Rhinos have roamed the earth for more than 50 million years, yet despite conservation efforts, in less than 50 years their worldwide numbers had declined by 90%.
The wholesale slaughter is being driven by money with international criminal gangs starting to control poaching. On the black-market, rhino horn is sold for £50,000/kg and to put it in perspective an adult white rhino’s horn weighs approximately 4kg. That literally puts a £200,000 price tag on a rhinos head.
Rhino horn has been used as an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. However although this has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of rhinos around the world, it does not account for the recent increase in demand and price.
Rhino horn was used to make ornamental handles for daggers (jambiyas) in the Middle East, especially Yemen. The oil boom of the 1970’s resulted in soaring incomes and the demand for rhino horn daggers played a considerable role in the demise of rhino at that time. However Yemen banned the import of rhino horm in 1982 and thankfully this is no longer an area of major concern.
The root of the problem today lies in Vietnam, where rhino horn has become the party drug of choice. Ground down into a powder and mixed with water or wine, this drink has became a way to demonstrate ones wealth and status. Vietnamese people with serious illnesses also believe that rhino horn can cure them despite the lack of any medical evidence for this.
Although anti-poaching activities are continuing, the losses in the past few years indicate they may be fighting a losing battle. A South African poacher is likely to earn more from killing a single rhino than he could hope to earn in a lifetime of legal employment. Catching and convicting these poachers therefore achieves little as the international gangs that control them can easily find another person willing to risk their liberty and at times their lives for that amount of money.
In some private parks the decision has been made to remove the rhino’s horns. This does not hurt the rhino and it does make the animal worthless to poachers. However a rhino needs it’s horn to protect itself, and there have also been reports of poachers shooting dehorned rhino to simply ensure that they don’t waste their time tracking it again. Some private reserves have taken the extreme measure of inserting a poison in their rhino’s horns and publicizing this fact in the hope that it will discourage the poachers. The poison used does not affect the rhino, and although it is not lethal to humans, it causes unpleasant symptoms. This is obviously hugely controversial but some believe that making the horn toxic to humans might be the only way to stem demand and save this most precious prehistoric animal.