War on Rhino Poaching

A southern white rhino and her calf
Source: Zigomar

South Africa is in the midst of a rhino poaching epidemic. The statistics concerning this illegal practice over the past decade or so make for very grim reading. Between 1990 and 2007, there were relatively few rhino poaching incidents in South Africa: five in 1991, nine in 2001, and thirteen in 2007, to give just a few figures. Poaching was increasing every year – but only slightly.

Then that number shot up dramatically. By 2014, the country was losing 1,200 rhinos per annum to poachers – an increase of over 9,000% in just seven years.

Why this has happened is probably down to a number of factors. Virtually all poached rhinos are killed for one reason – their horns – and the demand for them has increased hugely in recent years. Poaching has also become far more organised and sophisticated. Not only have poachers become much more efficient at killing rhinos (and harder to detect and capture), they are also now better equipped, able to coordinate with networks of traffickers, or ‘runners’, using mobile phones and GPS devices.

South Africa is home to approximately 20,000 rhinos – more than 80% of all the rhinos in the world. The animal above is a black rhino. This species is considered Critically Endangered, with only around 5,500 wild individuals remaining.
Image Source: Yathin S Krishnappa

Daggers and Drugs

The most prominent feature of a rhino must surely be its horns. The animals are even named after them – ‘rhinoceros’ is derived from two Greek words: rhinos, meaning ‘nose’, and keras, meaning ‘horn’. These horns are made from tightly packed keratin fibres – the same protein that is found in human hair and nails (not to mention animal claws and hooves, porcupine quills, and the shells of armadillos). A rhino horn lacks a bony core, unlike the ‘true horns’ of cattle, sheep and antelope, and is instead anchored to a roughened bump on the skin, just above the nasal bone. In fact, a rhino skull shows no evidence that the animal even possessed a horn in life.

A rhino uses its horn in a number of different ways: to ward off rival males, to scrape the ground in search of food, and to deter predators. But it is this very horn that is proving to be the rhino’s downfall. Though the international sale of rhino horn has been banned since 1977, this hasn’t stopped poachers from continuing to kill rhinos to obtain them. It’s easy to understand why: the illegal wildlife trade (as evidenced in our article about the most trafficked mammal in the world, the pangolin) is a very lucrative business. In 2012, the value of rhino horn shot up to a record $60,000 a kilogram, making an average 6 kg horn worth around $360,000.

Generally speaking, the horns from rhinos killed in East Africa tend to end up in the Middle East, particularly Oman and Yemen, where they are carved into ornamental dagger handles called jambiyas, which symbolise the status and masculinity of their owners. Between 1970 and the start of the 21st century, over 67,000 kg of rhino horn was imported into Yemen alone. That figure represents the horns of around 22,350 rhinos, which is just shy of the approximately 25,000 rhinos that are currently still alive in the whole of Africa today.

Horns from those rhinos killed in southern Africa and Asia, meanwhile, are ground into a powder and sold for high prices in Far East Asia, primarily China and Vietnam. The seemingly insatiable appetite for powdered rhino horn in this part of the world stems from the fact that it is used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) – not as an aphrodisiac, as has often been thought in the West, but as a powerful wonder drug said to have properties apparently sufficient to replace the entire stock of western pharmacy. Though it is used mainly as a cure to reduce fever, it is also used to treat snakebites, hangovers, convulsions, vomiting, arthritis, rectal bleeding, blurry vision and ‘devil possession’. Some even claim that it can cure cancer.

Segments of rhino horn, like in the image above, are crushed into powder and manufactured into tablets or dissolved in boiling water and then consumed orally. According to traditional Chinese texts, rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years.
Image Source: Thang Nguyen

I said this many, many times during my stint as an educator at my local zoo, and I’ll say it again now: rhino horn does none of those things. Laboratory tests have found no evidence whatsoever of the supposed medicinal properties of rhino horn. Since it is made from keratin, patients might as well just save themselves the time and expense by simply staying at home, chewing their fingernails or eating their latest haircut. Despite this, demand for rhino horn is still driving a thriving industry in poaching and it is placing continuous pressure on the world’s rhino population.

Possible Solutions?

So, can anything be done to stop this level of poaching? ‘De-horning’ has been put forward as one option. It is thought that rhinos that have been tranquilised and had their horns surgically removed may no longer be appealing to poachers. But de-horning is stressful and traumatic, leaves the animals disfigured, and prevents them from finding food, fending off rivals, or defending themselves as effectively as they would otherwise normally be able to. And since rhino horn, being made of keratin, slowly grows back, this process will have to be repeated for every rhino every three or four years.

This southern white rhino has been de-horned, although the efficacy of this method in helping rhinos has been questioned.
Image Source: Pixabay

Another idea has been to inject a chemical cocktail into the horns of sedated wild rhinos. The purpose is to try and make horns worthless to poachers and reduce, if not eliminate, the risk that those animals will be targeted and killed. The cocktail has three constituents: a toxin that makes someone feel ill if consumed; a red dye that alerts poachers to the treatment and effectively destroys the horn’s value in making ornaments; and barium, which is easily detectable by X-ray scanners should anyone attempt to smuggle the horns, even in powdered form, through customs.

Though this may seem decent on paper, there are several flaws with this proposal. It’s true that it might prove effective at protecting some small, local rhino populations, but the large-scale application has been deemed too expensive and impractical. There would also be nothing to stop unscrupulous dealers from continuing to sell the poisoned horns to consumers who might not be aware of its toxicity. And then there are ‘retribution killings’. This is where de-horned rhinos or those injected with chemicals are killed by poachers as a matter of principle to dissuade others from thinking that these solutions will do any good.

Meanwhile, biologists have recently developed a fake, cheap rhino horn made of horsehair bound together with a protein cement. This material is highly realistic, even under a microscope. Some experts believe that it has the potential to disrupt the market in East Asia. The charity Save the Elephants, who helped develop this lookalike, claim that consumers unaware of whether what they are paying for is real or not may be unwilling to spend money on something that could well be fake. 

However, many other conservationists fear that flooding the market in this way would only legitimise owning rhino horn. It’s effectively telling people that the hitherto illicit folk remedy they might have been using in a desperate attempt to treat a serious ailment is now legally available – and, by implication, that it works. It is also believed that putting out a lot of fake horns will only increase the demand for ‘the real thing’. Indeed, some horns are already sold with bits of skin or tail attached to demonstrate their authenticity.

Curbing Demand

It is plain to see that there is no magic bullet when it comes to stopping rhino poaching. Well-trained rangers, anti-poaching patrols and better law enforcement are all crucial to keeping rhinos alive, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this war cannot be won in Africa. The only long-term solution is to eliminate, or at the very least substantially reduce, demand in Asia.

Public-awareness campaigns running in major Vietnamese cities aim to debunk myths about the supposed curative properties of rhino horn, and there is evidence that they are having a positive effect in altering public perception and influencing behaviour. In August 2013, the Humane Society International surveyed 1,000 people in Vietnam and found that 4.2% of them said they bought or used rhino horn, while 52% believed rhino horn had legitimate medicinal value. A similar poll conducted a year later, after one of the public-awareness campaigns had been carried out, found that 2.6% of people were rhino-horn users, and 38% believed it had medicinal uses.

But these days, demand for rhino horn has gone beyond the pseudo-medical market. In Vietnam, the young, rich and status-conscious are always eager to get their hands on the latest in luxury goods. And what better way to flaunt your wealth and success with a very rare and expensive rhino horn? Powerful, affluent men in the top echelons of the Vietnamese business world frequently purchase carvings and trinkets made from rhino horn as displays of wealth. Rhino horn is also seen as the ultimate gift to curry favour with business partners or political figures.

In fact, the primary reason for purchasing rhino horn in Vietnam today is to enhance your social standing. Whereas artefacts made from rhino horn – which include bangles and prayer beads – can be sold for $120 per gram, horn sold as traditional Chinese medicine is now only $20 per gram and is often comprised of shavings swiped from the workshop floor. The TCM component has, in effect, become a by-product.

So perhaps demand-reduction campaigns, especially in Vietnam, are tackling the wrong problem by concentrating on rhino horn’s use in TCM. By and large, they aren’t targeting the elite demographic. But fortunately, some campaign groups are now aiming to stigmatise the use of rhino horn by making the giving or receiving of them culturally unacceptable.

Some artefacts made from rhino horn, now in a museum
Vietnam is now the biggest end market in the world for rhino horn. Pound for pound, rhino horn is worth more in Vietnam than gold or platinum. The artefacts above are all made from rhino horn.
Image Source: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Since 2014, thanks to anti-poaching initiatives, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa has been decreasing every year. Encouraging though this may seem, rhino poaching levels still remain unsustainably high. These are just short-term successes. In many African countries, political corruption is rife at every level, the incentives to continue poaching remain huge, and wildlife conservation is a long way down the priority list.

We need to continue addressing the problem at the source. We need to educate people and dispel myths. We need to tell the end consumers that they are victims of a commercial lie, fuelled by human greed. We need to cause prices to fall below the level at which it would be profitable for criminal syndicates to operate. It is all easier said than done, of course. But it is only then, only when there has been a critical shift in consumer behaviour, will we have any real chance of saving the rhino.


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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