The rhinoceros is famous for its distinctive pointed horn — and may soon go extinct because of it. Demand for rhino horn is so great that its price per pound is higher than gold’s. But national parks have begun using an arsenal of new defensive tactics to halt the devastating hunt and, hopefully, save the rhino.
In late 2010, South African police received a tip: Two veterinarians were found in possession of large amounts of M99, a sedative used on very large animals.
The vets were working for a safari company run by a white farmer, Dawie Groenewald. When police officers searched his farm, they discovered the bodies of 20 dead rhinos buried in a mass grave. All had had their horns removed.
Groenewald’s operation included his wife, the two vets and seven others, including a helicopter pilot and a professional hunter, and he was charged with 1,872 counts of illegal hunting and rhino-horn trading — more statistics in the bloody rhino war.
After some success through protection efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s, poaching is now soaring, and the demand for rhino horn seems insatiable. In 2012 alone, almost 600 rhinos were killed by poachers.
Previously, there were only sporadic confrontations between individual poachers and national-park guards, but today, authorities and poachers are locked in an undeclared open war. But it’s an unequal struggle — the illegal hunting activity is largely financed by international organized-crime outfits.
The tragedy of rhino poaching is ironic: Popular belief in rhino horn’s curative powers causes prices to soar to absurdly high levels, which could lead to the species’ extinction, yet the horn provides no known medical benefit whatsoever.
Twenty years ago, the typical poacher was armed with an old rifle. Today, poachers typically coordinate in large groups equipped with off-road vehicles, sophisticated weapons and night-vision goggles, which enable them to hunt after dark. Often, they even have a helicopter at their disposal, allowing them to scan large areas for rhinos from the air.
To protect the lives of the increasingly rare animals, authorities in several countries in Africa are responding with GPS monitoring, armed watchmen and even horn removal intended to make the animals worthless to poachers. But despite additional funding for national parks, police and customs services, authorities are struggling to keep up.
The demand for rhino horn is rooted in traditional Asian medicine, which prescribes pulverized rhino horn to treat a wide array of disorders. The present boom in demand was triggered a few years ago by rumors in Vietnam that severely ill cancer patients had been cured by the substance.
This corresponded with the emergence of a new wealthy class in Vietnam, whose members can afford to try any potential remedy when they fall ill. In large cities, rhino-horn powder can now be obtained as easily as painkillers, and rhino-horn graters are popular presents among the rich. In the traditional-Chinese-medicine market, the demand for pulverized rhino horn has also increased greatly.
Both Vietnam and China have signed the CITES convention, which is meant to prevent trading in endangered species and their byproducts; in theory this means that both countries have obligated themselves to combating illegal hunting and smuggling. But in actual practice, they do little to enforce the rules. There is little doubt that one of the main reasons that the price of pulverized rhino horn has now surpassed the price of gold is that there is lots of money to be made for all involved — even the authorities. Corrupt officials are often involved in hunting rhinos and smuggling their horns.
In China, the protection of the rhino is openly obstructed by the government and the environmental authorities. In 2007, the Chinese government chose to support the traditional-medicine industry with large sums of money. A year later, the government published a report that recommended the use of rhino horn in treating a wide array of disorders and diseases — despite the fact that a number of scientific studies have failed to find that the horn has any medicinal effect.
Yet a prominent Chinese healthcare adviser maintains that rhino horn contains medically viable ingredients. Jia Qian, the former head of China’s largest traditional-medicine research institution, claims that rhino horn alleviates “everything from fevers and brain hemorrhages to SARS and AIDS.”
A suspicious safari park
Some environmental organizations, including Save the Rhino, think that one cause of the sudden peak in interest in rhino horn is the Chinese government’s plan to establish a rhino farm, which they fear will only increase demand. The farm will harvest the rhinos’ horns — which regenerate after five years — for use in producing medicine. Dozens of rhinos have already been imported to China, and though, officially, the animals were intended to be part of a safari park, several years after its establishment, rhinos are the only residents. A major Chinese arms manufacturer run by a member of the National People’s Congress — which owns a pharmaceutical subsidiary — is the project’s main backer.
Rhino farms have been a controversial issue for several years. Advocates consider regulated use of the animals’ horns to be the only way to end the rhino war. But critics insist that allowing legal horn in the market will only increase the demand and boost poaching. Their argument has a precedent: This is exactly what happened when a number of countries tried to legalize the sale of ivory.
The task of capturing the poachers is further complicated by legal trophy hunting. Such hunts are typically organized by breeders, who allow visitors to shoot free-range rhinos on their land for a hefty fee. A conservation authority representative must be present, the horn cannot be sold, and each hunter is only allowed to kill one animal. But once the rhino has been shot, the authorities stop watching. The Vietnamese in particular have used this loophole, requesting ever higher numbers of permits in recent years. Although the hunts are expensive, hunters still make a profit, thanks to the stratospheric demand for rhino horn.
No end in sight
The trade in rhino horn has become a million-dollar industry, tempting many to join in — including, in some cases, those charged with protecting the endangered animals. Corruption is one reason why so few poachers and smugglers are sentenced, like Dawie Groenewald, the former policeman and South African farmer who buried 20 rhinos on his estate. After two years, none of the defendants in the case have been sentenced, and the trial has been delayed several times. In May 2012, authorities seized assets worth $7 million from Groenewald and the two vets — money suspected to have come from rhinos.
Even though rhino horn is composed of keratin — the primary component of human hair and nails — it’s more than worth its weight in gold. And the magical properties ascribed to these iconic animals are apparently so powerful that last year, poachers began to expand their bloody harvest. Now, they also are removing the animals’ eyes.
Paying a fortune — for nothing
Many Asians, especially in China and Vietnam, are willing to pay a fortune for rhino horn, due to a mistaken belief that it is an effective treatment for gout, arthritis, and a host of other diseases and conditions, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support this idea. Scientists have analyzed rhino horn many times to find an active ingredient that would support the wild claims, but all of the studies have reached the same conclusion: The horn consists of compressed hair, and like all other mammals hair, it contains only keratin.
Keratin has no medical efficacy and is one of the least chemically reactive materials. This makes it nearly impossible for the human digestive system to break it down, so it can’t be absorbed and thus has no effect.
How to stop rhino poachers
A small GPS transmitter implanted in the horn reveals any changes in a rhino’s movement patterns, which could be a sign of poachers. If the horn is sawed off, the GPS transmitter can lead the police to the offenders.
When placed in the horn, microchips make it possible to trace sawed-off horns back to a particular animal and prove that it was obtained through poaching. Unlike GPS, a microchip can’t reveal where the horn is located.
Some national parks treat the animals horns with a toxic solution that doesn’t harm the animal but makes the horn unfit for medicinal use — and turns it pink to boot. In some cases, angry poachers killed the animals anyway.
South Africa is establishing a library of DNA profiles of the country’s rhinos. This makes it possible to test a confiscated horn in order to verify whether it was poached. Unlike a chip, the DNA cannot be removed.
When a local population has shrunk to a few animals, the entire population is captured and moved to a safer place. Individual animals are also moved to other groups to ensure genetically healthy populations.
The northern white rhino is the world’s most endangered species, with only eight individuals left. Four of them live in Kenya’s OI Pejeta Conservancy, where armed guards watch over them 24 hours a day.
Without its horn, a rhino is worthless to poachers, so many national parks simply saw it off. This must be done several times a year, because the horn grows back, and even a tiny piece is worth a lot of money to poachers.
Tigers alleviate arthritis
Tiger bones are very popular in traditional Chinese medicine. They are considered particularly effective against arthritis and other joint conditions, but are used as an almost universal remedy.
Bears cure headaches
Black-bear bile is used for liver problems, headaches and migraines, as well as for toothaches and other conditions that can cause extreme pain.
Musk makes skin healthy
Several hundred different traditional drugs are based on musk obtained from the scent glands of the musk deer. It is said to be particularly effective against skin and circulatory problems, as well as abdominal pain.
Sea horses improve potency
The Chinese consume several hundred tons of pulverized sea horse every year, believing that it is effective in treating kidney and circulatory problems, along with many other diseases. Large doses of sea horse are also said to cure impotence.
Vultures prolong life
Tradition holds that dried vulture brain is an excellent stimulant. It is viewed as an invigorating drug that can prolong life, or at least restore to the elderly some of the vigor and power of their youth.