The massive increase in the slaughter of southern Africa’s rhino population over the last five years or so evokes a profoundly emotional response in me. I am not what might be described as a tree or bunny hugger. I even think there are some logical arguments for hunting – in some circumstances. The killing of our rhino population for medicine has no logical basis however and there is no argument that can justify the brutal shooting of these ancient and endangered animals so that their horns can be removed for medicinal use.
Rhino horn in medicine
Contrary to popular belief, rhino horn is very sparsely used as an aphrodisiac. The 16th century Chinese pharmacist, Li Shi Chen, claimed rhino horn could cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and even, if you can believe it, devil possession.
All very well for the 16th century but today? Despite extensive laboratory testing, rhino horn, which is made mainly of keratin, shows no clinical usefulness whatsoever. While massive doses have slightly reduced fever in lab rats (as have water buffalo and Saiga antelope horns), the concentrations in Chinese medicine are too small by a number of orders of magnitude to have any effect on something the mass of a human being.
Despite this, you are able to procure rhino horn tonics, pills and pastes in various traditional east Asian medicine shops – possibly next to such elixirs like Mountain Yak Penis and Caterpillar Fungus – seriously.
For many years, the major demand for rhino horn came from Yemen. Rhino horn is much prized in that country for the ceremonial dagger handles given to Muslim boys when they turn 12. Research on the latest poaching indicates that this demand has slowed substantially. Most of the recently thieved rhino horn appears to be heading to east and south-east Asia for the ridiculous medicinal purposes mentioned above.
So how many have been killed?
Published statistics highlight the alarmingly high increase in rhino poaching South Africa over the last decade. In summary, between 2000 and 2009, 325 rhino were poached. In 2012 alone, more than 668 were poached for their horns with the Kruger National Park losing an astonishing 425. The sudden increase is hard to pin on one factor but a massive price spike probably provided the greatest incentive. Between 2008 and 2009, the price of ‘legal’ rhino horn with CITES export permits increased to R100 000/kg while illegal horn has passed the R50 000/kg mark.
This, unsurprisingly, provided organized crime with a great incentive to start pillaging our natural heritage.
Where are they being killed?
Basically, they are being taken out wherever they exist. There seems to a particular focus on South Africa at the moment but this may be because of the greater numbers in this country. Namibia and Zimbabwe have both reported upswings in poaching.
What’s being done?
There has been a loud and vociferous public outcry over the massive increase in poaching. NGOs, private companies, individuals and state organisations have involved themselves in a plethora of official and not-so official programmes to stop the poaching. These efforts include increased policing, fund raising, social media campaigns and concerned private land owners and communities arresting poachers themselves.
The response to the slaughter of our national treasures has come from all angles and it is difficult to see how it can carry on with the amount of effort private individuals is putting into to seeing an end to the crisis. If you would like to get involved, have a look at the following link: