Of all the animals that roam the African savannah, the rhino is undoubtedly one of the most impressive. Perhaps it’s the innate sense of power conveyed by their prehistoric form; or perhaps it’s the fact that despite their size, rhinos are capable of moving with surprising grace. Tragically, a recent spate of rhino poaching across their range has made it possible that whatever the source of their magic is, the generations of the future may never get to experience it.
The History of Poaching
150 years ago, white and black rhinos were plentiful throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Unregulated hunting by European settlers saw their numbers decline drastically; but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that the poaching of rhinos for their horns became a real issue. The demand for rhino horn was so severe that 96% of black rhinos were killed between 1970 and 1992, while white rhinos were hunted to such an extent that for a brief period, they were considered to be extinct.
In one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time, efforts to save the rhino from being consigned to the history pages resulted in a resurgence of their respective populations. Today, it is estimated that there are around 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos remaining in the wild. However, since the mid-2000s, the demand for rhino horn has skyrocketed, and in 2008 poaching reached crisis levels once again. As a result, the future of both species is now uncertain.
Uses of Rhino Horn
Today, both the black and white rhino are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). International trade in rhinos or their parts is illegal, with the exception of white rhinos from Swaziland and South Africa, which may be exported with a permit under certain specific circumstances. However, despite the CITES rules, rhino horn has become so lucrative that poachers are willing to risk everything to cash in on the industry.
Rhino poaching exists because of the demand for rhino horn products in Asian countries like China and Vietnam. Traditionally, powdered rhino horn was used in these countries as an ingredient in medicines used to treat a variety of conditions - despite the fact that it has no proven medicinal value. More recently, however, the inflated price of rhino horn has resulted in it being purchased and consumed predominantly as a symbol of status and wealth.
A study by U.S. firm Dalberg estimated the value of rhino horn at $60,000/ kilo, making it more valuable on the black market than either diamonds or cocaine. This staggering figure has increased exponentially in the last ten years, with the value for the same amount of rhino horn estimated at $760 back in 2006. As poaching diminishes the remaining rhino population, the scarcity of the product makes it more valuable, in turn increasing the incentive to poach in the first place.
A New Poaching Era
The incredible amount of money at stake has transformed poaching into a commercial enterprise comparable to drug or weapons trafficking. Poaching gangs are run by organized crime syndicates, who have considerable financial backing and see rhinos as a commodity to be ruthlessly exploited. As a result, poaching methods are becoming more and more sophisticated, involving high-tech gear like GPS tracking devices and night-vision equipment.
This new style of poaching makes it increasingly difficult (and dangerous) for anti-poaching patrols to effectively protect the remaining rhinos. To do so, patrols must anticipate where the poachers will strike next - an almost impossible task considering the vast size of the parks and reserves in which the rhinos live. This is made even harder by large-scale corruption, with syndicates using their wealth to pay officials both within the parks and at the highest levels of government for information.
Statistics of Extinction
In South Africa alone, the number of rhinos poached annually has increased by 9,000% since 2007. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached within the country’s borders; in 2014, that figure rose to 1,215. South Africa is home to the vast majority of the world’s remaining rhinos, and as such has borne the brunt of poaching efforts in recent years. However, neighboring countries are also in trouble. In Namibia, two rhinos were poached in 2012; while 80 were killed in 2015.
That extinction is a very possible outcome of statistics like these is proved by the fate of the Western black rhino, a subspecies declared officially extinct in 2011. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the primary cause of the subspecies’ disappearance was poaching. Northern white rhinos look set to suffer the same fate, with just three individuals left. They are too closely related to breed naturally and are kept under 24-hour armed guard.
The Value of Rhinos
There are many reasons to fight for the future of the rhinos that are left to us, not least of which is that it is our moral obligation to do so. Rhinos are the result of 40 million years of evolution and are perfectly adapted to their environment. They maintain the African savannah by consuming up to 65 kilos of vegetation every day and are crucial to the balance of the delicate ecosystems in which they live. If they become extinct, other animals throughout the food chain would also be affected.
They also have considerable financial value. As part of Africa’s famous Big Five, they are responsible for generating millions of dollars of revenue through tourism; an industry that can benefit many more people than the limited few supported by poaching. Making sure that local communities benefit from the income generated by eco-tourism is a key part of promoting rhino conservation at the grassroots level.
Fighting for Change
The problem of rhino poaching is a difficult one, and there is no single solution. Several have been suggested, each of which has its own set of positives and negatives. For example, several U.S. companies are currently attempting to develop synthetic rhino horn as a replacement for the real thing; while South Africa has suggested one-off sales of stockpiled rhino horn as a way to flood the market, thereby reducing the value of the horn and making it less attractive to poachers.
However, by catering to the rhino horn market, both of these solutions run the risk of fuelling the poaching crisis by perpetuating demand for the product. Other suggestions include poisoning rhino horns to make them inedible, and surgically removing the horns from living rhinos so that they are no longer a target. Dehorning has seen some success, although it is very costly. In some areas, poachers kill the hornless rhino anyway so that they don’t waste time by accidentally tracking it again.
Essentially, poaching needs to be tackled from several different angles. Funds need to be raised to allow for more effective anti-poaching patrols, while law enforcement is key in stamping out corruption. Environmental education schemes and financial incentives can help win the support of communities living on the edge of game parks and reserves so that they are no longer tempted to poach for survival. Above all, by raising awareness in Asia, it is hoped that the demand for rhino horn can one day be stopped once and for all.
To find out how you can help, visit Save the Rhino, an international charity working towards the conservation of all five global rhino species.