From 500,000 rhinos at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now only 29,000 rhinos in the world. Image Credit: Hilary O'Leary

They called him Max. He was barely a few days old when his mother, a three- and-a-half tonne white rhinoceros, was shot dead by poachers in Kenya. They killed her so they could hack off her horn, which would fetch $60,000 (Dh220,200) or more a kilo on the black market in some Asian countries where it is believed, wrongly, to cure fevers and even cancers.

Starving and distressed, Max was found wandering aimlessly in the wild by a team of conservationists of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.

The orphan was taken to their camp, hand-reared with baby food, milk, proteins and vitamins and lavished with love and care by the team members. He was lodged in a stable where, during the cold winter nights, he was wrapped in blankets to keep him warm. A ranger even slept beside him on the straw to mimic his mother’s warmth.

Max was hugely popular not just with the team at the camp but even with Prince William, who volunteered at the reserve for part of his gap year.

When Max turned two, he was moved to another Kenyan camp – Ol Pejeta sanctuary – with other rhinos who were also being protected from poachers. Here, Max was de-horned so that he would no longer be a target. But sadly, a few months later, the poachers set their sights on little Max.

Early one morning in June 2011, camp guards heard gun shots. Max was found dead, his carcass riddled with 17 gun shots. The poachers had made off after slicing away the little stub of his horn.

Rhino poaching is common in Africa. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for instance, rangers last November came across eight rhinos all shot dead and dehorned by poachers. That brought the year’s toll in the country to 585.

By the end of the year, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs reported numbers had risen to 668. More than half were killed in Kruger Park despite the presence of the defence force, trained anti-poaching units, tracker dogs and sophisticated thermal imaging technology that can detect humans at night.

“The continued slaughter of South Africa’s national treasure, the rhino, is a cause for immense concern,” said Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, who called it a “war we are waging against poaching”.

Rhino horn has long been used in traditional medicines in some Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. Although its use has reduced in China of late, it is becoming increasingly prized in Vietnam, where the horn is ground into a powder that is believed to treat fevers, arrest ageing and even cure cancer. There is no scientific basis to any of these uses, as rhino horn is made simply of keratin, the same material found in human fingernails.

But the horns are literally worth more than their weight in gold. The average weight of a white rhino’s horn is around 5.5 kilograms, and a kilo of horn can fetch more than $66,000 on the black market.

In comparison, a kilo of gold costs around $50,800. Attracted by the huge profits, poachers either use tranquilliser guns, or simply shoot the animals down.

Once the rhino is disabled, the poachers hack off the horns, allowing it to bleed to death or die due to sepsis. When mothers are killed, their young usually die soon afterward from lack of care.

The African black rhino, along with the Javan and Sumatran rhino, are critically endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List, meaning that unless immediate action is taken, extinction is likely.

In the case of white rhino, after more than a century of protection and management, they are now classified as Near Threatened and about 20,000 animals exist in protected areas and private game reserves. They are the only rhinos that are not endangered.

The figures are shocking: At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia; in 1970 there were 70,000; today, there are fewer than 29,000 rhinos surviving in the wild.

Killing rhinos for their horns is a “complex problem where values of tradition and culture have been corrupted in the name of commercial exploitation”, says Jason Bell, Southern Africa director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“Be it elephants and ivory, tigers and tiger parts, rhinos and rhino horn, the endpoint is the same – profit. And that profit is being chased down in the most brutal fashion by organised crime syndicates who are fearless in their pursuit of the prize,” he says.

In the 1970s, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned international commercial trade in rhino products.
However, the black-market trade in wildlife is now a multibillion-dollar industry, trafficked on much the same lines as arms and illegal drugs.

“The recognition that illicit wildlife trafficking is a new form of transnational organised crime should be a wake-up call to governments worldwide,” says Wendy Elliott, global species programme manager of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She wants governments to increase their law-enforcement responses to wildlife crime.

Increasing demand in Asia

Once poachers hack off a rhino horn in Africa, it is smuggled out of the country to be sold in markets largely in Asia. Use of this horn as an ingredient in traditional medicines is said to have begun in China several thousand years ago, later spreading to Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

The biggest market is now Vietnam according to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. A hundred grams of the powder can cost up to 120 million dong (Dh21,125). In some upmarket clubs in Vietnam, a pinch of powdered horn is even added to beverages as it is wrongly believed to give people a high.

A rising standard of living in Vietnam has made rhino horn more affordable. The myth of its magical properties drives demand, fuelled by organised international criminal syndicates that ensure rhino products reach consumers.

In addition to being used as a potion in traditional medicines, rhino horn has also been used to fashion dagger handles and other objets d’art, which are much in demand as collectibles and are even promoted as investments.

IFAW Asia Regional Director Grace Ge Gabriel sees this as “a very dangerous trend.” He says that auction records in 2011 showed that 2,750 pieces of rhino-horn carving were sold in mainland China, with a total sale price of
$18 million.

Taking a global approach

“There needs to be a global shift in attitudes and values,” says IFAW’s Jason, adding that “significant pressure needs to be brought to bear on consumer nations to convince them to shut down the market”.

Prince William called those who take part in poaching and the illegal trade in rhino horn “ignorant, selfish and utterly wrong. Along with elephants, they’re two of the most heavily poached animals currently in the world.

“If we don’t do something about them, it’s going to be a tragic loss for everyone.”

Drugging, immobilising and surgically dehorning a rhino is an expensive, time-consuming and specialised job that requires the skills of a trained veterinary surgeon. This is why poachers find it easier to simply gun down the animal and hack away the horn.

The former director-general of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe, Vitalis Chadenga, who died last year, admitted at a media conference held early last year in Harare that his department had “serious challenges” and limited resources for funding anti-poaching and other essential activities. “In this country we have a shoot to kill policy. The poachers who come here take a very high risk – they will be taken out,” he said.

An advocate for global action on wildlife trafficking, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said, “Wildlife trafficking threatens security and the rule of law, undermines conservation efforts, robs local communities of their economic base and contributes to the emergence and spread of disease. This is a global challenge that spans continents and crosses oceans, and we need to address it.”

Last year Clinton introduced a four-point strategy, which included a demand for all governments to join a coalition for sharing information on illicit traders.

An International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) coordinates all enforcement efforts and includes Interpol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organisation.

John Scanlon, CITES secretary-general, says that support is needed from the police, the military and “the direct intervention of the highest level of governments”.

On December 10 last year, the governments of South Africa and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding to improve cooperation on conservation issues between the two countries, including illegal wildlife trafficking.

Some good news

In Namibia not one rhino had been poached this year, Pierre Du Preez, chief conservation scientist at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, told a local newspaper. The country’s black rhino population numbers more than 1,000, due to various factors including its isolated location away from the poaching syndicates in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. In the past ten years Du Preez says that fewer than ten rhinos have been illegally shot in Namibia.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe the combined efforts of local and international organisations, the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, dedicated private individuals, local communities and conservancies operated by the private sector have allowed black and white rhino populations to maintain overall positive growth, despite some poaching losses in 2012, according to Raoul Du Toit, director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT). “Current population estimates are 423 black rhinos and 282 white rhinos,” he says.

The LRT is a conservation organisation operating primarily in south eastern Zimbabwe. In the past five years over 300 rhinos have been poached. The LRT translocates rhinos from high-risk areas to safer locations, treats animals wounded by poacher’s wire snares and bullets plus monitors and tracks the rhinos using radio collars and an ear-notching system.

Rhinos under armed guard

To the north of Namibia, a small group of black rhinos is being bred in a Victoria Falls private game reserve, owned and maintained by Rani Resorts.
The heavily guarded reserve adjacent to Rani’s Stanley and Livingstone Hotel is under 24-hour watch by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and game scouts from the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit (VFAPU). It also houses a ranger training academy set up here in 2010 by the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF), a non-profit organisation.

Heading the IAPF is Australian Damien Mander, who pumped his life savings into the foundation, determined to stop the poaching and to train rangers who had few resources. Damien operates another unit and ranger-training academy on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

“We’ve brought in a pretty thorough training system and it focuses heavily on the correct escalation in the use of force. What this essentially means is that rangers are using the minimum amount of force required to get the job done,’’ he has said.

While many rhinos die from bullet wounds there have also been several reports of their getting caught in snares placed by poachers. They then “die a lingering painful death by strangulation or get septic wounds on their legs and necks,” said Steve Edwards, owner of Musango Safari Camp in the Kariba area 350 kilometres east of the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

In the surrounding Matusadona National Park he, in conjunction with Parks, used to operate a small anti-poaching team but had to cease last year due to lack of funds.

Controversial solutions

Conservationists debate furiously to find solutions. John Hume, a rhino breeder in South Africa, believes, along with many others, that legalising rhino-horn trading would allow the syndicates in Asia to buy horn from stockpiles held legally by government wildlife departments in Kenya, for instance.

Rhino breeders and private rhino owners, particularly those in South Africa who have been selling their animals because of the increased poaching, would then have an incentive to breed rhinos again.

However, others are concerned the legal sale of horn would not satiate the market demand but excite it further. This issue will be discussed at CITES’ world wildlife conference to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, this month.

Dehorning is considered futile (and expensive) as even the stumps are targeted by poachers. As the horn regrows, dehorning has to be repeated.

Rhino economics suggests farming rhino horn, most of which can be shaved off a live rhino without causing the animal any serious harm and it grows back again.
However, some conservationists fear that the farming of rhino horn would lead to confining rhinos, converting them into horn-producing livestock.

Other measures conservationists suggest include injecting dye or poison into the horn of a living rhino (it doesn’t harm the animal but makes it undesirable to poachers) – to educating the market as to the ineffectiveness of the product they are purchasing.

But the fact remains that unless more stern measures are taken to counter poaching, one of the most fascinating creatures in the world will soon become an exhibit in a museum. 

Additional input by Anand Raj OK, Features Editor