World Rhino Day – 22 September 2011

All five of the world’s rhino species are on the brink of extinction because of their distinctive horns.  Though rhino horns are used to fashion dagger handles and are prized possessions in Yemen, the problem today is not with their ornamental use, but in the demand fuelled by the belief that shaved or powered horn can cure anything from fever to cancer. (It is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac.)
The majority of African rhino horns are now headed for southeast and east Asia, especially Vietnam and China for use in traditional medicine. In China rhino horn has been used for traditional Chinese medicine since 2000 BC thus belief in its traditional medicinal properties is firmly entrenched.  Though the Chinese government banned the use of rhino horn or any other parts from endangered species in traditional Chinese medicine in 1993 current rhino poaching levels suggest that the use of rhino horn continues unabated in traditional medicine markets.
Several scientific studies have been commissioned and each confirmed that rhino horn does not contain medical properties. Using computerized tomography (CT scans) researchers at the University of Ohio have revealed that horns are comprised of calcium, melanin and keratin and are similar in structure to horse hooves, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills. Thus those who use rhino horn may just as well chew their own nails!
In South Africa the slaughter continues. 13 rhino were butchered in 2007, 83 in 2009, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010 and at present the figure for 2011 is 290.  The focus of syndicates seems to have moved from rhino in national parks to privately owned populations on reserves and farms – a softer target since the South African National Defence Force was deployed in the Kruger National Park to try to curb poaching. Unfortunately I do not have figures for Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, but it’s unlikely these countries are faring better.
Criminal syndicates which deploy helicopters, GPS devices, night vision equipment and foot soldiers who track rhinos are operating with impunity. Armed with specialised veterinary drugs, darting guns, chainsaws and automatic weapons they butcher rhino. In some instances the horns are sawed off while the animal is still alive and it dies a slow and painful death. Rhino calves too are killed because they hinder the butchers in their operations and the tiniest stub of a horn is also deemed useable. Where a calf is rescued at the carcass of its mother it is usually severely traumatised and unlikely to survive despite dedicated efforts by vets and caretakers.
At $60 000 per kilogram, the horns – weighing on average 7 kilograms each – are now worth more than their weight in gold, and there is no shortage of foot soldiers willing to work for a share of the profits.  And that’s only part of the story. Unscrupulous professional hunters and their clients use legal trophy hunting as way of accessing horns for trading, exploiting loopholes in legislation.  Since the beginning of 2010 for every two rhino lost to poachers another has been shot by trophy hunters. In addition there are unconfirmed reports of live rhino sales to China to breed them so that horns can be harvested for use in traditional medicine.

Black Rhino (1)

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