The War on Rhinos Worsens – Rhino Poaching is Ramping Up

by African Indaba

While legal rhino hunting do exist in some parts of Africa, rhino poaching is still rampant in many areas. A recent flurry of blogs, webpostings and newspaper reports focused on the worsening rhino crisis in Southern Africa.

Rhino poaching in South Africa
Photo credit: John Van Den Berg

The highly organized rhino poaching syndicates, probably run by Asian mafia-like structures are using state of the art technical equipment like night-vision, gps, aircraft, high-tech air guns and cross bows quietly firing darts, and high-powered hunting rifles. The poachers are heavily armed and willing to open fire on anyone who gets in their way. They are also not shy to use substantial bribes to make some security and conservation officials look the other way or collude in the killings; they pay high fees to induce people smuggling horns across international borders.

The chief executive of South African National Parks, David Mabunda said in a statement that “Perhaps it is no longer appropriate to refer to [the] illegal killing of rhinos as poaching given the levels of sophistication, violence, precision and the money behind it. We are dealing with unprecedented high levels of organized crime which the Police and all security agencies are helping to defeat.” Wildlife Ranching South Africa, a nonprofit association, said in a recent press release that “over 180 rhino have been killed in the past 8 months alone in South Africa. This [threatens] our African heritage and the safety and livelihood of many thousands of game farmers. The situation is now out of control and urgent new initiatives will need to be taken to deal with the escalating crisis.”

In this increasingly brutal war on rhinos, some desperate rhino owners have been reported to exploring biological warfare. There have been rumors that they have or are planning to inject toxins into rhino horns which are essentially tightly packed hairs. The toxins wouldn’t have a way into the animals’ bloodstream and cyanide or any similar toxin would, theoretically, remain in the horn material when it is ground up. The assumption obviously is that a global awareness of poisoned rhino horn might act as deterrent for consumers of traditional Chinese medicines from using those that are or are said to containing powdered rhino horn. The demand for rhino horn could thus be dried up and the poachers will have no incentive to kill rhinos.

A recent, but questionable, report from the “Bangkok Star” circulated on Facebook about a Thai man who died after consuming medicines which were purported to contain rhino horn said that “the source of the contamination is still to be verified but it is thought to be from a private game farm somewhere in southern Africa.” Commenting on this incident WRSA said “while there is a huge empathy for the game farmers, WRSA does not support this unilateral action.”

Although many people (especially from the extreme animals’ rights corner) have applauded the idea of poisoning rhino horn, it is not a good solution to the rhino poaching crisis. Innocent people who might not even know they are taking rhino horn could die and if any person dies from consuming poisoned horn material, it is murder. The people who actually do the poaching and smuggling – and who finance the sordid business would in all likelihood remain unharmed. A better way to tackle the consumer side of the rhino trade may be that the governments of the consumer countries in the Far East promote a general awareness that rhino horn is completely useless as a medication. In high-profile publicity they could expose the scams involving fake rhino horn in traditional medicine, so users may think twice before they part with their money.

Rhino horn in Chinese medicine
NGS stock photo by Steve Raymer
Rhino horn, a time-honored component of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for thousands of years, has been credited with the potency to cure an unusually wide array of maladies from headaches to pus-filled boils – and even evil spirits, hallucinations and bewitching nightmares. Ironically, it seems the only condition rhino horn is not prescribed for is a lagging libido, although western media often report to the contrary.

Research in 1983 by Hoffmann-LaRoche, and 25 years later during a study at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) also concluded that rhino horn has no medical properties. Testing confirmed that “rhino horn, like fingernails, is made of agglutinated hair” and “has no analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmolytic nor diuretic properties” and “no bactericidal effect could be found against suppuration and intestinal bacteria.” The tests at ZSL confirmed what by Hoffmann-LaRoche researchers found earlier. “There is no evidence at all that any constituent of rhino horn has any medical property. Medically, it’s the same as if you were chewing your own nails.” Scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong also failed to confirm the alleged efficacy of rhino horn as a useful medicine. Interestingly, the ZSL analysis revealed that rhino horn contains identifying elements which could provide information about where the horns originated.

WRSA repeatedly called for controlled legal trade in rhino horns as a way to help address the rhino poaching crisis saying that legal trade rhino horn via the strictest controls and standards, overseen by the South African authorities is key to the solution. Proponents of opening formal trade argue that it allows for more transparency and profits that can be used for conservation (see also Michael Eustace’s article in African Indaba No. 8-1 “Rhino Poaching: Legalizing Horn Trade May Be the Answer”). Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a South African wildlife conservation economist with specialist expertise in trade in endangered species worked extensively from 1990-1995 on the rhino issue especially on economic approaches to rhino horn management and the world trade in rhino horn. ‘T Sas-Rolfes concluded in his report to TRAFFIC/WWF that legal trade was probably the best long-term solution, but the final report never got published (probably because of ‘t Sas-Rolfes’ conclusions). In 1995 some of the work was however summarized in a publication “Rhinos: Conservation, Economics and Trade-Offs” by the UK Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). ‘T Sas-Rolfes also worked on the tiger products trade, which is in many ways closely related to the rhino horn trade. A major study on the tiger bone trade will be released in the next few weeks. His work increasingly demonstrates that the continuing CITES trade ban might be a high-risk policy for rhinos and tiger, and may in fact be driving both closer to extinction.

The 2009 IUCN/TRAFFIC report African and Asian Rhinoceroses–Status, Conservation and Trade stated that the illegal rhino horn trade progressively worsened since 2006 and Southern Africa emerging as a hotspot. The combined numbers of theft from government facilities and private collections, abuse of legal trophy hunting and illegal private sector sales suggest that a minimum of 1,521 rhino horns entered the illegal trade since 2006 (a two-fold increase over the previous period). Trade routes shifted from Yemen, where rhino horns were used crafting dagger handles to the traditional medicine markets in China and Viet Nam. China as signatory of CITES has banned trade in rhinoceros horn and its derivatives in 1993, but it appears that the use of rhino horn continues unabated in the TCM markets.

Since rhino horn has been proven to be totally ineffective as TCM ingredient, opening a legal trade route is however probably not the golden bullet for the desperately sought solution.

Why do millions of people persist in their belief that rhino horn is a miracle cure for all? Is this simply because they do not have access to accurate information? Or has the rhino horn business become so profitable that belief in the curative properties of rhino horn is actually encouraged as Rhishja Larson of Saving Rhinos LLC assumes? The ghastly trade where buyers in Viet Nam and China are willing to pay as much as US$1,000,000 for a single rhino horn is fueled by superstition, greed and skullduggery. Should we fuel this sordid environment with a “legal” rhino horn trade?

Yet, there might be still ample room for discussion and good arguments for the controlled horn trade issue. However, it seems to be clear that consumer education must play a major role. Hence the governments of China and Viet Nam face a major challenge to their credibility in an increasingly conservation-minded world. Apart from consumer education, syndicated commercial poaching, illegal wildlife trading and smuggling should be dealt with harshly within each country’s judicial system. The Chinese government and many of the Far Eastern countries do so successfully (and sometimes against the pleadings of western governments) in case of drug smuggling. Their judicial systems have the clout to deliver the crippling blow to those who are profiteering from steering the rhino poaching pandemic. In Africa we can only stop the killings – we cannot eliminate the sinister forces guiding the African poachers. In the depressed rural economic environment there will always be willing (and poorly paid in relation to overall profits) accomplices. Our governments need to stress this in their political talks.

In June 2010 the South African Department of Environmental Affairs published a “National Strategy for the Safety and Security of Rhinoceros Populations in South Africa” The strategy focuses on strategic planning and critical intervention strategies:

  1. Implementing an immediate action plan aimed at mitigating the current escalation in the poaching of rhino and the illegal trade in rhino horns;
  2. Securing the shared commitment of government (at national and provincial level), private land owners, local communities and international stakeholders, as well as the necessary financial and manpower resources and political will to implement this policy;
  3. Supporting the establishment of a national coordination structure for information management, law-enforcement response, investigation and prosecution;
  4. Developing an integrated and coordinated national information management system for all information related to rhino species in order to adequately inform security related decisions;
  5. Investigating proactive security measures aimed at facilitating regulated and controlled international trade in the species, and any associated by-products.

Plans are going ahead for the establishment of a combined Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit within the next few weeks. The unit would include SANParks environmental protection services, the police, state intelligence services, SA Revenue Services, SA Customs, rhino owners and wildlife organizations.


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