Over the last two months conservationists have declared the Javan rhino extinct from Vietnam, leaving only one small pocket of 44 on the Indonesian island bearing its name; the West African black rhino as extinct in the wild, and the critically endangered Sumatran rhino as declining with only 275 individuals thought to remain. What is happening to these charismatic creatures to render them so vulnerable?
There are many more species in peril as highlighted by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list. Newest data suggests that almost 25% of mammals are at risk of extinction, up from the 20% estimate in 2009. The rhinoceros however stands out in this database as its transcontinental ranges and habitat types sadly fall victim to a multitude of threats.
Deforestation is a global issue and the effects cannot be underestimated, but there is an ever more prevalent and violent threat sweeping through the rhino populations. Poaching.
Currently South Africa is experiencing its highest ever record of killings numbering 341 this year so far, compared to a total of 13 in 2007. Whilst the Southern White rhino is the most abundant of the extant species, the fact that such high levels of poaching are taking place in one of the better policed environments is a significant indicator of the demands of the trade as a whole.
In 2010 CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) concluded that Vietnam are leading the way in a lust for rhino horn products. Furthermore, they are believed to have initiated the myth that rhino horn can cure cancer. Despite being denounced by leading medical councils in China and Thailand, the belief still holds firmly in the minds of many Vietnamese citizens who according to an official from the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) now represent the “vast majority” of poaching prosecutions.
Aside from cancer rhino horn is believed by some to have many more curative properties from fevers to impotence, as well as more trivial uses such as anti-aging and increased hair shine. There are even suggestions that it can rid demonic possession. Both environmental and medical communities are certainly not quiet in their efforts to refute these claims. Publications confirming the complete lack of antipyretic properties have existed since 1983, so is it possible that there is another driving force keeping these fraudulent ideas afloat in so called tradition?
When you assess the value attributed to rhino horn – up to £35,000 per kilo – it would seem that ulterior motives may be present. Rhino horn is made of a protein known as Keratin. Keratin is abundant in the animal kingdom, most notably in humans. Our hair, our skin, and our fingernails are made up of the exact same protein. We would likely cringe at the idea of ingesting somebody’s nail clippings or stray hair, yet when known to be rhino horn the value is nonsensically twice that of gold and worth more per gram than cocaine.
Increased policing is often suggested as an instant method for the prevention of poaching, however there are many barriers to its success. It is widely reported that perpetrators have become significantly more advanced, operating in gangs and using sophisticated weaponry. Equipping rangers and guards with a similar arsenal tends to instigate a ‘fight fire with fire’ approach leading to the loss of innocent human lives. Furthermore, as poachers are often acting for a client, their death is not a deterrent and there are always more to send in their place until the job is done.
So with the value of rhino horn apparently superseding human life, is there another way to inhibit the demand? A growing number of people in the field believe that legalisation of the trade will bring control, forcing prices down and compressing viability on the black market. South Africa are looking to lead the way, the idea being that they become directly responsible for meeting the demands for rhino horn across the globe, placing the power in the hands of the authorities. There are ways to surgically remove rhino horn without the loss of life (some rhino owners adopt this de-horning method already in an attempt to keep their animals safe) thus theoretically balancing out the issue.
There is much controversy surrounding this notion, the WWF feel that it would undo the decades of effort that has gone into protecting the species, saying that the inability to control an already illegal trade leaves too many unknowns. The head of Campfire Zimbabwe, an organisation supporting efforts to make a living from wildlife, believes that by taking over the control and distribution of the rhino horn the South African government will be able to dictate its use i.e. not allowing sale for medicinal purposes and promoting more accurate education.
This does appear to negate the original issue of value. The moment a restriction like that is applied surely medicinal value will be back on the increase and buyers in that market will again pursue alternative routes. This could then drive poachers towards the far less efficiently policed pocket of Javan rhinos, or the tiny population of Northern White rhinos currently thought to number only 4. Recently there have even been thefts reported from museums across the country where break-ins have seen exhibits destroyed in this pursuit. In most cases the horns on display are replica, however clearly the possible pay off from a real find is worth the risk to the thieves. We have to be concerned about what is next, are our captive zoo populations at risk also?
It does appear that this battle has surpassed being one of conservation alone, and is now coupled with a criminal and a legislative army. Perhaps legalising trade will have the desired effect, but we would be forced to allow its pointless use in medicine to prevent a backlash. Perhaps pushing more accurate education to the Vietnamese and others who hold false beliefs is the way forward, standing by the relentless efforts of conservationists and their organisations. Or perhaps we need a more political driving force, pressuring governments to tighten the laws around trade and abolish redundant technical loopholes that continue to allow poachers to slip through the net.
Whatever the correct path, for the sake of such a majestic creature I hope we find our footing soon.
Article image- africa-wildlife-detectives.com