Story Spotlight

Rhinoceros. Photo Credit: Eugene Wei / Creative Commons License

Operation Crash Nabs Traffickers, Brings Money to Rhino Conservation

Rhinos and tigers are big, powerful, and charismatic animals. Unfortunately, these same qualities make these magnificent creatures popular targets: rhinoceros horn and tiger pelts and body parts are in high demand on the global black market.

Five species of rhinos survive in Africa and Asia, but they are all under threat. Africa is home to the black rhino and white rhino, which are classified by the IUCN Red List as critically endangered and near threatened, respectively. Asia is home to the greater one-horned rhino, which is classified as vulnerable, and the Javan and Sumatran rhinos, both of which are classified as critically endangered.

At the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 500,000 rhinos roamed across Africa and Asia. By 1970, the global number had dropped to 70,000. Black and white rhinos were hunted to precariously low numbers throughout Africa and had gone extinct in 15 African countries by the early 1960s and 1970s. Ambitious anti-poaching campaigns and reintroduction programs allowed population increases and reintroduction to sites where they had gone extinct. By the end of 2013, there were approximately 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos in Africa.

White Rhino with calf. Credit: Michelle Gadd/USFWS

Credit: Michelle Gadd/USFWS

However, since then the poaching of rhinos for their horns has once again surged upwards in Africa. Rhino poaching has also shifted from opportunistic poaching by locals to coordinated, targeted poaching commissioned by well-armed, well-equipped organized networks or syndicates. A decade ago, South Africa, which has more than 80% of Africa’s rhinos, was losing about twenty rhinos a year to poaching. By 2014, the number of poached rhinos per year had skyrocketed to 1,215. Although there was a slight decrease in rhino poaching numbers in 2015, the change is statistically insignificant given the continued large numbers of rhinos killed. Neighboring countries experienced a surge in rhino poaching over the last year, and across the African continent, the numbers of rhinos killed has increased each year over the past six years.

In Asia, the status of both rhinos and tigers is also bleak. There has been some conservation success with the greater one-horned rhino, which now numbers more than 3,500 individuals mainly thanks to strict protection from Indian and Nepalese wildlife authorities. In addition to the continued threat of poaching, harrassment and encroachment, habitat destruction and loss, and conflicts between humans and rhinos still represent major threats to the one-horned rhino. Sumatran rhinos live in dense tropical forests across parts of Southeast Asia. Today, there are less than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. Although their survival continues to be under threat from poaching and habitat loss, the decline in their population has finally stopped, thanks to the efforts of dedicated anti-poaching teams known as Rhino Protection Units. With fewer than 61 individuals left, the Javan rhino is believed to be the rarest large mammal on earth. Today, the Javan rhino is confined to a single population in Indonesia's Ujung Kulon National Park. The greatest threat to its survival is its small population size, and the inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity that this will bring about. In addition, the Javan rhino is threatened by poaching and habitat destruction and loss, primarily for agriculture and development.

A tigress strolls through Tadoba National Park. Photo Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey, Tiger Research and Conservation Trust

Credit: Harshawardhan Dhanwatey/Tiger Research
and Conservation Trust

Once abundant throughout Asia, tigers now live in small, fragmented groups. Approximately 97 percent of wild tigers were lost during the last century, and estimates for tigers in the wild now range between 3,159 and 4,240 individuals. Between 2006 and 2014, the known tiger range declined by 42 percent, and tigers are now estimated to inhabit less than 6 percent of their historic range. Although there has been population growth in some populations, all six subspecies of tiger - the Sumatran, Amur, Bengal, Indochinese, South China, and Malayan tiger - are considered endangered or critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List. In addition to the threat of illegal wildlife trafficking to meet demand for tiger skins, tiger bone wine, and other tiger-derived products, tigers are severely threatened by habitat loss and retaliatory killings due to human-wildlife conflict.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund is working to restore rhino and tiger populations to healthy numbers in the wild. Since 1994, the Fund has supported groups engaged in conservation efforts to save these species. These include fighting poaching, managing habitats and ecosystems, establishing nature reserves, developing community conservation initiatives, managing human-wildlife conflict, and raising public awareness.

In 2016, the program provided funding to 66 projects in 16 countries totaling $4.3 million, which was matched by an additional $9.2 million in leveraged funds. Project highlights include:

    Rhino-Tiger Conservation Fund 2016

    Total Number of Grants Awarded 66
    Total Funds Distributed Through Grants $4,364,160
    Total Partner Contributions Leveraged by Grants $9,278,052
    Total Number of Countries that Received Program Support 16
  • Kenya: Combating rhino poaching across Kenyan private and community-owned conservancies..
  • Nepal: Strengthening anti poaching activities through comunity engagement in the Bardia National Park and Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve.
  • Thailand: Identifying expanded habitat for tigers in the Salakpra Conservation Landscape.
  • Zambia: Black rhino population monitoring and protection management operations in North Luangwa National Park.
  • Zimbabwe: Continued support for rhinoceros management operations.