08/12/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

48 Hours From Rhino to Market: The Resiliency of Criminal Networks in Rhino Horn Trade

It takes just 48 hours for a rhino horn to go from a live rhino in South Africa to a shop in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Poachers go into a reserve on foot under the cover of night, without a torch. They received a tip about a rhino's whereabouts and track it. They shoot the rhino using a silencer, then shoot its young calf in the chest as it tries to defend its mother. The rhino falls, and the poachers quickly start cutting out the horn, hacking deeply into the rhino's face to get as much of the horn out as possible. They do not check to see if the rhino is actually dead. The shooting and dehorning process takes just 10 minutes in the early hours of the morning. The rhino is left in shock, missing half her face, and her traumatized calf remains at her side.

Just 12 hours later, the horn has been trucked to Mozambique where it will board a plane to Vietnam. Twelve hours after this, the horn is in Vietnam and is passed on to an illegal dealer. Another 12 hours, and the horn is for sale in a shop in Hanoi.

This demonstrates the efficiency and complexity of the criminal syndicates at work here. With eight or more people in the chain, investigations are very difficult. Each person in the syndicate only has contact with the person directly above and below him, so arresting people at the bottom does not increase chances of catching the middlemen or people at the top. At the very bottom of the chain is often a farm laborer who spots the rhino and communicates its location -- without even knowing who gets this information, or why they need it. Each level of the chain gets more money than the person below them, and the horn is passed up until it gets to its final destination, usually in Vietnam or China.

We need to understand these criminal networks to curb illegal trade. However, changing trafficking patterns and their general complexity makes it difficult. There are harvesting networks, theft networks, and distribution networks that work together, making up links in the supply chain for illegal rhino horn trade. Some networks are opportunistic, and others fit the definition of organized crime. General knowledge is slowly growing, but we do not yet have enough information on what makes these networks so resilient. Despite anti-poaching units, military that has been brought in, and other deterrent techniques, illegal trading continues, bringing huge profits to poachers and middlemen, which is only further incentive for poaching and more illegal trade.

Poaching has the capacity to drive rhinos, as well as other species, to extinction. So what makes these poaching networks so resilient? What makes them stable, or able to bounce back when interfered with? The few challenges that criminal networks face are law enforcement, deterrents in the form of dye, poison, or dehorning, and environmental jolts. But these illicit networks have many sources of resilience: the complexity of the networks, the bush environment in which they function, and community support for their criminal activity. Syndicates are small, but with long chains. Each role within the networks is highly specialized as well -- poachers have usually grown up in the bush, and are skilled trackers who can live there for weeks. Some syndicates have access to expensive equipment, but even those that do not gain resilience by being supported by their communities: For example, poachers in Mozambique are often conspicuous and proud of their newfound wealth.

We need to break down these illegal networks and reduce poaching. It will be difficult, but not impossible. We need to increase penalties for poachers and middlemen, and strengthen enforcement strategies. More rangers and anti-poaching units on the ground, in addition to more training and better equipment, has also been shown to make a difference. Interventions including dye and poison and DNA barcoding are also helpful. Involving local communities in protecting the rhinos near them is key: hire them as anti-poachers; educate them about rhino poaching.

You can help. Funds are always needed -- just make sure the NGO you choose is legitimate. But the easiest way to help make a difference in the war on rhino poaching is spreading global awareness and educating those around you. Together, we can make rhino horn a social taboo, and save the species from imminent extinction. Let's not let rhinos go extinct on our watch.