The Illicit Rhino Horn Trade

“Are you OK? You’ve been running that water for a while now,” came a thickly accented voice from behind me. I snapped my jaw shut and looked around. The toilet attendant was eyeing me curiously. I wiped my hands on my shorts, still in a daze.

“I… they… those rhinos have no horns,” I said pointing out the glass window that looked onto an open plain of animals above the long row of ritzy wash basins. Her brow furrowed momentarily, then she simply shrugged, made a barely audible grunt and walked off into a cubicle, mop in tow. Clearly, I was the odd one here for thinking this was an abnormal sight. No horns. A dozen or more rhino and not a single horn.

I was fresh off the red-eye flight from London to Johannesburg and driving across the country towards Kruger National Park. By all accounts this region is called the ‘front line’ of the war on poaching. The last great stronghold for rhino on the continent of Africa, they say. I’d spent the last few months sifting through mountains of research on the subject, but as I prepared for filming a documentary about the illicit rhino horn trade I found myself with more questions than answers.

“Don’t kick the hornet's nest too hard with your investigations Ness, people like you disappear, you know. You’ll paint a very large target on your back with people you don’t need to be involved with,” was the most common response to my plans to uncover the truth behind the illicit rhino horn supply chain. But the fact remains that a rhino is still worth more dead than alive, that for decades we have sat on our hands hoping others can find a solution all the while watching as ravenous global consumerism wipes out the last remaining giants from the face of the Earth. Do I just sit in my armchair and do nothing when we are facing what feels like the final tragic act, in what would be one of the world’s greatest failings of wildlife? Rhinos are iconic. Ancient. They have roamed the earth for 50 million years unthreatened by humans. No, I can’t sit back and watch. What will I tell my grandchildren in 50 years’ time when they ask why we didn’t do enough to save the species? Why they will never see a rhino in the wild like we did?

I walk out of the toilet, ignoring the enormous marketing poster showing a crash of rhinos, all boasting long, majestic horns. That poster is just a fairy tale of a bygone age. But doom and gloom were not what I wanted to uncover in these first months on the ground. I wanted to know about hope, optimism, solutions and the stories of those quiet heroes on the frontlines of this poaching crisis.

I sat in my car outside and wrote a list of the facts I know about the tsunami of rhino horn being trafficked, predominantly to the Far East. My question to those working tirelessly to save the species was going to be ‘how do we win this war, based on the current realities and ground truth? Where do the solutions lie?’. The list read as follows:

  • The name rhinoceros means 'nose horn' yet most rhino alive today are dehorned in an attempt to prevent poaching
  • At the beginning of the 20th century, 500,000 rhinos roamed Africa and Asia
  • Today there are around 25,000 rhinos remaining in the world
  • 1,028 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone in 2017
  • Crime syndicates are opportunistic, and poaching is just one of many illegal activities they are involved with, meaning they have access to large sums of cash and seemingly unlimited access technology and weapons, making them agile and difficult to shut down
  • Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same thing your fingernails are made of. It has no proven medicinal value
  • Rhino horn is more valuable per kg than cocaine or gold. In the world of illegal wildlife trade, the most valuable appendage is the horn of the rhinoceros. Simply put, rhinos are, in monetary terms, worth more dead than alive at this present day
  • Corruption at every level is hampering efforts to prosecute criminals, meaning poaching is still low risk, high reward
  • Illegal wildlife crime is now estimated to be worth more than $20bn (£16bn) per year, ranked only behind drugs, weapons and human trafficking in the criminal value chain


Needless to say, I arrived in Hoedspruit - a town nestled in the foothills of the Drakensburg mountains near the Kruger National Park - feeling utterly deflated and overwhelmed by the scale of this crisis. Within days those feelings had been transformed into ones of optimism, though. I’d met with rhino orphanages, armed ground anti-poaching units and the guys running Flying for Rhino who provide operational air support and patrols for the surrounding reserves. I remember walking into the hangar and HQ of Flying for Rhino all too clearly. 

“Um, what’s the plane made from?” I ask as I stride into the hanger eyeballing the aircraft being wheeled outside with one arm by the pilot, as though it weighed nothing.

“Fabric,” comes the answer.

“Errr... what do you mean fabric?” is what I want to say but opted to keep that to myself. The aircraft are the eyes in the sky for all their anti-poaching efforts, and the man taking me up for my first patrol experience flies it at the very edge of what is possible. Literally.

Their operational flights are hair-raisingly low level (they literally skim treetops as they ‘buzz’ potential poachers), so much so that they navigate through the sky oftentimes on the verge of stalling the plane. I get a taster of the agility of the aircraft as we bank so steeply that I’m on my side staring at the red dirt meters below, before being whipped around to bank fully the other way and pull round in a tight circle above one spot on the ground. These flying skills are vital for gaining close visuals and ‘holding’ intruders in one location. The skill set is extraordinary, with some of the best pilots in the world failing to pass their tests. The handful of pilots who do make it are described as type A personalities and fly ‘by feel and instinct rather than by numbers’.

As we touched down on the runway I felt blown away, literally, to have experienced a little bit of what their world involves. It looks and sounds glamorous until you hear the reality that they are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. The reality of this job to safeguard rhino and elephant is a sobering one that involves a dedication that goes far beyond our norm. Their work to safeguard endangered wildlife is highly effective when you read the statistics; incursions drop 94% when the pilots are out patrolling the reserves from the sky. And this is why they continue to do their work on the frontlines of the war on poaching. Because it makes a tangible difference to the safeguarding of endangered species.

Over the coming weeks spent in the hangar filming, I learn that some of the pilots have, in fact, been shot at before whilst flying. They have also received radio calls saying “get the hell out” of the region they are flying over with the news that poachers on the ground have shoulder rocket launchers ready to fire. These are no ordinary human beings. They have redefined the meaning of dedication, passion and compassion for me. These guys are willing to put their lives on the line for all fellow inhabitants of planet earth. That’s something quite extraordinary. Their efforts and determination are beacons of hope for the rest for the world. This is the story I came here to find. Stories of those who inspire the rest of us to step up and be a part of the solution to a global recurring issue.

As David Attenborough so aptly puts it, “Africa is one of the greatest wildlife continents on the planet, and what happens here happens to us all”. And so, with renewed vigour, I continue my journey to investigate the ground truth, the problems and, importantly, the solutions to every stage of the illicit rhino horn supply chain from the tip of Africa, via the illegal trade routes, all the way to the Far East and end consumers.

I’m incredibly proud to be supported on this expedition by Vivobarefoot who have proven a longstanding commitment to conservation across the globe. They have understood fully that it takes an international collaboration of individuals, organisations and governments in order to turn back the dial on the current march towards extinction for so many species. So, thank you to the team for your support. I’m looking forward to sharing the documentary with everyone and lifting the lid on the potential solutions to this complex and urgent issue.

Pictured: Tracker Brown

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