It’s easy to look at a picture of a mutilated rhinoceros, to read the statistics of how quickly their population is being decimated by poaching, and instantly be overwhelmed with outrage and emotion.
Social media shows us incriminating images of poachers with their illegally harvested horns [the bad], we see brave-faced anti-poaching rangers with their weaponry [the good], and we see the images of disfigured carcasses [the ugly].
This imagery, viewed a world away — from behind the glowing screens of our Wifi and 4soontobe5G connected devices — can work to create a reactionary, over-simplified, and inaccurate understanding of the problem.
Misconstrued Problem: Two opposing forces with guns in the African bush — majestic, endangered species caught in between.
Misconstrued Solution: Kill the bad guys, save the animals.
The frustrating truth is that this issue is far more complex than that. This is an issue of culture & traditional beliefs, socio-economic disparity, corruption, and — most notably — human greed and the opportunity to profit.
Here’s the Thermospheric view of what’s going on:
— Southeast Asian cultures revere rhinoceros horn both for its acclaimed [and scientifically disproven] healing powers in their traditional medicine and for its function as a powerful status symbol.
— The scarcity, illegality, and desirability of the commodity has skyrocketed the price, creating an opportunity for massive profits to be made on the black market.
— This flow of money has involved organized crime, including corrupt law enforcement, government officials, and land-owners in the underground acquisition and exportation of rhino horn.
— Members of the crime syndicates exploit the needs of impoverished locals as a means of recruiting them to poach rhinoceros and harvest the horns at their own risk.
(They have other ways of obtaining horn too, including exploiting a South African hunting-license loophole, but it is all — in effect — poaching.)
— The [successful] poachers hand the horns over to the transnational crime syndicate, who then smuggle them into Southeast Asia (typically Vietnam) to be sold to the private consumer.
The Heart Of The Issue:
Rhino horn has a market value of $60,000USD per kilogram in Southeast Asian markets; that’s more money by weight than gold, platinum, and/or cocaine.
If you truly want to absorb the severity, the urgency, of this issue — let that sink in:
$60,000USD per kilo, more valuable by weight than gold.
Think of human history, of the seemingly impossible lengths that our species have been driven to reach in their greed-fueled quests for gold.
Entire civilizations have been conquered, whole races enslaved, thousands upon thousands of miles of tunnels have been bored through solid rock down into the Earth —
— for what?
For gold. Wealth. Power.
This overwhelming force of human greed has now been turned towards the rhinoceros.
A brief aside: Is this not a perfect, albeit tragic exemplification of our human follies?
Our vanities are capable of destroying entire species, they are capable of paying $60,000 per kilogram for a functionally useless item whose only value has come from the abstract concept of symbolic status that our fragile psyches have ascribed to it.
“The [rhinoceros] horn is composed primarily of a protein called keratin — the same substance that makes up human hair and nails….Studies by Swiss pharmaceutical firm Hoffmann-La Roche and the Zoological Society of London dispelled claims that rhino keratin bears any effect on the human body, and using the horns for medicinal purposes has been illegal since 1993.” (Jill Ennis. Sciencing.com)
The same can be said of gold, it’s valuable only because we’ve imagined it to be. It serves no purpose, it has no pragmatic utility; it only caught our eyes and provoked our egos.
When gold was first accumulated by the first individual to claim it as being powerful and precious, the rest of us — those without — became mad with envy; suddenly we felt that we must possess it too, only more of it, at whatever the cost…
…this is the entirety of humanity’s written history.
The Key Players:
The Southeast Asian Consumers: The affluent Southeast Asian consumer — Chinese buyers in particular — are the demographic creating the market and demand for rhino horn. Their desire to own rhino horn is heavily influenced by ancient traditions and superstitions.
Along with being revered for its traditionally acclaimed healing powers, rhino horn has come to be viewed as a powerful symbol of status and wealth in China, Vietnam, and Thailand.
The Crime Syndicates: Transnational, organized crime syndicates control the acquisition, export, and sale of rhino horn. They do not adhere to law, they do not have to consider borders or jurisdictions. They operate fluidly and ruthlessly; they have many government officials and law enforcement assets on their payroll and effectively at their disposal.
The Poachers: The poachers themselves are the pawns in this war.
In most cases, they are members of a demographic that has been viciously oppressed by a racist, classist government and divided societal structure. Their opportunities are few, and many live without what most consider basic necessities: enough food, clean water, electricity, access to medicine, etc.
Typically, these locals are recruited by members of the crime syndicates. They are supplied with weapons and promised a substantial cash reward if they deliver rhino horn back to their recruiter.
“From the point of view of a poor family in Mozambique, a single rhino horn is the equivalent of a year’s salary. The risks of getting caught by rangers, trampled by elephants or eaten by lions may seem insubstantial compared to the opportunity to feed your entire family for a whole year.” -Craig Packer
None of the above is stated for the sake of excusing the poacher’s actions; nor is it a claim about the morality (or lack thereof) of the poachers as individuals. But, understanding the demographic of the poacher, and the role they play in the exploitation of the rhinoceros, is an important aspect of understanding this issue as a whole.
The Anti-Poaching Rangers: This is the group that’s currently keeping the rhino alive. They are the only true boots-on-the-ground defenders of the rhinoceros.
These men and women are primarily locals; they earn little money, they are under-manned, and under-equipped. They work tirelessly, putting themselves in ever more threatening situations.
Most poaching units now work in three-man teams and the crime syndicates are starting to arm them both for taking down rhino and for neutralizing the anti-poaching rangers; the rangers have to expect that they are entering into a live-fire, combat situation every time they deploy to locate and apprehend poachers.
While each poacher stopped represents an animal saved, the poachers themselves rarely have information about the men who’ve hired them, nor do they have connections to the smugglers or buyers; as soon as one poacher is caught, another takes his/her place.
The efforts being made by anti-poaching teams are the all-important 1st line of defense for the target species, but this is not a war that can be fought by the rangers alone.
The Wildlife-Advocate Activists: These are the passionate few who are working tirelessly behind-the-scenes to pass legislation and raise funds to see the rhinoceros kept safe. Many are volunteers, the rest are under-paid.
They must fight daily for coverage in the mainstream media, they must work to continuously disseminate information via social media, draft and introduce legislative bills, circulate petitions, and battle corrupted, bureaucratic governments in an attempt to secure meaningful and lasting protections for the rhinoceros.
Their task is often frustrating and disheartening — and progress is critically slow.
The Philanthropists/Donators: This can be anybody and everybody; yourself included.
Unlike the crime syndicates, the forces working to protect the rhino are not receiving exorbitant sums of money to aid their cause. The conservation and anti-poaching organizations are grossly underfunded; most are volunteers, but even the individuals who aren’t on the payroll barely get paid enough to live on.
Money combats money. The more funding the anti-poaching and wildlife advocacy organizations have, the more power they have to fight.
If you want to help directly, choose an organization you can get behind and make a contribution.
The cold, hard truth:
The enablers of the rhino horn trade are vastly more powerful than those committed to stopping it.
It’s a white-collar market. The very people with the power to stop the poaching and illegal trade of rhino horn are the same people who have created the market for it.
The dire question:
Given the complexity of the situation and the overwhelming financial incentive to engage in the illegal rhino horn trade — can we fix the problem before these species are forced into extinction?
“The difficulty that you have is that government, international organizations, police [and] law enforcement agencies, all move very slowly and very bureaucratically. And the criminal networks involved in this adapt very quickly, they change routes they change methods and their job is to get as much of that product [as possible], be it rhino horn, be it ivory, to market. And, they’re deeply entrenched in many cases, they’re utterly ruthless in their methods that they use…
…it doesn’t look terribly optimistic.”
Is there still hope for the rhinoceros?
To effectually protect the rhinoceros, we need to attack the flow of money. Flooding the market is the best idea I’ve heard so far.
There are stockpiles of rhino horns owned by South African farmers who have de-horned their rhino populations so they won’t be targeted by poachers. If the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) law were changed to allow for the international trade of rhino horn, if the current stockpiles were allowed to hit the international market all at once, the legal and abundant availability of rhino horn could crater the black market.
This idea was overviewed in a recent article by Jack Bilby who wrote:
“If these horns were to be legally sold, it would have two main effects; (1) it would flood the Asian market with legal and cheap rhinoceros horn and (2) it would provide the rhinoceros conservation efforts with a much-needed financial boost. The cons are the potential that instead of flooding the existing market and driving the illegal competition out of business, it could instead entice new buyers who were not previously able to consume the product due to price, driving up demand.”
It’s certainly not a cure all — but it would bring the trade under the eye of the legal and public domain and it could effectively disrupt the black market’s operation.
This tactic might buy the rhinoceros enough time to see substantial legal and governmental protections afforded to the species, before it’s too late.
What has to happen to change the international trade law?
A great deal of cooperation, time, and unified effort.
To change the CITES law regarding the trade of rhino horn, the country of South Africa would first have to prove itself capable of managing transparent and legal domestic sale of rhino horn before they could make a case for legalizing international trade.
Assuming they were successful in doing that, CITES policy requires that the bill pass with a two-thirds majority vote from amongst the 180 member nations.
In A Perfect World
To admit publicly that I am — conceptually — a proponent of legalizing the international trade of rhino horn pains me greatly; in a perfect world, I would never support this action. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be an issue that needed to be discussed in the first place.
This tactic is as imperfect as our world is. It sends a message to all nations, and to the culture that has created the demand for the product, that it is okay to harvest and consume rhino horn — it’s okay to treat the rhinoceros as a commodity.
But, we do not have the luxury of time; we do not have the luxury of selecting a best-case-scenario.
Attempting to change an entire population’s opinion about the centuries-old beliefs that have been instilled in their minds since their youths — to attempt to change their attitudes about the objects they revere, thereby eliminating their market demand, before the rhinoceros is extinct — that is a truly impossible mission.
Attempting to stop a trade that’s as desirable and more lucrative than gold — that is an impossible task.
Of course, there are many other ideas circulating with regards to how the rhino can be saved — mine is only one opinion. I highly encourage you to continue to research this issue, to hear what others have to say, and decide for yourself which plan of action sounds most worth supporting.
The “Thorny Issues” section of the Save The Rhino International website is a great reference for learning of the new, controversial, and experimental ideas about how the rhino might best be protected.
What can you do to help?
We need to buy the rhinoceros time; figuratively and literally.
The anti-poaching rangers in the field are in desperate need of equipment and provisions; the conservation organizations working to pass legislative protections are also in dire need of funding to support their efforts. The most effective thing you can do in this moment would be to donate to the cause.
Below are a handful of organizations worth supporting and looking into; there are many more, I suggest you start here and then start digging further into who’s doing what to decide how you want to support their efforts:
If you’re looking for a hands-on means of helping, all of these organizations are looking for volunteers. Visit their contact pages, tell them who you are and what you’re interested in doing and they’ll tell you how you can get involved.
Educate & Share
The truth is—despite the dire nature of the problem—most people are still wholly unaware/uneducated about the current threat to the rhinoceros.
If you’re not in a position to donate or volunteer, that’s okay. Sharing/spreading information, speaking to friends, and generally generating awareness about poaching and the illegal horn trade is a powerful means of supporting the rhinoceros.
The rhino is losing the fight for its life against the forces of human greed and vanity.
In the last 40 years alone, the Earth has lost 58% of its vertebrates to human impact and exploitation. The rhinoceros is just one more species — of many — that are in immediate danger of being eliminated by humanity.
If we don’t act immediately, collectively, and effectively, the rhinoceros will soon be extinct.
“North Korea’s Diplomats in Africa Are Making Big Money Selling Ivory to Chinese.” The China Africa Project. http://chinaafricaproject.com/
“Killing For Profit: Exposing The Illegal Rhino Horn Trade.” Julian Rademeyer. Zebra Press.
“What Is the Horn of a Rhino Made Of?” Jill Ennis. Sciencing.com.
“Legalizing the Sale of Rhino Horn May Only Endanger the Animals More.” Aryn Baker. TIME.
“Plight Of The Poacher.” Jack Bilby. https://medium.com/
“Poverty At The Heart Of The Tragic Kruger Poacher Story.” Craig Packer. https://africasustainableconservation.com
“Rhino Poacher Killed By Elephant And Eaten By Lions.” Andrew Meldrum. The Associated Press. https://apnews.com
“Portrait of a Rhino Poacher.” Mick Reilly. International Rhino Foundation. https://intlrhinofoundation.wordpress.com
“The Poachers Pipeline.” Al Jazeera Investigations. Al Jazeera English.
**All images utilized in this piece were provided by the copyright owners and used with their express, written permission for exclusive use in this article.