The beginning of 2016 has seen two significant developments in the increasingly desperate battle to stop rhino poaching in Africa.
First, South Africa released figures showing that illegal killing within its borders dropped marginally in 2015 – down from 1,215 in 2014 to 1,175 last year.
But conservationists argue that poaching in the continent as a whole reached a record high.
“You could argue that poaching has been displaced from South Africa,” said Cathy Dean of Save the Rhino International. “Zimbabwe suddenly lost 50 animals last year – poachers have moved on to new places.”
The second development was a ruling that could pave the way for the legalisation of the trade in rhino horn within South Africa.
The government has repeatedly opposed the move, but according to Dean this could be because it wants to argue, at a wildlife trade conference later this year, that international trade should be allowed.
“If it wants to table a proposal to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in September, then it needs to show it is capable of regulating everything internally,” she said.
The issue of whether the trade in rhino horn should be permitted is controversial.
Many conservationists say that it would send the wrong signal to consumers in China and Vietnam, where groups such as Traffic and WildAid are trying to reduce the demand.
And there would be huge scope for confusing legal supplies that were taken sustainably from living rhinos with those obtained by poachers.
But some argue that a radical new approach is needed because current efforts to reduce demand in the Far East and to tackle illegal killing in range-state countries are not working. Legalisation would give rhinos a value and diminish the motivation for poaching.
Everyone agrees the future of the rhino is at stake – and that the rate of loss cannot carry on as it has in recent years.
Did you know?
13 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa in 2007 – it means poaching has escalated by 8,900 per cent in just eight years.