The figures are shocking: At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia; in 1970 there were 70,000; today, there are fewer than 29,000 rhinos surviving in the wild.
Killing rhinos for their horns is a “complex problem where values of tradition and culture have been corrupted in the name of commercial exploitation”, says Jason Bell, Southern Africa director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
“Be it elephants and ivory, tigers and tiger parts, rhinos and rhino horn, the endpoint is the same – profit. And that profit is being chased down in the most brutal fashion by organised crime syndicates who are fearless in their pursuit of the prize,” he says.
In the 1970s, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international commercial trade in rhino products.
However, the black-market trade in wildlife is now a multibillion-dollar industry, trafficked on much the same lines as arms and illegal drugs.
“The recognition that illicit wildlife trafficking is a new form of transnational organised crime should be a wake-up call to governments worldwide,” says Wendy Elliott, global species programme manager of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She wants governments to increase their law-enforcement responses to wildlife crime.
A number of things jumped out at me. 1) Any commodity that is worth $66,000 a kilo (making an average rhino horn worth more than $300,000) is going to motivate poachers to go to almost any length, and take any risk, to cash in. 2) The complete disconnect between the myth of rhino horn’s medicinal qualities (cure cancer?) and the reality (the horn is just keratin, the same substance as human fingernails). And 3) the involvement of organized crime, which is not a surprise given the value of the trade.
You put all those things together, and it is hard not to feel that the human forces driving the poaching (greed, obsession with magical cures and medicines, an almost complete lack of compassion or interest in preserving the wild) have built up such powerful momentum that even extreme anti-poaching efforts will not buy enough time to change the underlying forces.
That doesn’t mean that the fight to stop poaching and the rhino horn trade should be abandoned. If anything, it needs to be intensified dramatically. And here is the one thing I think needs to be happen as we look at catastrophic poaching on land and at sea around the globe: stopping it needs to become a priority goal for military cooperation and assistance programs. Pull the forces and investment that we waste on the drug war and throw them into the fight against poaching and you might see some impressive results. It’s not guaranteed to turn the tide in time, but there is a desperate need for a radically different approach because what we are doing now–whether it is elephants, rhinos, tigers, sharks or regulation-evading factory fishing ships–simply isn’t working well enough.
Getting there would require a transformative update of our notions of global “security” and “threat.” But dealing with climate change and protecting the fragile ecosystems we depend on are missions that are as (or more) important than most of the traditional missions we accept without question.