I was definitely shocked when I first heard that the Dallas Safari Club was auctioning off a Namibian permit authorizing the hunting of an aged black rhino "in the name of conservation."My shock was twofold:
- Why would Namibia, which has one of the best records of rhino protection of any African country, need to do this?
- The idea that anyone 'buys into' the narrative that this is required to fund conservation boggles the mind.
Corey Knowlton, who purchased the permit at auction for a mere $350,000, was also in shock over the permit situation this past week. His shock came from being unable to anticipate that millions of people wouldn't think what he was doing was such a great idea. Mr. Knowlton claims he's been forced to hire private security to protect himself and his family from a mounting number of "death threats" in response to the rhino hunting permit. It feels like there is some form of 'irony' to this (morally unacceptable irony, of course).
During all of my travels through Africa and research on the subject of rhino conservation I've come across many things that don't often get discussed, which should truly shock us:
- A rhino horn is exactly the same substance, keratin, which comprises hair and fingernails (in both rhinos and humans). Any medicine, anywhere in the world, based on ingesting rhino horn is NO different from eating your own fingernails or eating your own hair.
- China is often singled out as the culprit in ginning up rhino horn demand (used in Chinese medicine and expensive Chinese status symbol trinkets). However some economic analyses of recent Asian trends point the finger squarely at Vietnam for being responsible for the enormous increase in rhino horn demand (and pricing) during the late 2000s. The specific reasons are up for debate (between government officials announcing it cured their cancer, wealthy youth making an alcoholic virility anti-hangover drink from it, and it acting as a "chit" in Vietnamese criminal syndicates), however it is universally accepted that the expanding economy in Vietnam is fueling the problem. As more Vietnamese earn wealth, they become more capable of spending it (for whatever reason) to buy rhino horn.
- Certain African jurisdictions have tried injecting their rhino's horns with a combination of human poison and colored dye. The theory is that poachers won't target a population of animals whose horns have been "tainted" against their main economic demand; with the secondary effect of scaring Asian communities into thinking the "cure" they believe they're taking for the flu (or whatever ailment) will kill them.
- Because rhino attentions are almost always directed towards Africa, it's often overlooked that three of the five critically endangered rhino species live in Asia. The greater one-horned rhinoceros (also known as the Indian rhinoceros) is estimated to have a total wild population of ~3000 individuals. There are less than 100 wild Sumatran rhinos, and even fewer (~35) "wild" Javan rhinos within Indonesia and neighboring countries.
- Rhino horn on the black market is worth more than gold (over twice as a much)!
- There are more rhinos in captivity in the United States than in a dozen countries in which they currently survive.
- The poachers themselves get almost no money for their troubles in the economic chain of rhino horn. If a horn is ultimately sold for $150,000 (a 1.5 kilogram horn is an average size, and $100,000/kg is a 2013 price), a rhino poacher from Mozambique, for example, can expect between $100 and $500. In many cases the individuals sent out by crime syndicates to poach rhinos are so destitute they'll accept pittance for the task. The masterminds within the syndicates and middlemen retain most of the profits.
- Supermodel Elle Macpherson, not fully understanding the implications of her words, admitted in 2010 that she used rhino horn, presumably to 'retain beauty,' announcing it "does the job."
- Bitcoin, that strange cyber-currency that you don't fully understand, helps facilitate the illegal horn trade (and illegal trades in just about everything you can imagine) because its disassociation from any government makes it a perfect currency for criminals.
- As the population of rhinos worldwide decreases the price of black market rhino horn increases. As the price of black market rhino horn increases the threat to the living rhino population increases. This is a self-reinforcing cycle.
Something that may shock you (in a good way) is that a living rhino is actually worth more (in economic terms) than a dead one. African countries whose major industries center around travel and tourism, and where rhinos had previously gone extinct, are finding the potentials in their reintroduction to be quite profitable. Living rhinos as a commodity, is partially why South Africa and Namibia's management of their white rhino populations have been, up until recently, quite successful.
And one thing that shouldn't shock anyone; educating the world to the facts about rhinos will help us get through this:
The rhinoceros horn has been the subject of myth, mystery, and mystique through all of recorded history. So naturally, scientists were very eager to use 21st century technologies to answer once and for all, 'What is a Rhino Horn?': "Rhino horns… are composed entirely of keratin," the same exact substance which composes hair and nails (in rhinos and humans). The strength of the horn is due to fused mineral deposits of calcium (a nutrient found in milk) and melanin (a pigment found in rhino and human skin). -- research from a 2006 Ohio University Study IMAGE: White Rhino at UWEC in Uganda
Estimates from the beginning of the 20th century placed the worldwide rhinoceros population (across all 5 species in Africa and Asia) at 500,000 wild animals. Today that number is estimated at 29,000 (~25,500 are white and black rhinos -- the two African species). Hunting and Poaching at varying rates over 100 years is responsible for the decline in these numbers. Specifically, the black rhino population suffered a decline of 96% directly resulting from poaching occurring between 1970 and 1993. 2013 alone saw the highest recorded number of rhinos poached in South Africa in a single year since fatalities started being recorded (1,004 animals killed). IMAGE: White Rhino named "Obama" at Ziwa Sanctuary in Uganda
Black Rhino: The black rhino is the most endangered African rhinoceros, with an estimated 5,000 individuals left alive in the wild. The largest populations live in the nations of South Africa (and Swaziland), Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Black rhinos are identified not by the color of their skin (which is grey), but by their front lip which is curved downward in a triangle shape like a hook. They are browsers, feeding on shrubs, branches, leafy plants, and fruits. Two horns grow on the heads of black rhinos, the front horn being larger than the one immediately behind it. Black rhinos use their horns for intimidation/defense, breaking branches during feeding, and digging up roots. IMAGE: Black rhino visiting a waterhole at night in Etosha National Park, Namibia
White Rhino: There are more white rhinos in the world than all of the other four species combined, approximately 20,000 individuals, living almost exclusively in the nations of Southern Africa (with the exception of Mozambique whose last white rhino was poached in 2013). White rhinoceros are the largest of the rhinos weighing in at between 3,000 to 8,000 pounds. They are more social than black rhinos; large groups of females and juveniles are not uncommon. A white rhino's diet consists of grasses (they are considered grazers), and their lips are broad squares with a straight mouth (distinguishing them from the hooked lip of black rhinos). Two horns grow on the heads of the white rhinoceros, the front horn is the larger of the two. They use their horns for defense and marking territories. A healthy adult white or black rhino has no natural predators other than man. IMAGE: Two white rhinos in Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland
Tanzania, a nation the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, has only about 100 wild rhinos left in the entire country. In the mass poachings of the 70s and 80s Tanzania was particularly afflicted. The odds of seeing a wild rhino on safari in most of the country are slim to none. One exception is inside the Ngorongoro Crater where sightings of the roughly 17 black rhinos that live there are achievable. It's hard to make out, but this image was taken at maximum zoom while observing four black rhinos browsing in the midday sun. IMAGE: Black rhinos in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
When a rhino is poached in Africa the horns are usually sawed off the body, and the remains of the rhino are left behind to rot. The horn then leaves Africa, exported to a destination country where the horn has value: China, India, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam, Yemen, or another country in Asia. In China the horn is turned into folk medicines (usually ground up) or carved into exceedingly expensive status symbol trinkets (cups, buttons, paperweights). In Yemen the horn is ornately carved to become the handle of a "jambiya," a dagger coveted by certain Islamic cultures as a sign of manhood. In Vietnam the horn is ground and sold under the fiction that it cures cancer, increases virility when combined with alcohol, or prevents hangovers. It also serves as a status symbol in crime syndicates and the exceedingly wealthy. IMAGE: Female white rhino at UWEC in Uganda
It has been postulated that cutting off the horns of Africa's rhinos could solve the problem of poaching, however this idea suffers from two major problems: 1) After expending the energy to track a hornless rhino, poachers have been known to kill the rhino so they never have to waste their time hunting rhinos without horns. 2) Just as our fingernails and hair grow back when cut, so do rhino horns. It would be impractical to continuously de-horn an entire continent's population of rhinos to attempt to save them. IMAGE: A white rhino wallows in the mud in Mkhaya Game Reserve, Swaziland
If a way is not found to either eliminate the demand for rhino horn or fully control the supply it's most likely that rhinos will live in Africa only in zoos and fully controlled sanctuaries under 24-hour protection. The concept of a wild rhino will be just as extinct as they are threatened to become. It is essential that we, as a race, alter the world's thinking on the rhino if we intend to save them. IMAGE: White rhino in Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland
The 1970s saw the total extinction of Uganda's native white and black rhino populations, however there are currently 15 white rhinos living happily in Uganda. In 2005 the first rhinos were reintroduced into what became the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in central Uganda, and those rhinos have successfully bred and are now raising their families. This past decade has seen the first steps in bringing rhinos back to Uganda, where they have been absent for almost 30 years. IMAGE: Malaika (which means Angel) is a juvenile female white rhino born at central Uganda's Ziwa Sanctuary
Part of the white rhino reintroduction and breeding program in Uganda is to use travel and tourism dollars to fund the project. In what is an almost unparalleled experience, it is possible for a traveler to spend a day tracking one of the groups of white rhinos at Ziwa and spend an hour observing them: no fences and no barriers; nothing between you and the rhinos except air (trained guides and rangers accompany all trackers and the moods of the rhinos are universally respected). The monies generated from rhino tracking and rhino adoptions help fund the protection, study, and care of these animals as Uganda attempts to reintroduce rhinos to its national parks where they once roamed. IMAGE: The board at Ziwa where visitors can learn about the resident rhinos
Realities of rhino reproduction complicate the quest to conserve these amazing and beautiful creatures. A female rhino becomes sexually mature at around seven years of age, and carries a pregnancy for an astonishing 18 months before giving birth. This means there is a minimum of a two year interval between births, sometimes 3 or 4 years (at her quickest a mature female can get pregnant a few months after giving birth carrying her new baby as she raises and weens the current one). Unfortunately if a poacher takes a mother rhino, her current baby almost certainly dies without human intervention. IMAGE: A baby white rhino photographed in the morning sun of South Africa's Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
No bond among rhinos is stronger than that between mother and newborn. A mother will hide her newborn in the weeks after its birth, and fiercely guards it while nursing and for the first two to four years of its life. The baby almost never leaves the mother's side and they are always photographed together. The only thing that fissions the bond between mother and child is the impending birth of the mother's next child. IMAGE: Mother and baby white rhino in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa
For the most part (with the major exception of mother and child), black rhinos are solitary creatures. Males almost certainly live their adult lives on their own. Seen in the context of being hunted for a part of their body by the only animal on Earth capable of doing so, that existence seems quite lonely. In Namibia we watched black rhinos come to this watering hole one-by-one giving each other ample distance (to prevent any one of them from becoming agitated). This is one of the only times of the day they are close to each other. IMAGE: A solitary black rhino getting a nighttime drink in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Rhino Tourism is an integral part of saving the world's rhinos. When animals are more economically valuable alive than dead, their preservation can get necessary buy-in from local communities. Governments cannot behave as if they own the rhinos; the rhinos must belong to everyone in the community and therefore benefit the community. IMAGE: At Uganda's Ziwa Sanctuary I was able to track and observe 8 of Uganda's white rhinos pictured here sleeping in the shade of some trees
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