T’ Horny Issue

White Rhino; ©Englesman in Afrika

The Plight

September was ‘Rhino month’, which culminated in the celebration of the third annual World Rhino Day on the 22nd, aimed at celebrating the five sub-species of rhino…forever. I realise of course that I’m late with this post, with my only defence being that I was away on vacation – hard-earned, I might add!

I’ve considered a post on the subject of rhinos in South Africa for some time; particularly pertinent to this blog, since I elected to move here permanently in 2009 and also as the rhino is one of the elusive animals which I most look forward to seeing on a game drive – second only to leopard. Rhino are one of the African ‘Big Five’ which national parks and game farm owners announce with much fanfare to ensure tourists receive a ‘true’ African safari experience (I won’t mention that there is also a ‘Super Seven’…doh!). SA is home to an estimated 70% of the surviving global rhino population and a prime target for poaching syndicates, due to the relatively large numbers.

In an effort to tackle some of the background on poaching, I scanned through the plethora of rhino society webpages (e.g. Unite Against Poaching.co.za, Stop Rhino Poaching.com and Rhino Conservation.org) which have surfaced to publicise and help curb (stop?) the poaching of rhinos for their horn, as well as a selection of recent online news articles. Some say ‘ignorance is bliss’, but when dealing such a profoundly sensitive subject (such as this), I thought that it would be wise to sidestep the bliss.

Backtracking slightly, it is the spiked, largely keratin-based protrusion on the animals’ noses which makes them such a prevalent target for poachers (estimates of between US$25,000-40,000 per kilo for the ‘good stuff’ to provide some perspective), and has landed several of the sub-species on the critically endangered listings. Now, here’s the science: Keratin, is a protein which is the key structural component of hair and nails and interestingly enough, the outer layer of human skin. It is also the chief component in animal hooves and the actual horn structure has been likened to horse’s hooves and turtle beaks.

White rhino calf lying in the shade with its mother
©Englesman in Afrika

The Demand

In the not too distant past, I believed (along with many people and media sources out there), that rhino horn was prescribed by traditional Eastern and Far-Eastern medical folk as an aphrodisiac, or as Mr Miyagi’s Viagra. All of the awareness campaigns unequivocally quash this rumour, i.e. branding it utter rhino-turd; however, it is an absolute certainty that this superstition and misdirected belief has done more than its fair share of harm to rhino populations; increasing the demand for horns by wealthy ignoramus, who have/had problems in the libido and stiffy departments.

The common ground is that rhino horn is used in traditional medicine techniques, either in a tonic form, grounded/ashed and more often than not mixed with herbs, as a cure for a variety of ailments, with the notion that freshly-killed male rhino horn provides the best ‘cut’. Uses include the treatment of fever, typhoid, headache, boils, cancer, delirium, food poisoning, arthritis, rectal bleeding, convulsions, snake bites and devil possession. Incredibly diverse!  The misguided people who believe in the power of the rhino horn have probably never heard of Zam-buk, a far cheaper alternative to what effectively boils down to chewing on ones fingernails. Even though the use and trade of rhino horn is illegal in many countries and proven to have no medicinal value, it is still used pervasively in Asia as an alternative to the Westerner’s hoodoo-voodoo. Hence the sustained demand and high-levels of rhino poaching today.

Trophy hunting played its part in the quasi-legal export/import of rhino horn. Admittedly, there are genuine hunters who buy legally issued CITES permits in order to obtain the valuable keratin curios for private collections, however the loop-holes which these permits create for smugglers and black market buyers have been well and truly exploited. This was demonstrated in recent years by the sudden appearance of Vietnamese hunting ‘clients’ in SA during 2003; many capable of paying above-market prices for rhino hunts, whilst having little, or no prior knowledge of how to hunt or handle the guns required to obtain their trophies. Many of these Vietnamese individuals were recurring rhino-hunt offenders, who showed up repeatedly at the same game farms. Bad apples amongst the game farming, professional hunter and wildlife veterinary communities have obviously cottoned on to a chance to make a few bucks, i.e. auctioning off rhino hunting rights to the highest bidder and assisting in an illegal and ethically immoral trade.

A number of high-profile cases have been documented in the South African media, where smugglers, vets and individuals in the poaching arena have received jail time. Many are serial offenders, but have not been condemned to a lion pit for their deeds. Growing up in the Middle East, it was common knowledge that if you were caught stealing, laws based on the Koran dictated that you would lose a hand for thieving (without anaesthetic). This was normally enforced by severing a finger, followed by a hand for repeat offenders. In my mind, rhino poachers should not be allowed to procreate and as such, ‘preventative measures’ should be considered (baseball bat, or something a little sharper for make).

South Africa has attempted to engage with Vietnamese ministries on the poaching situation and a Memorandum of Understanding was due to be signed at an international biodiversity conference held in Hyderabad, India in September 2012. Strangely enough, such a high-profile plight, did not warrant the attention of the relevant Vietnamese minister and a spokesperson declared him being ‘not unavailable’ for the signing. A stunning display of uncooperativeness by Vietnam on the international stage – well done them!

 The Mutilation

Maimed but alive; Source: National Geographic

The manner in which many of the rhinos’ horns are poached is extremely graphic, in no uncertain terms, extending beyond fathomable reality. Rhino are usually shot and many times left to die following what can only be described as crazed mutilation (by chainsaw), to remove the complete horn. Cuts are usually down to the bone, and many times the animal’s sinuses are left visibly exposed to infection and attack by maggots. There is nothing humane about rhino poaching; many of the victims are fatally wounded by their amputations.

A poaching incident at Borakalalo National Park (NW) at the beginning of 2012, has super-glued itself to my grey matter, partly because of the graphic detail and photos accompanying the article and partly due to the rhino having to endure for an entire week following the incident before it had been located by a ‘rescue’ team. The story is detailed on the ‘Stop Rhino Poaching’ website and had I been this particular rhino, I would have gladly welcomed the eventual relief (euthanasia) effected by the wildlife vet. He was left to die alone and in agony, with a gunshot wound to his head and breathing through a mass of his own blood and an entire city of maggots, the latter which had taken-up residency in his nasal passageways. He was dehydrated, his upper lip had been paralysed and one eye blinded as a result of the butchering, whilst there was another deep chop through to his spine (seemingly senseless). The team found him with some fresh grass wedged in under his top lip, which he hadn’t been able to manipulate into his mouth to feed. It takes a particularly disturbed individual to inflict this level of savagery on an animal.

Borakalalo Rhino Poaching; Source: http://www.stoprhinopoaching.com

Poaching of rhinos in South Africa is not only limited to the more remote locations, e.g. the Kruger Park, which are infinitely more difficult to protect due to the vast expanses involved. This was demonstrated in 2010, where two of the ten white rhino living in the Rietvlei Nature Reserve close to Irene (Centurion) and bordering the office park where I work, were killed during a dehorning incident. It is though that the poachers made use of a helicopter to dart the animals before escaping with their horns in broad daylight. These guys either have the cahoonas of a bull elephant during mating season, or are insanely stupid to have attempted something like this so close to civilisation. More notably, the helicopter was operating within the airspace of the largest Air Force base in Gauteng (Waterkloof’s ATC tower personal were probably on one of their chai breaks).

The Solution

This is one of those instances where there is no right or wrong solution (and everyone has an opinion). Various members of SA society and forum participants have suggesting manageable ways-forward to protect the rhinoceros species, which include the controlled dehorning of rhino populations and injecting the horns with various substances. The latter can make horns unfit for human consumption, highlight the horns on x-ray machines and others which serve as indelible dyes. Both solutions have merits and disadvantages, although for widespread implementation require swimming pools full of money. In South Africa, where a large percentage of the population are either unemployed and/or living below the breadline, it will be hard to justify widespread and sustained government funding to provide the rhino with a monetary life vest. As we are seeing currently, private organisations are assisting in the provision of equipment, resources (including trained dogs) and financial aid to help fight poaching – proudly leading SA.

Another approach proposes that widespread education is the way forward. In order to educate, educate (and educate), the target audience must display a willingness to listen to scientific fact and reason (which is easier said than done) and could, like many other awareness campaigns (HIV as an example) take umpteen decades to break ground. Education and awareness used in parallel with other solutions is admittedly important, but when faced with the immense eastern and far-eastern populations, with individuals who have an unwavering faith in the medicinal value of rhino horn and coupled by governments who ‘selectively’ censor information (or display and unwillingness to cooperate), you’d have more luck trying to break through the wall of China using a spoon. Poachers, inevitably damned by their very choice of ‘profession’, are unlikely to listen to societal pleas when they know that their bounty can fetch such a high prices.

‘Flood the market’ others have said (with real and fake horn specimens). The market is recognised as being ‘large’ and growing (particularly in Vietnam), but like the universe, people can only guestimate as to its momentary magnitude.  How much ‘flood’ should one create? If society were to legalise the trade of rhino horn through ‘sustainable’ farming solutions, or ‘fake’ horn supplies (e.g. cow and buffalo), with sales ploughed back into the industry, this might take the shine and focus off illegal horn acquisitions through rhino horn syndicates, however it would do little to quench the demand for horn itself.

For the sake of the species’ notoriety (and this comment might land me in some hot water with some), the separation of the ‘rhino’ (Greek for ‘nose’) from its ‘ceros’ (‘horn’) will undoubtedly remove some of the animal’s charm and ‘wow’ factor. I somehow don’t think that the rhino’s ill-fitting skin would be a substitute for the grandeur of its horn. The rhino’s continued existence, ‘intact’, (in my opinion) should be viewed as the long-term goal.

Black Rhino, Pilansberg ©Englesman in Afrika

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