01/22/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Total Shock! Rhino Horn

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:
  1. Why would Namibia, which has one of the best records of rhino protection of any African country, need to do this?
  2. 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:

Rhinos and Their Horns