[COVID-19 Report] COVID-19 and the Rhino Poaching Crisis in Botswana

June 28, 2020 by Ariunzaya Munkhuu


We all know that the COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people, bankrupted businesses, and destroyed the global economy. However, few know that rhinos have also been negatively affected by the pandemic. The pandemic has created a veritable “perfect storm” during which poachers hunt rhinos for great profits. Moreover, this situation may even lead to tensions between the countries involved in rhino poaching.

Let’s start with the obvious. Rhino horns are much more important to rhinos themselves than they are to humans. Rhinos use their horns for defense and for finding food and water. Male rhinos use their horns to mark their territory and battle other males while female rhinos use them to clean their babies. Cutting the rhinos’ horns off causes great pain to the rhino because nerves run along large parts of the horn. Rhinos often die during the process and even if they survive, they are unlikely to do so for long. 

As of 2018, there were over 500 rhinos in Botswana, approximately 10% residing in the sprawling grassy plains of the Okavango Delta, a beautiful inland river delta also home to various species such as hippos, elephants, crocodiles, lions, leopards, and giraffes. Wildlife organizations, such as Rhinos without Borders and Rhino Conservation Botswana, attempt to rescue rhinos, bringing them to the Okavango Delta to be monitored and protected. However, despite their best efforts, in the last 11 months, at least 46 rhinos have been killed by poachers. It is impossible to give a precise figure as more are likely to have been poached but their carcasses not found. According to some estimates, the number of total rhinos living in Botswana may have dropped to below 200, demonstrating a shocking decline in rhino numbers. 

Recently, there have been reports demonstrating that rhino poaching has increased due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Luxury tourism is the biggest source of income for the citizens of Northern Botswana. However, many who depended on the tourist economy have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, those who became unemployed saw engaging in the illegal rhino trade as an alternative way to make ends meet. 

Interestingly, there was also growing demand for rhino horn-based medicinal products from consumers in Laos and China. The reason for this is because a Chinese health chief included a rhino horn based medicine called “angong niuhang wan” in his official list of medicines that can prevent or cure the virus. Advertisements for such products are often found on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, despite the fact that these products are illegal in China which banned all wild animal consumption, following the outbreak.

On another note, the transnational illegal rhino trade also causes tensions between the countries of  Southern Africa. The Botswana wildlife department’s Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) has been armed since 1987 and has a policy of shooting suspected poachers on sight. This has led to the deaths of dozens of suspected Zambian, Namibian and Zimbabwean citizens in northern Botswana. Despite the efforts of President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s administration to unarm the force in 2018, there exists significant opposition within members of his own government to this effort. As a result, the APU is still armed with semi-automatic weapons. Currently, the Botswana defence force is guarding the border between their country and their neighbours. However, if the poaching continues, one cannot rule out the deployment of the APU.

It’s amazing that the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting the lives of not only humans, but even animals. The pandemic is clearly exercising power over many bilateral relations such as state-people, state-organization, organization-people, state-state, region-region, state-animal, people-animal, and organization-animal. And from this correlated cycle of relations only one thing is clear - the rhino poaching crisis in Botswana clearly requires attention from the international community and immediate actions must be taken to prevent the extinction of the species. Or else, it won’t take long until the exotic features of the black and white rhinos can only be observed from the “Extinct” section of the Animal Kingdom textbook and a wildlife documentary that is aired only around midnight - the one that nobody watches.

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