Conventional medicine in Far Eastern countries is to blame for the rhino’s plight. Powdered rhino horn has been a staple of Vietnamese and Chinese medicine for millennia. Before given to patients with fever, there’s now a belief that it can cure cancer. Combine this incorrect belief with the new money in emerging Asian markets and the readiness of organised crime to supply, then you’ve got a recipe for failure.
The rhino horn consists of the very same proteins that build human hair and fingernails. Unsurprisingly, scientists assert that there’s no evidence to support its use as a medicine. Nevertheless tradition holds steadfast even in the face of proof and all attempts to convince Asian customers of the science fall on deaf ears.
The trade in rhino horn has been ruled illegal under international conventions. As it now is estimated to earn around $65,000 per kilo, putting in exactly the same class as narcotics, diamonds and precious metals, organised crime has’zeroed in’. They’re taking full advantage of the increased trade links between Asia and Africa, which has shortened the chain of distribution. They’re also able to use modern techniques to shield their kills, such as helicopter raids and night vision technology.
Game wardens are overwhelmed by the power of the onslaught. The morning brings the bloody sight of yet another victim with its horn sliced-off. The animal usually dies as result of the attack, though a handful can cure their wounds and recover.
Naturally there has been a massive increase in the poaching statistics. Just a couple years back conservationists were less than delighted to report that 10-15 rhinos were being killed annually. But now the latest figures for South Africa alone show that 668 animals were massacred last year. The poachers don’t discriminate between adults, juveniles and pregnant females.
The fightback Persists
Conservationists and game reserves are fighting tooth and nail to save the rhino from extinction. They are working to improve coordination and cooperation between the various conservation groups, enforcement agencies and landholders. Policing has also been improved with improved instruction, use of sniffer dogs and increased patrols. In South Africa, hundreds of troops were brought in to assist the policing effort.
De-horning of their rhinos has been carried-out by some game reserves. However, there remain some concerns about whether this is good practice. The horn’s length plays a part in the animals’ pecking order, so removing the horn may interfere with social interaction. Additionally, some de-horned animals have been slaughtered nevertheless. This may be pique on behalf of the poachers, or possibly they do not want to risk pursuing the exact animals on future searches.
Game reserves also have begun to foster baby rhinos that have lost their mothers due to poaching.
The UK has led international talks resulting in an agreement to reduce the rhino horn trade, as well as battling the incorrect belief in its value as a curative.
In April last year a number of African stakeholders took part in a summit in Nairobi, led by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the African Wildlife Foundation. Delegates agreed a four-point plan of action to fight rhino poaching.
The Department 24 Rights Coalition is demanding that the South African government ceased issuing licences for trophy hunting. It is said that an investigation is required into possible abuses of the system. That said, the SA government did announce last year that there would be tighter regulation on hunting. They also said that microchips would be used, together with DNA profiling, to be able to detect bogus hunts.
Conservationists are optimistic that a recent deal between South Africa and Vietnam could be the beginning of serious attempts to reduce poaching. The 5-year agreement covers seven main features of cooperation, which includes the security of SA’s biodiversity and compliance with the international conventions to protect species. (In 2008 a Vietnamese diplomat was filmed getting illegal rhino horn out his embassy in SA.)
In Bangkok in March 2013, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife and Flora (Cites) held its two-yearly conference. This saw delegates instructed to introduce measures to reduce the demand for rhino horn.
Breaking the taboo?
The steadfast refusal of Chinese and Vietnamese customers to be persuaded that the horn isn’t medicine is driving some radical idea.
A group of researchers is stating that the illegality of trading in rhino horn has only served to boost rhino poaching by restricting its availability. They’ve suggested that the formerly taboo subject of shaving horn from live animals should be seriously considered.
This notion has a parallel in crocodile farming, which the investigators state has served to help conserve the species. The lifting of the taboo on discussions was also suggested at the Cites conference in March by South African delegates. But it’s hotly contested by some conservationists who say that it would have the opposite effect of raising demand. They also point to the effect of private game reserve owners who would make huge amounts of money from such a practice.
All the initiatives described here show a determination to save the rhinoceros. If significant progress is not made in the fight against poaching, then this could occur within the decade.
Surely the world cannot miss this magnificent animal. Please support the fight against rhino poaching.