on are community-owned conservancies and eco-tourism. Namibia’s Grootberg Lodge is a great example of both – a community owned conservancy that earns income from tourists enjoying wildlife. The success of Grootberg Lodge has allowed it to compensate member farmers for livestock lost to the wildlife so popular with tourists.

Finally, Dr. Muruthi offered some uplifting news, fresh from his data gathering across the southern rhino ranges of Africa, data about big game species.

For the first time since 2015, he was able to report that the numbers are showing downward trends in poaching and an upward trend in rhino populations.

Going to the Dogs – a K-9 Program

In the conservation work of Dr. Phillip Muruthi, habitat science mingles daily with criminal law. Take this ivory interception at Nairobi Airport that Muruthi mentioned in our interview. It came across his inbox because AWF’s innovative Canine Conservation Program made it possible. Years in the making, this program came together when Kenya-based Muruthi and his organization AWF hooked up with Will Powell, a Tanzania-based dog trainer. In spite of massive multifaceted AWF efforts– contraband continued to slip through export hubs like the Nairobi airport. Meanwhile, Powell was training dogs in Tanzania after years spent training bomb detection dogs for war zones. (As researchers have recently come to know, a dog’s nose can be accurate on an order approaching parts per billion.)

Together Muruthi and Powell developed a program that trains dogs to sniff out hidden wildlife parts and prepares rangers to work with the dogs effectively.

“This is big,” Muruthi says. “We deployed dogs in Nairobi two years ago. The dog can search luggage in 10 minutes.”

As it expands, deploying the trained K-9 teams to airports, seaports and other potential trafficking chokepoints, the program offers career advancement for a growing conservation work force. The program also helps young people realize fulfilling futures as a direct consequence of wildlife conservation.

As a joint, international effort, the program’s first trainees were selected from among many wildlife ranger candidates across Tanzania and Kenya. (HuffPost blogger Nick Visser covered the program launch in 2015.) Since then, rangers from Uganda have also come through the program.

Wearing his educator hat, Dr. Muruthi traveled to Tanzania to attend the program’s first graduation ceremony, where he was joined by Tanzania Wildlife Division Head of Anti-Poaching Faustin Masalu and Kenya Wildlife Service Director General William Kiprono.

The dogs exceeded expectation! Commitment from government authorities is particularly important for a cohesive program and long-term success. The news.

The Nairobi Airport sting alone brought AWF into partnership with police, judges, and airport authorities along with Kenya Wildlife Services.

In the two years since the program’s inception, the sniffer dogs have found everything from illegal rhino horn to endangered pangolin scales as poachers tried to slip the contraband off to Asia or the Mid-East.

“Initially we found a lot in Nairobi,” Muruthi reports. “Now we are not. They may be using different routes because they know that if you come you will be caught.”

As it stands, llegal export routes can simply relocate to the weak spots.

Capturing traffickers has some deterrent effect, but for groups like AWF, the hope is to prevent the animal being killed in the first place. In a 2016 report on rhino poaching, Ken Maggs, head ranger for Kruger National Park in South Africa, estimated that at any given time there might be up to 15 groups of poachers operating in the Park (report prepared by author Julian Rademeyer for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime). Because it has the highest percentage of rhinos, South Africa has been overwhelmed by the poaching epidemic. In countries like Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, there is a chance to get a better handle on poaching.

“Tracker dogs, for example, in Northern Kenya,” Muruthi explains, “they are used just like police to get quickly to the individual.”

It takes good intelligence and lucky timing as well, but, all things favorable, tracker dogs have a chance to catch poachers before they kill.

Success in the dog and handler training programs allowed AWF to focus attention further up the black market chain. Weak links in the justice system allowed the rewards of poaching to continue outweighing the consequences of getting caught. The organization began to work towards improvements in the criminal justice system itself.

From My Hide: How to Rear a Rhino

I would imagine that anyone who has any leanings at all towards nature conservation in southern Africa would know the name of Clive Walker, the archetypal, quintessential conservationist and game ranger. But maybe not all have heard of his lifelong right-hand person, his wife, Conita.

This book is by Conita and specifically her extraordinary experiences saving and raising a black rhino calf called Bwana and other wildlife orphans. It is the story of a determined woman and a demanding rhino, the rhino in her garden – that’s the title – A Rhino in my Garden.

Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa deals with the poaching problem  on a daily basis.

The park, has lost a staggering total of nine rhinos in eight weeks.

Amongst the rhinos, an old carcass was found, which would have been the 10th rhino carcass in Pilanesberg this year.


Rhinos are poached for their horns. Countries like China and Vietnam believe it is an important ingredient for some medicines.

Rhinos  could become extinct in 10 years (or less) if poaching continues at national parks like Pilanesberg.

Perry Dell, Marketing and PR Manager from Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust: “For the year, we have lost 16 plus three foetuses – that we are aware of.

In 2012, 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa. In January 2013, the number rose to 946. That is poaching at a rate of two per day.

The current rate is nearly three rhinos being killed every day; that’s 1,054 rhinos last year.

“We can only advise on carcasses found,” said Dell. “The terrain is not open or flat. Visibility even from the air is challenging in some parts of the park.”

In September, a rhino and her calf fell victims to the scourge of poaching in the national park.

In October, one older carcass and two freshly poached rhinos were found ‘murdered’ at the park but the poachers got away, leaving with a single horn from the pair.

Another incident occurred in November, as another pregnant rhino and her calf were shot and killed by poachers.

This time, horns were still intact as the ‘murderers’ fled the scene shortly after.

In the last decade, more than 7,245 African rhinos have been lost to poaching, according to Save the Rhino. It is the fifth most profitable illicit trade, ranking behind drug and weapons trading.

When asked how to prevent the act of poaching in the future, Dell said: “Creating awareness that there is no value in rhino horn except for the rhino.

“The demand is so high, and will increase if made available for legal trade. More, and easier, accessibility means more users.

“It would be great if people put their money where their mouth is, and support the anti-poaching effort with whatever resources they have.

  • In a first for the species, several black rhinos in Tanzania’s Mkomazi National Park have had small, networked sensors embedded directly in their horns in order to allow park rangers to monitor the animals much more closely than in the past.
  • The sensors make use of LoRaWAN technology (which stands for “Long Range Wide Area Network”), designed to allow low-powered devices, like sensors in rhino horns, to communicate with Internet-connected devices, like computers in a ranger station, over long-range wireless networks.
  • LoRaWAN is one of several technologies currently being put to use for real-time monitoring of wildlife. The network in Tanzania’s Mkomazi National Park, where the sensors were recently deployed, covers the entire rhino sanctuary in the park.

  • A sensor being implanted in a black rhino’s horn. Photo courtesy of ShadowView Foundation.
  • Other Smart Parks technologies being utilized in Mkomazi National Park’s control room include solar-powered LoRaWAN-based sensors that track when gates of the 50-square-kilometer rhino sanctuary within the park are opened or closed, solar-powered vehicle trackers that allow for monitoring of park personnel and tourists in high-risk areas, and digital radios for voice communication with ranger patrols.
  • “Rhinos always need protection from the foot patrol — rangers protecting every individual rhino,” van Dam told Mongabay. Combining all of the systems used to manage and protect the park in one networked command center ensures that rangers can always be close to the rhinos and able to take action or call for help quickly. “Any strange behavior will be detected and the park rangers will step in.”
  • When they’re running, black rhinos can achieve top speeds over 50 kilometers or 30 miles an hour, meaning humans can only keep up in a car or on a motorbike. But van Dam said that the rhinos typically move quite slow, making it easy to tell when they’re stressed. However, the goal is not to simply be reactive when a poacher enters the park or a rhino runs into some other kind of trouble: “Most intel is used to prevent such situations, so most of the time the system is used for tactical reasons,” van Dam added.

The black rhinoceros, also known as the hook-lipped rhinoceros, is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The species is also listed on CITES Appendix I, meaning that all international commercial trade of black rhinos or products derived from the animals is prohibited.

No scientific evidence proves rhino horn to be a magical cure-all for ailments ranging from cancer to hangovers, yet poachers decimate rhino populations. In demand centers across China and Southeast Asia, an upwardly mobile market continues to seek out rhino horn as a high-status multipurpose medicine.

This recent surge in demand has seen the number of slaughtered rhinos increase dramatically. In 2007 just 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa, and in 2014 this figure rose to 1,215 — the highest the country has ever recorded.

Experts have attributed these statistics to a combination of geopolitical and socioeconomic factors including consuming nations’ growing presence in Africa, the involvement of organized crime, and the emergence of Vietnam as a primary importer.

South Africa’s newly legalized rhino horn trade could fuel Chinese demand

In April 2017, a court ruling in South Africa overturned the government’s 2009 moratorium on domestic rhino horn trade and passed legislation permitting sales within the country. If leaders of other governments fail to communicate where they stand on rhino conservation, this legislation could prove disastrous for Africa’s already dwindling rhino population.

In the immediate months following this reversal of the ban on selling rhino horns, a South African rhino rancher held an online auction for 500kg of rhino horn. The online platform was available in Chinese and Vietnamese languages, which points to the intent to target this market. While the South African Department of Environmental Affairs placed the auction under evaluation, it still poses a severe threat to China’s conservation efforts—particularly its ban on domestic rhino horn trade.

Legalizing domestic rhino horn trade cripples conservation

Legalizing rhino horn trade in South Africa can provide a legal cover for traffickers and implies there is ample opportunity to sell their products to buyers in China, Vietnam, and other Asian demand markets.

Dangerous loopholes can emerge and enable rhino horn smuggling, directly undermining China’s enforcement actions against this illegal trade. This can potentially reignite the previously debunked belief that rhino horn possesses medicinal properties.

More than 80% of the world’s rhino population lives in South Africa. Rhinos are being killed at unsustainable rates, primarily due to poaching as a result of demand for their horns. This legislation not only threatens the majority of the rhino population but also threatens China’s efforts in reducing the demand for and trafficking of rhino horn.

China issued an official ban on domestic rhino horn trade on May 29, 1993. Its efforts to disrupt the illegal horn trade have seen meaningful results, but the trafficking in rhino horn continues to pose a significant threat to the survival of rhinos in South Africa and other range states.

The country must continue to stand strong in prohibiting all imports of rhino horn and products into and within the country. This commitment is imperative at a time when South Africa’s legalization of rhino horn trade sends mixed messages to the marketplace. Explicit and consistent messaging needs to be communicated to potential consumers.

Kigali, Rwanda: Akagera National Park has confirmed the birth of a healthy rhino calf, the first to be born in the country in over a decade. This exciting announcement falls on World Rhino Day, September 22nd, and comes only four months after 18 Eastern black rhinoceroses were successfully translocated from South Africa into the park.

“The first rhino calf to be born in over a decade is a profound moment for Rwanda and its people, a country that is leading in its commitment to the conservation of endangered species” said Jes Gruner, Akagera National Park Manager.  “The collaboration with the RDB in the restoration of the park over the past six years has made bringing back the Eastern black rhino, one the rarest subspecies on the planet, possible in Rwanda. Through our management and protection and collaboration with local communities, we’re working to safeguard the growth of an important population of rhinoceroses for the region”.

After six years of securing the park and essentially eliminating poaching, in the first two weeks of May this year 18 Eastern black rhinos made a 4,000-kilometre journey by cargo plane from South Africa to Kigali in Rwanda, from where they were transferred and successfully released in to Akagera National Park, which is a protected savannah containing excellent black rhino habitat. Tracked daily by dedicated monitoring teams, the translocated animals are prospering while this new calf brings their population total up to 19. In the 1970s the park was home to more than 50 black rhinos, but under the pressure of poaching their numbers were reduced until the last confirmed sighting of the species in 2007.

Diesel was donated by Baby Rhino Rescue to Care for Wild.

One bloodhound that we bred and trained, Diesel, has recently been deployed to protect rhinos at a rhino orphanage. Not long after arriving Diesel was responsible for catching five would be rhino poachers.  Diesel did an amazing job by tracking the poachers for more than 10 kilometres and took the rangers straight into the poacher’s bush camp. A proud moment for us and Diesel!

Rich Men Who Drink Rhino Horns

The rhino horn trade is rooted in traditional medicine but nouveau riche young businessmen have created a different use for horn.

Lang Ong is the traditional medicine street of Hanoi. Although banned in Vietnam, Rhino horn is available for purchase. This illicit trade fuels the rhino poaching crisis. In a recent seizure, over 80 pounds of rhino horn were seized in raids in Hanoi.

Horn was once coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicne, but now wealthy young businessmen are driving the demand.

Since 2007, the non profit group TRAFFIC has studied consumption patterns in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. In 2014, 4 main groups drove demand: those who believe horn cures cancer, young mothers who use it to treat fevers, the affluent who view it as a health and hangover tonic, and rich businessmen who begift their superiors in hopes of a raise. In April 2017 ITC (International Trade Center) determined it was rich folks who used it in the family or as gifts.

Currently the trend  is for wealthy people to attend “rhino wine associations”, gatherings where they drink rhino horn powder mixed with water or alcohol. At parties, it is snorted like cocaine.

Rhino horn is believed to have cooling properties. Acording to Professor Michele Thompson, it never played an important part in traditional medicine. She says “The use of it is essentially a fad.”

In the early 1990s demand was low. Appetite swelled suddenly in 2008 with prices reaching 100,000USD/kilo when a rumor surfaced that it could cure cancer. But this has died down and it is difficult to buy horn on Lan Ong street. Now it is easily available on Facebook, online forums, or e-commerce websites.

In 2014, TRAFFIC targeted urban businessmen from 35-50. They launched the Chi Initiative which refutes the notion that horn confers power or status. This initiative focuses on the energy within every individual—energy that comes from within and not from  a piece of horn. The campaign has reached over 5 million of its target audience. The next phase will focus on government officials. The World Bank will also try to reduce rhino horn usage among Vietnam’s public servants.

In 2012, the Vietnam government signed an agreement with South Africa to control horn trafficking and in 2014, Vietnam signed The London Declaration on Illegal Wildlife Trade with another 45 countries. But implementation of policy has been slow.  No illeglal traders have been prosecuted. A new penal code meting out harsher punishment has been delayed.

“When rhino horn is used as a staus symbol, it’s an ideal commodity to give to a superior or a colleague, or to be used as a bribe…”

Images of carved rhino horn libation cups and a Buddha

Photo of butchered rhino wins top award in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year taken by Brent Stirton. The black rhino in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve, in South Africa, was killed by poachers at night with a silence for his horn which is later sold on the black market in China. It is estimated that more than 1,000 rhinos are killed every year for their horns, it is believed that their horns can cure conditions from kidney stones to cancer.