On March 7, 2017 poachers broke into the Thoiry zoo in France, killing a white rhinoceros and sawing off his horn. The coveted rhino horn most likely made it onto the black market and sold for up to $54,000 dollars a kilogram.
The horn of a rhinoceros is a hot commodity in regular and black markets. According to National Geographic, it is the world’s most valuable appendage in an exotic marketplace along with elephant ivory, tiger penises and giraffe tails. Their horns are made of keratin, a protein similar to the makeup of human nails. A rhino’s horn is believed to have specific medicinal properties and is most commonly used as an aphrodisiac; it is ground and ingested to treat a variety of illnesses from cancer to hangovers to snakebites. These medicinal qualities are emphasized in Asian countries, although, scientists report that there are no proven benefits of ingesting a rhino horn. Similar to nails, theses horns can grow back if properly shaved down. Unfortunately, this is not the case when discussing poaching and the ever-growing black-market trade.
In South Africa, which homes nearly 70% of the 29,500 rhinos left on Earth, selling horns is illegal. Farmers who obtain permits and know how to correctly remove the horn can cut as much as four pounds off at a time. The right method brings no harm to the animal. The shavings are kept in storage vaults waiting for the day horn trading becomes legal.
In the 1800’s, several hundred thousand species of rhinoceros lived in Africa. Now there are only 5,000 black, 20,400 white, and 5,250 one-horned rhinos left. Many live on protected areas, conversation sites, and private properties. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were killed due to illegal poaching of their horns. In 2015, that number inflated to the devastating number of about 1,338, according to the International Union of Conservation of Nature. Surprisingly, this number is less than in 2014, but still an enormous size when considering the minimal amount of rhinos left. The species is mainly decreasing in number because of poaching, habitat loss and political conflicts.
Above: Graph showing South African rhino poaching statistics using data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2016)
The black market trade of rhinoceros horns is booming in Vietnam and China where selling one pound can provide a poacher an entirely new life. Many South Africans do not aspire to enter the trade, but the monetary rewards outweigh the risks. These poachers have no idea what they are doing and improperly shave off the horn, causing the rhinoceros immense pain and often killing them.
There are several ways rhino groups advocate to solve this problem that will not go away on its own. Two propositions include legalizing the trade and imparting a mass clean out of legally obtained rhino horn.
Let’s start with the mass clean out, also referred to as a one-off sale. Advocates suggest the idea of flooding the market with stockpiles of legally obtained rhino horn, a.k.a. the farmers with permits. Hopefully, the surplus would drive the price down, discouraging poaching because the monetary incentive would no longer be as high. This brings up huge questions such as what would happen once those stockpiles reached the bottom? Another problem is distinguishing the difference between the legally and illegally obtained horns. There is a way to tell, but without education and proper monitoring this could become an easy route for the black market.
South Africa proposed a legislation to legalize the selling of rhinoceros horns. The Department of Environmental Affairs launched an investigation to see if it would be successful, was not pleased with the results, and quickly vetoed the legislation. Supporters say this would decrease the allure of poaching and increase the amount of people who are educated on how to properly shave the horn.
The problem of enforcing the legal trade on its own is a reason not to pass the legislation. Keeping market trade free of illegally obtained horns is nearly impossible without the creation of a force to specifically watch for this. There is not a stable system of checks and balances to enforce a legal trade. As well as this problem, protestors argue that legalization would actually empower criminals and would provide “cover for illegal exports.”
Save the Rhinos suggests a combination of an increase of anti-poaching enforcements as well as legalization when the correct resources are put into place.
This is a pressing problem that needs to be addressed if we are going to save a species from extinction… extinction specifically due to human actions. You can check out these foundations for more information and to donate to the cause.
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