In the fight to prevent poaching, big game reserves are supposed to function as a method of protection for threatened species, a sort of haven where the animals can thrive in a natural habitat, while still being monitored by the reserve’s wardens and rangers.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. But in Mozambique recently, events took a decidedly different turn.
In the country’s Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, poachers massacred what many are reporting to be the last 15 rhinos in the country.
More surprisingly, those poachers were allegedly assisted by the reserve rangers who were supposed to be guarding against them.
According to the Associated Press, 30 of the park’s 100 rangers will appear in a Mozambique court next week to face charges that they helped facilitate the rhino killings.
Antonio Abacar, the country’s conservation director, told the AP, “We caught some of them red-handed while directing poachers to a rhino area.”
A leading rhino expert reported that the animals who died were the last ones alive in Mozambique, but at least one other government official believes a few may be left.
The reason behind the rangers’ role reversal is a simple one—money. At least one reported that he earned the equivalent of $80 for participating. To Westerners that may seem insignificant, but rangers in Mozambique generally earn between $64 to $96 a month.
Limpopo is the Mozambique section of what’s actually a larger reserve shared with South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Telegraph reports that when the sprawling conservation area was first established between the three countries in 2002, it was supposed to be the “world’s greatest animal kingdom.” At its inception, an estimated 300 rhinos roamed inside of the Limpopo area.
Today, it’s a decidedly different story. Mozambique has a reputation for showing leniency towards poachers and its government’s refusal to punitively address the practice. Even if the park rangers are found guilty, their actions only count as a misdemeanor in the country. For those reasons, South Africa has threatened to erect fences separating the reserves from one another.
But South Africa too is besieged by big game killers. Its area of the massive reserve is known as Kruger National Park, and it’s so far witnessed the loss of 180 of its own rhinos just this year—though it blames that loss on Mozambique poachers who cross into its borders.
In 2012, Kruger reportedly also saw the deaths of 668 of its rhinos—a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Though laws in South Africa are so strict that a poacher can sometimes receive a tougher punishment for killing a rhino than killing a person, threats of consequence haven’t deterred those in the rhino trade from massacring the beasts and selling their horns on the black market.
It’s little wonder, considering that rhino horns have become so valuable, they’ve overtaken the price of gold. This insatiable demand is being driven by Asia, where cultural mores dictate that rhino horns carry magical healing powers.
The continent is also responsible for fueling market prices for other poached animal parts like shark fins and elephant tusks, both of which are valued for possessing mythical healing or spiritual properties.
As the kill tactics get more brutal, conservationists are trying anything and everything to put a stop to it. The World Wildlife Fund—which recently reported that 2012 was one of the worst years for poaching ever—received a grant from Google to test spy technology, including surveillance drones and hidden sensors, to monitor, and if necessary intercept, human activity in reserves.
The emergence of that technology may come too late to be of use for the rhinos in Mozambique, but there are other threatened populations globally that will benefit.
Mozambique may be a terrible chapter in wildlife conservation, but it’s not the final one.
What do you think should happen to the rangers and poachers responsible for the rhinos’deaths? Let us know in the Comments.