The Southern white rhino had almost become extinct in Southern Africa, due to trophy hunting. However, after a group where found in what is Now Kwa-Zulu Natal (in the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe region) a concerted conversation effort meant that the population in South Africa soared. This is a triumph of conservation and something that we should be proud of. Meanwhile outside of the safe haven of South Africa, rhinos continued to be poached for their ivory and the number of rhinos in other countries plummeted. Most of this story I first heard from one of my fellow PhD students after he had started a job for WWF working on rhino protection. During the years that surrounding nations had their rhino stocks completely decimated, the South African population remained relatively unscathed. The reasoning that I've heard for this is that it was just a lot easier to poach from the other countries. But after all of the rhinos outside of SA were killed the poachers turned their sites on the country at the tip of the continent. Since 2007 rhino poaching has accelerated rapidly: in 2014 1,215 rhino were poached, up 200 on the previous year and 1,202 from 2007.
From what I was told by my colleague who worked for WWF, at least three rhinos are poached from Kruger National Park every day. The killing of a rhino takes a lot of preparation, some prosecutions have found that the original targeting of a reserve occurred years in advance. Poaching is so lucrative that flying a helicopter into a private reserve is economically viable, and this makes small reserves particularly vulnerable. But most of the people who actually do the poaching are driven to it by poverty and do not make huge amounts of money. With a wide pool of potential poachers to draw from, the middle men who make the money can always find more people to fill the rolls of any poachers who get caught (and often shot and killed). This makes this a hydralike problem, and so very difficult to stop on the ground in Africa.
So why do rhinos get poached? For their horns, which are shipped mainly to Vietnam to be ground up and used as hangover 'cures' and cancer 'cures.' Most people in Vietnam do not realise that to get the horn to cure your babelas (hangover) a rhino has to die. This seems like a great area for conservation groups and charities to focus, increase the knowledge in the countries that the horn is sent to and maybe the demand will dry up? There has been recent set back because an agreement between South Africa and Vietnam on poaching fell through. Set backs like this are hard to take and almost incomprehensible.
I have two proposals to help solve this problem: one sensible and the other very extreme and probably illegal.
1. Put up huge billboards in Ho Chi Minh City showing poached rhinos, go to schools and teach children about where rhino horn comes from. Pay for TV commercials on pay-per-view to get into the homes of the people who buy rhino horn.
2. (I don't actually advocate this, it's just a hypothetical idea for a serious problem) Poison large amounts of wildebeest, springbok or buffalo horn. This is readily available from the game industry, which effectively farms these animals for food. This horn is almost indistinguishable from rhino horn. Flood the market with this toxic product. I'm pretty sure that people will stop buying rhino horn to cure their babalas when all of their friends who have done it have become seriously ill.
I advocate stopping the demand. The poverty around the source makes this a difficult issue to stop here. So spending money in Vietnam might be the best way to solve it. But what do I know!