At the end of the 19th century, a group of 20 to 50 southern white rhinoceroses were discovered in the Hluhluwe Imfolozi region of South Africa. The species had been thought lost to the guns and trophy rooms of colonial hunters. Today their population is more than 20,000.
The program that brought the species back from the scrapheap of extinction is considered to be one of conservation’s great success stories. However, a massive surge in poaching threatens to undo more than a century of careful protection and management.
The South African government on Thursday last week reported that poachers killed 1,215 southern white rhinos last year — 200 more than the year before and 1,202 more than in 2007.
The southern white rhino is the world’s only rhino species not considered threatened by the International Union of the Conservation of Nature. Before 2010, the population was increasing by 4.5 percent each year, but by 2012, poaching had slowed the growth rate to just 0.7 percent. Southern white rhino numbers might now be declining for the first time in a century.
Poaching is driven by the growing market for rhino horn in increasingly affluent East Asia. The horn is primarily made out of a material similar to keratin — the stuff that makes up hair and fingernails. It has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries. The now mostly extinct or endangered Asian rhino species were hunted because of a misbelief their horn could treat fever and cerebrovascular disease.
In recent years rhino horn has been endowed with further fantastical properties that treat cancer and cure hangovers. The common notion that rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac in Asia is derogatory and untrue, according to wildlife trade observers TRAFFIC. However, a recent survey found evidence that the belief was prevalent in Chinese society.
Rhino horn has also become a “Veblen good,” said Daniel Stiles, an independent wildlife trafficking consultant who works with various anti-poaching non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the UN. This is a commodity that grows more desirable the more expensive it becomes. One kilogram of rhino horn can cost up to ￡45,000 (US$67,800).
“The horn is now also being made into bangles and other status ornaments for the wealthy to show off with,” Stiles said.
Nothing will curb poaching while the payoffs remain so high, he added.
“There is only one solution: Kill demand. Convince consumers that rhino horn has no medicinal value whatsoever,” he said.
Stiles said the use of horn as a status symbol “needs to be attacked forcibly by creating stigma, as with fur coats in the West.”
Public education is the key tool available to combat the traffickers’ business model, said Davin O’Regan, a wildlife trafficking expert at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies.
In a survey of Chinese people by Wild Aid last year, two-thirds of respondents thought rhino horn was obtained legally from rhinos that had died naturally or been farmed. Half did not realize it was illegal to purchase horn in China.
“After I heard that there is no difference between a rhino horn and a human fingernail in nature, I think it might have no especially great medicinal value,” a woman from Beijing told the survey.
O’Regan said this shows the scope for public education in the East.
“There is a lot of room for addressing these information gaps and legal misunderstandings, which should put a dent in rhino horn demand, its price and eventually its supply via poaching. However, given the current pace of poaching, such action must be urgent,” he said.
TRAFFIC spokesperson Richard Thomas said engagement in Vietnam and China is still in its early stages. However, encouraging initiatives have already emerged, including workshops with Vietnamese traditional medical practitioners and a deal with the world’s — and China’s — largest online trader Alibaba to stamp out illegal animal products.
Thomas said these efforts are simply scratching the surface, but added that the approach has encouraging historical precedents.
“Japan was once the world’s largest illegal ivory consumer, but today barely features in illicit ivory trade. In the 1970s, Yemen and South Korea were major rhino horn consumers, but again barely feature if at all. It’s all about changing what’s fashionable — and fashions will and do change, although rarely overnight,” he said.
The international crime syndicates that run rhino horn from Africa to Asia are influential. How much money changes hands between officials in Vietnam and China and the traffickers is unknown and a dangerous area for NGOs to get into. Vietnamese officials have been implicated in the trade. One diplomat was filmed taking receipt of rhino horn in 2008. It is difficult to know what effect this will have on efforts to engage with domestic politicians and stamp the trade out.
By John Naughton / The Observer, LONDON
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