Is 10 Years in Jail Enough Hard Time for Murdering a Rhino?

In addition to a decade in prison, South Africa adds a $110,000 fine to convicted rhino killers.

(Nigel Pavitt/Getty Images)

Jan 30, 2013· 1 MIN READ
wrote the bestseller Soldier Dogs and was staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Yesterday, January 29, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs upped the penalties for rhino poaching to something beyond a slap on the wrist. The maximum fine will increase to about $110,000, with prison time of up to ten years—double what it had been.

Right now, births still outnumber deaths. But within five years, deaths will outnumber births unless something changes dramatically.

The ruling was an attempt to stem the horrific tide of poaching in order to get a rhino’s coveted horns. “The price of rhino horn is increasing exponentially, but the penalty is not,” Mike Knight, chairman of the Southern African Development Community Rhino Management Group, said in a Times Live article.

But even the increased penalties aren’t enough for contributing to the demise of a critically endangered species. The monetary payoff for rhino horns is exorbitant, and the new penalties would not likely dissuade would-be poachers.

Rhino horn fetches up to $65,000 per kilogram in some parts of Vietnam—currently the top market for rhino horn. It’s more expensive than gold. The average weight of a black rhino horn is 2.88 kilograms. It doesn’t take a math genius to see that the fine is far less than what the horn would garner on the black market.

Because of the lucrative horn industry, Africa is bleeding these endangered animals. Last year a record-breaking 633 rhinos had been killed by mid-December in South Africa alone. It’s a number that’s been growing at a frightening pace. According to the The Guardian, between 1990 and 2005, poachers killed about 14 rhinos a year in South Africa. In 2010, the number was 333. In 2011, 448 were poached. Wildlife experts fear 2013 could be even worse than last year.

If it keeps going at this rate, the species will soon be beyond the tipping point. There are about 18,000 white rhinos and 1,195 black rhinos in Africa. Right now, births still outnumber deaths. But within five years, deaths will outnumber births unless something changes dramatically.

“At that point, the population goes into freefall,” says Richard Thomas, of TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, to TakePart.

South Africa has about 75 percent of the world’s rhinos, making it the major destination for poachers. Other countries have also experienced rhino poaching in recent years, says Thomas—notably Zimbabwe, India, and Nepal. Vietnam’s last rhino was found shot, with its horn removed, in 2010.

Most poaching happens in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which is about the size of Israel and very hard to monitor. Those poaching rhinos range from impoverished individuals hoping to make a quick buck to professionals using the latest high-tech equipment and techniques to carry out their crimes.

“You have very advanced international syndicates run like business operations that are very good at getting horn out of here,” Julian Rademeyer, author of Killing for Profit, told Reuters. The horn is often smuggled out of the area through Mozambique. From there, observers say it goes the same routes as illegal drugs go on their way from Southeast Asia to Africa.

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