Rhino in South Africa
Nature conservation

Nature conservation

Endangered rhinoceroses

Over the past few years rhino poaching became a national issue in South Africa. Can this imposing animal be saved? Katharina Trump, expert for anti-poaching at the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Germany, on the efforts to save the rhinos

Ms Trump, why are the rhinos in South Africa under threat?

South Africa is home to the majority of Africa's rhinos: around 80 per cent of all African rhinos live there. In the Kruger National Park alone, there are between 7,000 and 8,000 rhinos. It makes this country into a real hotspot for rhino poaching. The poachers kill the animals to cut off their horns. These are mostly smuggled to Asia via Mozambique, where they are used primarily in Vietnam and China for traditional medicine. However, they are also considered a status symbol – one kilogram of rhino horn costs more than one kilogram of gold. Even if the poachers in Africa only receive a small proportion of these profits, this is still an incredible incentive.

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(KfW Group/Thomas Schuch)

Have the medicinal effects of rhino horn powder been proven?

Rhino horn powder is believed to alleviate convulsions and fevers, but there is no scientific evidence for this. Basically, keratin – the material our fingernails are mostly made up of – is being sold for the price of gold. The situation is currently being aggravated by the persistent rumour that rhino horn powder is able to cure cancer. This erroneous belief has led to a veritable boom in the past few years. Just 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2007, but by 2016 this figure had already risen to 1,054.

So what can be done to counter this?

We are convinced that the problem needs to be fought at three levels: poaching must be stopped, trade prevented and demand reduced. The government in South Africa believes the fight to stop poachers is very important. The trade of horns taken from poached animals faces severe penalties in South Africa, and also more recently in Mozambique. Unfortunately, these efforts have recently suffered a setback.

Rhino in South Africa

You are referring to the case of private rhino horn farmer, John Hume...

Yes, Hume has appealed against the trade prohibition in South Africa. He has approximately 1,500 rhinos on his farm. He regularly cuts of their horns, albeit while they are under anaesthetic. Since the horns grow back, he has been able to collect several tons of horns over the years. He wants to be able to sell them, and actually won his case in court. Happily, up to now, only at national level. The international trade of rhino horns for commercial purposes is still prohibited by the Washington Convention (CITES). However, the government in South Africa is considering permitting limited horn export for private purposes. Were this to come into force, the decision would bring the authorities in South Africa face to face with the problem of how to determine whether a horn has been obtained legally or illegally, that is, by poaching. This is totally devastating because suddenly a demand that we are intensively trying to reduce would be encouraged.

Where do you see a need for action?

First, we need more rangers. But these rangers, who are already fighting the poachers, also need to feel a greater sense of satisfaction. Across the globe, around 1,000 rangers have been killed in the past ten years. They have a dangerous job where they don't see their families for days or weeks, and they are often not even insured. This is why programmes such as those supported by WWF, the German Federal Government and KfW are so important for training rangers in countries such as South Africa, for example. It is also just as important that poaching is prosecuted along the entire trade chain in an efficient and non-corrupt manner. This includes the source countries in Africa through to the consumer states in Asia. And, obviously, we need to reduce demand primarily in Vietnam and China.

What is WWF doing to combat demand in Asia, for example?

WWF recently started some new activities in which aspiring doctors at universities and schools for traditional medicine in Vietnam are informed about rhino horn powder and its lack of healing properties. Our second target group is the private sector: we are trying to convince companies that rhino horn and other wild animal products, such as ivory, are not good gifts.

Katharina Trump from WWF
"Belief in the power of rhino horn powder to heal sits deep within the cultural psyche."

Katharina Trump, expert for anti-poaching at the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Germany

How successful are these activities?

Belief in the power of rhino horn powder to heal sits deep within the cultural psyche. It will take a generation to change this. But alleviating poverty in Africa also remains an important subject. Many poor people live in the rural areas of South Africa and need perspectives and opportunities to make an income, so that they are not drawn into rhinoceros poaching.

Is the regulated removal of rhino horns a solution?

Not in the long term. First, this takes a lot of effort and is very expensive. Each animal must be caught and anaesthetised. Second, even when the animals do not have horns, they can still fall victim to poachers. And third, the horns obviously affect the biologically motivated behaviour of the animals. Under the current acute state of threat, removing the animals' horns is sometimes still a necessary emergency precaution, as is the case in some South African reserves. The risk of losing the animals to poachers is too great. We must not slacken off in our efforts.


All United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015. At its heart is a list of 17 goals for sustainable development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our world should become a place where people are able to live in peace with each other in ways that are ecologically compatible, socially just, and economically effective.

Published on KfW Stories: Monday, 25 September 2017