The number of rhinos reported dead in South Africa today has climbed to 353, with the total feared to be, “in excess of 400 rhino being poached this year,” according to Dr. Jacques Flamand, Project Leader for the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Black Rhino Range Expansion Project.
The death toll has already surpassed last year’s all-time-high of 333 – almost triple that of 2009. And although at this point the poaching rate (estimated to be two percent) has not approached the birth rate (five percent per annum), according to Dr. Flamand, “We will really have a problem if this rate increases much more.
Rhino- (nose) ceros (horn)
There are five surviving species of rhinoceros, though archaeological studies indicate 30-some species roamed the earth at one time; with hundreds of thousands approximated as recently as a century ago.
But today the Black Rhino, an impressive beast of 1,750-3,000 lb. (800-1350 kg), is critically endangered with current estimates of only 4,240 remaining.
The even bigger 4,000-6,000 lb. (1800-2700 kg) White Rhino enjoys slightly larger numbers of 20,000-plus.
“The gene pool is okay so far, but it could become a problem if both species experience another bottleneck in their populations. As it is, they have a limited gene pool from which they started,” Dr. Flamand commented.
Both animals are grazers, living and breeding in the savannahs and floodplains of Africa. Their brethren, single-horned rhinos who live in the swamps and rainforests of southern Asia, teeter on the edge of extinction. Numbers are estimated at 2,800 Greater One-Horned Rhino, 200 of the Sumatran (‘Hairy’) Rhino, and less than four dozen Javan Rhino – whose last known specimen in Vietnam was killed in a “clear case of poaching” according to The International Rhino Foundation.
Despite their biological differences, it’s their shared namesake – the term ‘rhinoceros’ comes from the Greek words for nose ‘rhino’ and horn ‘ceros’ – that is bringing about their rapid demise.
Traditional Medicine Fiction
As early as 200 BCE, rhinoceros horn has been cited as a drug in traditional Chinese medicine, said to defeat symptoms as varied as poisoning, convulsion, abscess, influenza and more. A 1990 study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong however, dispelled the efficacy of rhino horn, stating that its exceedingly modest benefit as an antipyretic (its only actual advantage) could be replicated with the horns of cattle.
But rumors several years ago that a Vietnamese had been cured of cancer with rhino horn, have fueled the recent outbreak – so feverishly, the theft of horns in museums, galleries and other scientific displays, has been rampant throughout Europe, according to Reuters news reports.
John Sellar, an Enforcement Officer with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), acknowledged that a victim of cancer, in desperation, “will do anything, pay anything” for a remedy – but pointed also to the increasing affluence that has gone hand-in-hand with economic development in China, in creating a class of individuals with greater disposable income, looking to emulate traditional arts and sciences.
“While rhino horn was used by the Ancients, it has been replaced by botanicals today, and this has been true for many years,” said Jean Morris, a practitioner of Oriental medicine in Los Angeles. “Unfortunately in the black market, it is very much alive. Pathetically, money talks.”
The War on Poachers
Nearly three-quarters of the rhinos slaughtered in 2011 are said to have been in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, although other African nations such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Swaziland and Republic of Congo, as well as Nepal and India report problems with poaching. More than 65,000 animals are estimated to have been slaughtered since CITES (established in 1973) banned the rhino horn trade in 1976.
Dr. Flamand oversees the WWF expansion project which began eight years ago, with the goal of increasing numbers and growth rate by expanding habitat and range by 25 percent, and relocating animals (in a complicated and costly procedure) to encourage breeding.
The removal of horns, Dr. Flamand said, “doesn’t work, because horns re-grow and it would be very expensive to dehorn 22,000 rhinos! Our only avenue here is to combat poachers in the field; obtain successful prosecutions, inform and sensitize the public – and get rhinos to breed faster.”
Conservation claim sentences for poachers are not severe enough to act as a deterrent: bails and fines are too lenient – and bans blatantly abused even by public officials. But with rhino horns fetching up to one-quarter of a million dollars (US) – criminals are willing to take their chances. As a result, the war between poachers and authorities in South Africa has reached a brutal level: with 16 poachers killed over a 12-month period last year, and another 200 arrested.
Lions & Tigers & Bears
Rhinos are not the only animals at risk due to perceived folkloric remedies and status symbols.
The medicinal uses of tiger bones are said to have accelerated the decline of South China, Siberian and Sumatran tigers, to the point that desperate poachers are now substituting skeletal remains of lions for the rare tiger bones. Claws, fat, eyeballs, whiskers … all have ancient folkloric uses: either ground up into powders, tonics, extractions or pastes.
Last week a U.S. Virgin Islands company was fined for knowingly trading protected black coral, for use in sculpture and jewelry; in New Zealand, illegal Hawksbill Turtle shells and Elephant ivory were recently confiscated by the Wildlife Enforcement Group there.
Native Americans traditionally wore bear claws to signify strength, stamina and leadership, with one modern retailer claiming a bear claw necklace will ‘protect and bring good health to the wearer.’ In the Far East, folklore implies bear gall bladder can cure cancers, burns, and liver ailments – at a devastating risk to the populations of Asiatic bears.
“The demand from Asia is insatiable, and it is driven by greed as there is no medicinal value to rhino horn,” added Dr. Flamand. “The tragedy is that NO animal product can have any medicinal value, as all animal protein is destroyed in the stomach by pepsin and hydrochloric acid before it can be absorbed as basic amino acids.”