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.
Well, you can’t argue with success. And with Whale Wars captivating the public and drawing attention to slaughter in the Antarctica, it only makes sense to take the show (concept) on the road and profile the battle against other human depredations.
Thus, we have Animal Planet’s new “Battleground: Rhino Wars” which airs Thursday evenings. Instead of Sea Shepherd, we get four former US soldiers dropping in on the rhino poachers, and raising macho havoc.
The show may be annoying, but it is also blunt and fearless about documenting the effects of poaching. The animals — the word “majestic” is often used to describe them, and for good reason — are being killed for their horns, which are a valuable commodity in Asia, both for their supposed medicinal value and for ornamental use.
The show contains horrible images of rhinoceroses whose horns have been hacked off, leaving their faces a bloody mess. It’s one thing to read about poaching and acknowledge intellectually the cruel senselessness of it. It’s quite another to be confronted with what it actually looks like. If you weren’t outraged before by what is happening to these animals, you will be a few minutes into this show.
When rhino horn has increased in value from $4700 a kilo twenty years ago, to $65,000 a kilo today, radical strategies are needed to address the poaching that is driving the rhino rapidly toward extinction. Kevin Charles Redmon takes a look at the possibility of rhino farming:
As parties to the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) meet in Bangkok this week, a team of Australian conservationists are presenting an unusual—and controversial—proposal: in order to save the remaining African rhinos, farm them for their horns.
The economic logic goes like this: demand for horn is inelastic and growing, so a trade ban (which restricts supply) only drives up prices, making the illicit good more valuable—and giving poachers greater incentive to slaughter the animal.
“Rhino horn is used for dagger handles in Yemen and has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia as a presumed cure for a wide range of ailments,” explains Duan Biggs, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, in a March issue of Science. “Rapid economic growth in east and southeast Asia is assumed to be the primary factor driving the increased demand for horn.” Conservation managers have even tried preempting poachers by de-horning animals in their care, to no avail; the stubs are simply too valuable to pass up. (As documented in the 2012National Geographic article, “Rhino Wars,” African wildlife conservation has become as militarized as America’s “war on drugs,” with the same miserable failures.)
But horn harvesting need not be an all-or-nothing proposition.
“Rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin and regrows when cut,” writes Biggs. “Sedating a rhino to shave its horn can be done for as little as $20.” A white rhino produces about a kilo of horn per year, and the current global demand could be met by “farming” as few as 5,000 animals on a private, well-guarded preserve. (Natural rhino death “would also provide hundreds of horns annually,” even as the herd continues to grow at a rate near 10 percent.) The millions of dollars generated by the legal enterprise could be used to fund further conservation efforts, such as wildland preservation, sustainable rural development, and field research.
It’s not a solution that feels good. But it is a practical proposal that might actually make a difference, and the times we are in demand progress more than philosophical purity.