Disclaimer: A majority of this information and opinions have been taken from Ian’s talk at Matobo National Park. I recorded his talk and transcribed it for use in this blog post. I have not checked facts and statements online due to limited time and internet connectivity.
Rhino survival has been questioned for decades now. First, the white rhino was near extinction decades ago and now the black rhino is also facing a similar grim future.
A little bit of history first
Ian shared how his family moved to Botswana in 1882 before the main colony was established. His family diaries talk about the black rhino as being more common than the elephant. You could not walk a mile without being chased at least four times by rhinos.
In the 1920s and 1930s, governments in Africa were actively shooting rhinos to keep their numbers under control.
In the 1960s, there were over 100,000 black rhinos.
In 1982, only 2,500 were left in Zimbabwe.
In 1992, only 270 were left. With these dwindling numbers came the conservation campaign, which successfully rebuilt the population to over 1,000 in Zimbabwe.
In 2010, Zimbabwe was back to only 200 rhinos.
In 2017, 2,500 rhinos were shot in South Africa in the first four months.
Wait… I know nothing about rhinos
Nowadays in Africa, the two main types of rhino are black and white.
The white rhino is a grazer. The name “white” is a mistranslation from Dutch to English. The meaning was actually “wide” for their wide lips designed for grazing.
The black rhino has a shorter snout and is a browser that eats twigs and leaves along with grass.
All rhinos are known for their horns. These horns are like fingernails. It can’t be pulled out. Its stump is two kilograms and grows around 4-7cm a year. Their horns aren’t connected to the bone; this flexibility stops the horn from killing the rhino if the rhino gets into a battle.
What’s the problem?
In certain cultures, rhino horn is believed to have mystical powers. Ian said specifically that Chinese culture uses rhino horn to improve the virility and size of a man’s penis.
This idea comes from the actual size of the rhino’s penis. Put simply, it’s quite girthy. The thought is that by consuming the horn, men automatically receive 10,000 man cards. It’s a macho thing.
One of my trip mates is Jian, born and raised in China and lives in the UK. She had never heard of this belief.
So, she sat down and did some research. On no Chinese websites could she find evidence that this belief is prevalent in Chinese society. In fact, rhino horn’s main use is in traditional Chinese medicine. Now banned, rhino horn is no longer allowed on the Chinese market.
Jian has actually consumed rhino horn as treatment for a painful mouth abscess before it was banned. She had the abscess for several weeks and had exhausted all other options that Western and traditional medicine could offer. As a last resort, her doctor recommended she try a traditional medication, which contained rhino horn among a number of other ingredients. It was the only thing that took away her pain, though she isn’t sure if rhino horn was the cure.
Rhino horn has also become a status symbol for other countries. A new fad in Vietnam is for wealthy clubbers to snort rhino horn.
While the uses may be debated, the demand for rhino horn is clear. Ten kilograms of the horn is worth one million dollars. It’s no wonder that poachers will take any measure necessary to get their hands on it.
Ian shared that 10 years ago, he would have said that 99% of the people poaching were villagers trying to feed their family. Now, it’s extremely well-funded organized crime syndicates with dart guns, night vision, and helicopters at their disposal.
Africa has been a blood bath. Ian says that three years ago, he believed that we had ten years left with the black rhinos. Two years ago, he said five years. This year, he believes we have two years left.
Another big issue is the lack of punishment for poachers. In 2010, twelve white South Africans were caught red-handed killing 300 rhinos over a three year period. Two of them were veterinarians. They were let out on bail for $60,000. They were caught two years later still poaching. Today they are still free. Ian believes that this is only possible because government officials are getting a cut. Of course, that’s pure speculation.
In Matobo National Park, every rhino has two armed guards on 24 hour surveillance with a shoot-to-kill policy. These measures luckily have worked. They lost their last rhino over two years ago.
Unfortunately, down south and in other parks like Hwange National Park, it’s just not possible to maintain this level of protection due to a lack of support and funding.
How to save the rhinos
Ian has a simple solution. Supply the rhino horn in a controlled trade environment. Right now, it’s banned so poachers sell it on the black market for a big ticket price.
If rhino horn is readily available, the black market will disappear. Prices will drop, and no one will find it as rare or valuable. Once it becomes more common, these myths surrounding the horn will also go away.
Why is trade banned? The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is the organization that regulates global trade. It consists of a number of countries around the world. Ian said that because the narrative of dehorning doesn’t ‘sound good’ to Western cultures, they veto it. Their argument is by allowing trade, the problem will only get bigger. Ian vehemently disagrees.
In reality, dehorning a rhino every 10 years is considered safe for the animal. The process takes less than three minutes and is painless to the rhino. By reframing dehorning into a manicure, it takes away the violent imagery. It’s also not seen to affect their behavior or mating abilities.
Ian sees dehorning as the lesser of two evils. Though he doesn’t like seeing a rhino without a horn, he says it’s preferred to seeing one without its face.
Back in the 1990s, conservationists thought that by dehorning the rhinos, poachers would no longer want to kill them. Unfortunately, since there’s still two kilogram, or $200,000 worth of horn left, it’s still worth it.
There’s also incentive to kill rhinos when poachers take their horns. With fewer rhinos, the more rare and consequently more valuable that rhino horn becomes.
Right now, the South African government is sitting on between 40-60 kilograms of rhino horn from dehorning and natural deaths. At current world trade, that amount alone could supply world demand for 20-30 years without touching an animal.
The other way to fight this battle is to get the community involved. Right now, the rhinos aren’t worth anything to them so they have no reason to protect them. However, by selling the horn and using that money to build better schools and hospitals, the village will see the value of their rhinos. The rhino is now worth more alive to them than dead.
With the community on the rhino’s side, think how much harder it would be for poachers to find the exact location of these rhinos.
Again by allowing trade, two things occur. The black market is destroyed and the commodity becomes less valuable. Funding is also provided for conservation efforts to protect the rhinos. Everyone wins.
A final plea to the West
Ian’s plea is left ringing in my ears.
“If we do nothing, we have a memory. Even if you don’t allow us to cut the horns, let us sell our stocks and see where that takes us.”
Do your research. If you agree with what Ian says, contact your CITES representative today and ask them to vote in favor of allowing rhino horn trade.