As the sun sets over the Eastern Cape in South Africa, anti-poaching units begin to prepare for the long night ahead. Hidden by the dark, poachers, armed with silencers and heavy weaponry, will strike.
Ironically, what was once intended to protect rhinos is now the primary reason for their demise: their horn.
Made of keratin, the same material as a human fingernail, a rhino's horn is thought to be a miracle medicine in countries such as Vietnam and China. An international wildlife industry has surfaced as a result of this demand, giving way to the possible slow extermination of the species.
While the demand for rhino horn remains at the root of the problem, Annette Hubschle, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Capetown, claims that South African history is also to blame. Beginning largely in 1948, when the National Party took power and apartheid was fully established, land that was home to wildlife was taken away from local communities and bought by the government or wealthy settlers. African citizens experienced double exclusion, being both cut off from visiting national parks and working for them, says Hubschle. At the same time, many Dutch and British settlers bought land in the Eastern Cape and began farming.
In an attempt to fortify efforts to combat poaching in game reserves, conservationists are now focused on reversing the damage that apartheid created and helping restore the relationship between African citizens and wildlife.
Michael Murphree, a faculty member at North West University in South Africa, explains, "If the same 'locals' had the same tenurial rights over land and resources as their white counterparts, then I would say that certainly for some, rhino would be an important part of their livelihoods."
In order to gain support for conservation, communities first need to establish personal connections to wildlife to "give them ownership of the land and resource," Murphree continues. "Repeatedly in history when people own the land and the resources on it they will look after it."
Rosie Cooney, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group, agrees. "Villagers get no benefits from rhinos and no ownership/stewardship rights so they don't care to protect them," she says.
In the Eastern Cape in particular, what was once primarily farmland has since become a hub for wildlife Private Game Reserves (PGRs). According to Hubschle, 33 percent of the country's white rhino population is now owned by private reserves—growing a market for community jobs in conservation.
Dr. William Fowlds, a South African wildlife vet, works at a PGR that was originally his family's farm. In 1999, Fowlds says his family made the change to wildlife tourism with the hopes of improving their income and aiding conservation and the local community.
A census conducted in 2011 by INDALO, a private nature reserve association in the Eastern Cape, states that PGRs are a major asset to the area. "PGRs are significant job creators in rural areas where unemployment is an ongoing challenge, [and they] pay relatively high wages compared to other land uses." Indalo reserves employ 120 persons on average—4.5 times the employment rate that farming once had in the region. Most PGRs source 75 percent or more of their staff locally.
The census also pointed to the economic benefits a reserve can have on the surrounding communities. Their data that shows that 3,992 people were dependent on the income of the employees at each reserve.
Tourism alone accounts for around 10 percent of South Africa's GDP and approximately 7 percent of total employment. It also contributes substantially to development particularly in rural communities, improving infrastructure and creating sustainable employment, according to INDALO.
Cooney points out examples "where the situation has changed and villagers have started to see benefits from wildlife," such as "getting a share of trophy hunting revenue or [national park] gate fees." As a result, Cooney says, "attitudes have changed rapidly to be more supportive of conservation."
Additionally, PGRs are heavily involved in community development initiatives. Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, for example, has its own Amakhala Foundation. This non-profit branch focuses on education and skills development, a craft center, and the Ishipo Charity Trust which supports 300 local kids and improves environmental education. "There is a lot of value to small private reserves," Dr. Jennifer Gush, an employee for the Amakhala Foundation, says, adding that it is a much more productive use of the land for the entire community than farming (a typical use of land in the area).
With each rhino that is poached, however, the fight for conservation and the strength of the tourism industry are diminished. "Rhinos attract tourism," Gush says. "If there are no rhinos, tourism won't necessarily continue and people will basically lose their jobs."
As Murphree says, rhino poaching represents "a significant long term loss of a valuable wildlife asset that is indicative of a range of challenges facing wildlife ranges in Africa."
Dr. William Fowlds, a South African wildlife vet, says if illegal poaching can kill off an incredible and massive species such as a rhino, then theoretically nothing can stop humans from exploiting the rest of wildlife.
South Africa must mend the divide apartheid once created and help local communities value conservation to both maintain the tourism industry, protect their own jobs, and sustain the fight for conservation, says Fowlds.
"Rhinos are our final hope. If we can't protect them, we can't protect anything," he adds.