More than a dozen rhinos are cruelly slaughtered in South Africa each week in order to fuel an increasing demand from Asia for their highly coveted horn. The South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, recently confirmed that 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa last year as a result of poaching.
Rhino horns are used in a variety of traditional medicines, particularly in China and Vietnam. Despite significant scientific evidence refuting claims of the horn’s medicinal powers, the market is increasing in Asian countries. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which has been involved in rhino conservation and management in Africa for almost 50 years, rhino horn is not only being used as a cure for cancer and to treat blood disorders, but is also being used by some wealthy citizens as a hangover cure. The horn has also been used to make dagger handles in parts of the Middle East, particularly Yemen and Oman.
WWF has expressed concern about the staggering number of rhinos being hunted and killed annually. South Africa is home to the majority of the world’s rhinos, and the number of these animals poached there each year has increased by more than 5000 percent since 2007. Black rhinos, the prominent species of rhinoceros in South Africa, are considered critically endangered.
Rhinos can currently be legally killed in and exported from South Africa as part of a “trophy hunt”; however, secondary sales and commercial trade remain illegal. Hunting fees are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 rand (US $55,000–$110,000), but experts believe that many of the permits are being used by underground international organizations as a cover for removing horns in cruel and dangerous ways. South African investigators estimate that there have been at least 300 instances in the past four years of rhino horns being exported as a result of fake “trophy hunts.”
Many of these “hunts” are believed to be conducted not by authorized visitors but by experienced game industry insiders who strip the horn from the carcass for export to Asia. According to TRAFFIC, a strategic alliance of WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), rhinos are typically killed using AK-47 assault rifles or other high-caliber single-shot weapons. Recent trends include darting rhinos with M99, a tranquilizer also known as Etorphine that is often used to immobilize large mammals such as elephants. It is believed that many poachers in South Africa are now using this drug to bring down rhinos before removing their horns. The poached rhino is often still alive while the horn is removed, and the animal are left to bleed to death slowly and painfully.
Illegal wildlife trade is increasingly becoming an illicit global economy, estimated to be worth between US$ 5 billion and US $20 billion annually. Rhino horns are considered to be one of the most lucrative wildlife commodities, worth between US $50,000 and $80,000 per kilo. In late 2012, South Africa and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding in an effort to curb illegal wildlife trafficking between the two states, among other conservation targets. However, many organizations feel that without education in the countries with commercial demand and a recognition of the economic implications of the trade, efforts to curb trafficking in rhino horn will ultimately fail.
Several arrests have been made in recent years in an attempt to stop the illegal exports. In South Africa, 267 alleged poachers are currently facing charges. In November 2012 a Thai national was sentenced to a 40-year jail term in South Africa for illegally exporting more than two dozen rhino horns. Last month, a Zululand traditional healer was arrested and charged with assisting a rhino poacher to evade arrest. South Africa’s University of Pretoria has also recently developed a Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS), which catalogues rhino DNA in a central database. This information provides vital evidence when prosecuting alleged poachers.
Georgina Hockings, who is currently studying zoology and ecology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, spent three months in 2011 at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where she helped hand-raise a black rhino called Landela. Hockings is currently raising funds for the Rhino Orphanage, which cares for young rhinos who have often been orphaned by poachers. “Many baby rhinos are injured as a result of poaching,” she says. “They are either injured or abandoned when their mother is targeted, and with increasing numbers of rhinos being killed, the number of baby orphans is growing.”
There are safe ways to remove rhino horns, and this practice has been implemented by some conservation groups across southern Africa. Zimbabwe brought in the radical practice in 2011 as part of a multi-faceted conservation approach to save the endangered animals.
The solution is not, however, a permanent one. “The horns grow back in three to five years,” Hockings explains, “so the animals are still at risk.” In addition, de-horning still leaves a stub, and poachers have been known to kill rhinos for even this small piece.
Rhino horn is not generally carved to make products, so the practice cannot be fought in the same way that ivory has been targeted in past campaigns. Education about the absence of medicinal properties in rhino horn and awareness by travelers is the best approach. Conservation groups suggest avoiding game reserves in South Africa that farm rhinos for “trophy hunts” and conduct the kills themselves instead of hunters with permits. IUCN is currently developing a Green List aimed at recognizing well-managed protected areas; it is scheduled to launch in mid-2014. This list will include game reserves that are considered to be effective protected areas.
Individuals interested in joining the fight to protect these magnificent creatures are also encouraged to visit WWF’s Saving Rhinos page to learn about ways to help. Another option is to support Savingrhinos.org’s awareness campaign, “My Horn Is Not Medicine.” The campaign website has informational materials available to anyone who wants to help spread the word.
Although this article has focused predominantly on the plight of rhinos in South Africa, endangered rhinos across India, Nepal and Indonesia are facing similar concerns and should not be forgotten.