The site of poached rhinoceros or elephant carcasses is a scene witnessed across Africa especially in East and Southern parts of Africa where the animal population has not been completely decimated by poaching, rhinoceros horns have long been valued as trophies, dagger handles and medicine.
According to The Species Survival Network there are five species of rhinoceros and they are different from each other, today the most abundant is the southern white rhinoceros and there are about 20,000 of them mostly in South Africa about 70 percent of them in Kruger National Park . The black rhinoceros which have seen their population reduced to about 4000 yet they out numbered the white rhinoceros to about 10 to 1, they have suffered a catastrophic decline due to poaching in the 1970´s and 1980´s.
The three Asian species are also killed for their horns, but recently the systematic poaching has concentrated on the African rhinoceros especially in South Africa currently home to 90 percent white rhinoceros and 40 percent black rhinoceros. Most are in Kruger National Park but a quarter of them are in private hands on reserves.
In 2015 South Africa lost approximately 1175 rhinoceros according to Save the Rhino International due to poaching across the provincial and private game reserves and the poaching is about one in every eight hours. Most poaching occurs in Kruger National Park which has a long and open border with Mozambique and also with Zimbabwe which makes it easier for the poachers to sneak in and out. About 60 percent of poached rhinoceros are taken from Kruger and 30 percent from provincial and other parks.
What is driving this poaching wave?
Rhinoceros horn is Keratin mostly the same material our finger nails and hair are made of it´s an out growth of the skin. It´s valued in different places for different reasons but the three main reasons are:
Traditional medicine a market that has been there for thousands of years especially mostly as a fever reducer , seizures and epilepsy. And a recent urban myth that it can cure cancer – which in fact is a crime in itself. People pay a lot of money for a substance completely useless against cancer. Another myth is that the horn can prevent getting drunk while heavily drinking. Not true either. And status symbol like bracelets.
There is limited evidence suggesting that it has medicinal properties – even as traditional medicine.
After the rhinos are gone
The rhinos belong to the big five game animals in Africa and for many years the safari in Africa has been synonymous with them, the other four include the African lion, African elephant, African buffalo and the African leopard.
The rhino is an iconic species and without it the African plains cannot be the same again.
What´s the solution moving forward?
One solution is to remove the one thing that poachers are after, dehorning the rhinos but just like your finger nails they can grow back. A seductive idea is to allow the sell of rhino horn stockpile in the open market to meet the demand of the far east and bring the revenue back to assist in rhino conservation which will also take the pressure off from the living animal by keeping in line with sustainable utilization.
Legalization of the rhino horn trade has its challenges but mainly it will endanger the remaining population of rhinos and also the market is illegal and unknown. The experiences with a partly legal and partly illegal market for ivory – in the 2000s there was a legal sale of ivory out of Zimbabwe´s stockpile – it led to a speed up of elephant poaching.
What many think we need is a multidisciplinary approach including demand reduction, anti corruption measures, horn devaluation, enforcement of laws, engagement with communities in rhino conservation, well trained and fully equipped anti poaching teams,military support and a determined crackdown on criminal syndicates buying and selling horn.