Rhino Horn Poaching, Its Factors, Consequences, And Solutions

Out of all things in the world, a horn of keratin is valued more than gold, diamonds or cocaine. Rhino horn poaching is and has always been an imposing and significant environmental issue. We have been poaching rhinos for centuries on end, and usage of rhino horn is fundamental in many cultures. In a world ruled by money, where so many people live in poverty, the money that can be gained from rhino poaching is extremely tempting. And even more tempting is the prospect of getting one’s hands on such a valuable item. In the beginning of the 20th century, there were 500,000 rhinos in total. Today, there are only 29500. There are five species of rhino: Black, White, Greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan. Currently the numbers are: 1. Javan: 63-67 (critically endangered) There is only one population of Javan rhinos in Ujung Kulon National Park. 2. Sumatran: (critically endangered) less than 80 3. Black: between 5042 and 5455 (critically endangered) 4. Greater one-horned rhino: over 3550 (vulnerable) 5. White rhino: between 19682 and 21077 (near threatened) The Northern White rhino only has two females left after Sudan, the last male, died in March 2018. During 100BC to 200AD, the Chinese made plates and bowls out of rhino horn. In Yemen, rhino horn is occasionally used for the hilt of the jambiya, a type of knife. This is used in many traditional rituals and dances. Rhino horn is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine and is viewed as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. In Vietnam, it is used as a treatment for hangovers and terminal illnesses. However, rhino horn is made of keratin, just like our fingernails, and does not have healing effects. Despite many scientific experiments proving that rhino horn has no curing properties, many people still believe in traditional medicine. Texts such as Li Shih-Chen’s “Pen Ts’ ao Kang Mu” describe that rhino horn is a cure to a range of illnesses, from fevers, cancer and even devil possession. Before being consumed, it is ground into a powder, dissolved in water and drunk. However, rhino horn is extremely expensive- per kilogram, it is worth more than gold or cocaine. Hence, using rhino horn shows off the status of the user, and therefore, most of the consumers are highly educated and successful people who do not know much about wildlife. Sometimes the horns are purchased to be gifted to people in positions of authority. Rhino populations are critically endangered due to poaching, and numbers were decimated during the crisis from 2008 to 2015. Nearly 8300 African rhinos have been killed since the crisis began. The rhino poaching crisis began in Zimbabwe due to the economic and political instability.

Afterwards, poaching gangs targeted South Africa through 2009-2014. Kenya and Namibia also suffered from many deaths. Despite rising rhino populations since 2015, current numbers show that at least three rhinos are dying each day. Poachers used to hunt the rhinos during a full moon, when it is brighter. However, poachers are now being supported by international criminal gangs. With this support, they are able to use advanced technology and equipment to help them in their missions. Poachers are becoming increasingly innovative in their tactics and are even using helicopters to find isolated rhino herds. Some poaching gangs use night-vision goggles and are therefore more active. Poachers now use a range of weapons such as rifles and grenades to immobilise or kill the rhino, later hacking the horn off using axes and chainsaws. Rhinos are very easy prey as they use watering holes often. Sometimes, rhinos that live in parks are so used to humans that they do not attempt to escape from poachers. The horn is then taken away by helicopters. This process takes only 10 minutes, and often leaves the rhino to die slowly and painfully. Sometimes, a tranquiliser gun is used, but still results in the rhino’s death. Often, there are guards that are employed to shoot any poachers on sight. However, this is an extremely dangerous task as poachers are often armed as well. Which groups of people are poaching rhinos today and why? Ending poaching is an extremely hard task. Poaching has existed for over 400,000 years, when hunting had an integral role in the communities. Before the agricultural revolution, humans relied on hunted for survival. Although we do not rely so heavily on hunting these days, poaching continues to be an important part of the black market. There are many different poachers: there are the poor people who are simply trying to support their families, willing to risk their lives to earn good money, at the expense of a rhino’s life; and then there are the criminal gangs who are involved in the black market, human trafficking and terrorism; then there are the trophy hunters who hunt for entertainment, often using the title of “trophy hunter” in order to hide their identities as poachers of rhino horn. Rhinos are currently poached at a rate of 1 every 8 hours, and rhino horn is more valuable per gram than gold or cocaine and is an integral part of an illegal global trade, ranking third after human trafficking and guns. This is due to many requests for the horn from China and Vietnam as well as other countries, mainly Asian. The International trade in rhino horn is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. Trading in rhino horn has been banned since 1977.

However, individual countries can allow or prohibit within their own boundaries, a very controversial point. Many people want to be able to trade in rhino horn. This is because the cost of protecting rhinos has increased since the poaching crisis in 2008, and by legalising trade and farming rhino horn, the species can be protected, and the market flooded to reduce the prices of horn. This will lead to a reduction in rhino poaching. On the other hand, there are many people (who profit from the illegal trade) that argue that rhinos will be under more protection if trade in horn remains illegal and that the demand will increase with farming. There are two main consumer groups of rhino horn. Usually the users are well-educated men over 40 who live in main cities. They view animals as commodities for human benefit. There is also another group who intend to buy or use rhino horn in the future. Dr Naomi Doak says that “Intenders want to become buyers and users of rhino horn as it is favoured and valued by those they want to impress. They have already made a conscious decision to purchase rhino horn even though they know it is illegal.” What are the consequences of rhino poaching on communities, the economy & the environment? Biological diversity is extremely important in ecosystems, and a decrease in one species can lead to an entire ecosystem’s collapse. Rhinos play an extremely important part in their ecosystems. In African grasslands, rhinos create paths for small animals, keeping the soil healthy and aiding in seed dispersal through their faeces. In fact, rhino-inhabited areas have 20 times more grazing patches compared to areas without rhinos. These areas allow other animals like zebras and gazelles to be able to eat the vegetation that thrives there. Rhino poaching causes juvenile rhinos to struggle greatly without their parents, resulting in many calves dying. Poaching can potentially cause future generations of rhinos to adapt and behave differently in their daily lives, therefore impacting the entire ecosystem. Rhinos are already struggling from daily human activity- there are many barriers like fencing, buildings and roads that split their habitats, thus preventing rhinos from breeding. An overlooked aspect of the loss of rhinos is the impact on the economy. Africa relies heavily on the tourism industry, particularly safari tours. Accommodation, tours, chauffeurs, souvenir shops and restaurants all suffer from the losses of rhinos. This further exacerbates unemployment rates and poverty in Africa. Not only does the tourism industry suffer- a lot of money is invested into protection against poachers. The wildlife parks and government must invest heavily into rangers, dog handlers, helicopters, fencing, as well as care for the rhinos in their environments. Many young people living in rhino-inhabited areas dream of having enough money to purchase weapons to become rhino poachers. This act of glorifying rhino poaching results in dangerous mindsets, especially in teenagers and children who may grow up to take part in the black market. What are the solutions to reverse/alleviate the effects of rhino poaching? The Rhino Rescue Project infuses rhino horns with an animal-friendly toxin and indelible dye which makes the horn unable to be used for medicine. The process involves drilling holes into the horn and inserting toxic ectoparasites. This does not affect the rhino as the horn does not link to the bloodstream. This treatment remains in effect for 3-4 years, which is approximately the time it takes for the horn to grow fully. The concoction is toxic to humans, causing severe nausea, vomiting and convulsions. The rhino is not at risk during the procedure and all the products that they use are biodegradable and environmentally friendly. However, as wonderful as this method seems, this is not a panacea for rhino poaching. There have been many similar attempts to poison rhino horns in order to deter poachers and consumers ever since 2010, when the Rhino and Lion Reserve near Johannesburg stated that the poison would kill or seriously injure anyone who ingests the horn. Many parks advertise this by putting up signs to warn poachers.

At a first glance, this method of deterring poachers seems perfect. However, there is a moral issue with this tactic. By poisoning rhino horns, we are hurting potentially innocent people who have a different culture to us and believe what they are doing is right. There are also a lot of assumptions made around this method. Firstly, it is assumed that poachers would not want to hunt poisoned rhinos. Another assumption is that consumers would not want to purchase poisoned rhino horns. It is very likely that the poachers will not tell the consumer that the horn was poisoned. Furthermore, the dye that is used in the poisoning method can fade over time due to the rhino moving about in vegetation. Even if the dye was visible, the poacher would still be able to make some money and would thus hunt the poisoned rhino. In fact, there have been approximately 100 cases of rhino horn ornaments being stolen in the US and Europe despite being preserved with chemicals such as arsenic. This is because a poisoned horn can still be used for ornamental purposes. Another method is cutting off the rhino’s horn in the first place. In Isimangaliso Park, they had lost more than 250 rhinos in the last two years due to poaching and had decided to dehorn all of their rhinos to protect them from poachers. Firstly, the rhino is sedated and restrained whilst their horn is safely sawn off- a cheap and quick process that only takes 20 minutes. However, this practice is very controversial as the horn is a significant part of the rhino’s life and that after all, these ethically removed horns could still make their way to the black market. Ideally, countries need to reduce corruption, increase education, reinforce legislations surrounding the issue and begin international treaties to reduce the trade. However, this is a large step which seems almost impossible due to the corruption in many third world countries where rhinos live. In my opinion, a better way to alleviate the effects of rhino poaching is to make the most of social media and bring awareness through the internet. It is important for the consumers to be educated that the horn does not have any curative properties. It is best to avoid fighting violence with violence. This is because the method of hurting the consumers for their actions and beliefs will only cause more problems when these consumers realise who is behind the poisoning. This will cause unnecessary conflict. Therefore, I believe that it is better to bring awareness about the horrors of rhino horn poaching by sharing stories like Dr William Fowlds’s experiences, translated through the Ebook, POACHED!, where Fowlds witnesses the tragic poaching of Geza, a rhino he had cared for since it was born. There are already movements that are going around in social media such as the #iam4rhinos on Twitter. We also have the World Rhino Day on 22nd September, which spreads the message that the use of rhino horn is unethical. Conclusion Nowadays, we are able to create a strong influence on people using social media. Messages calling for reform can be enacted by individuals and give small organisations a voice. There is an alternative solution – to actually farm the rhinos and legalise the trade of rhino horn. This way, the horn will be sold ethically, whilst allowing the rhinos to be under protection of the farm and increase in their numbers. It will also preserve Asian traditions and cultural beliefs. We have been blinded by greed and laziness. We have prioritized our short-term benefit over the long-term, ourselves before our ecosystems, our own luxury over the wellbeing of a species that is on the brink of extinction. Poaching, a practice that we as humans have honed over the centuries will bring only destruction to the wildlife that holds our earth together, leaving humanity to drown in gold and greed.

01 February 2021
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