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Rhino poaching – What can be done. An interview with Mark Jones of Care for the Wild International

11/05/2011 14:25:05 Rhino poaching - What can be done
May 2011. With rhino populations facing real trouble under the threat of massive increases in poaching for their horn, Save the Rhino's Rhino Mayday event in London had a real urgency to it this year. The event, held at the Zoological Society of London's Meeting Rooms next to Regent's Park, featured 14 invited speakers, who presented information on everything from protection efforts in individual conservancies and for critically endangered populations, to law enforcement, and the role that Western zoos and wildlife parks play in rhino conservation.

Representing both Care for the Wild International (CWI) and the Species Survival Network (SSN), CWI's Director Mark Jones gave a presentation on the current status of rhinos, and why dehorning or legalising the sale of horn won't help to protect them. Here, Mark answers some questions about the threats rhinos face, and the issues of dehorning and legalising the sale of rhino horn. 

The interview


What is the overall opinion of CWI/SSN on the conservation of rhinos?
All the world's remaining rhinos face a severe threat from poaching for their horns. It's our belief that legalising the sale of rhino horn, or dehorning rhinos, won't help. What we need is better and more consistent legislation, better enforcement both where the rhinos live and along the routes and markets in which horn is traded, and more efforts on educating people on why buying rhino horn isn't a good idea.


What's the current status of the world's rhinos?
There are five species of rhino left in the wild. All in all, only around 26,000 rhinos still live in the wild across Africa and Asia.

By far the most numerous, the Southern White rhinos live mainly in reserves and game parks in South Africa. All the other species, the black rhino in southern and Eastern Africa, the greater one horned rhino in India and Nepal, and the Sumatran and Javan rhinos in south-east Asia, are threatened with extinction. Only around 300 Sumatran rhinos, and as few as 45 Javan rhinos, are thought to remain.

So why do poachers target rhinos?
Poachers kill rhinos for their horns. Although they are made up mainly of keratin, the same stuff that's in your hair and fingernails, many people in Asia believe that powdered rhino horn can cure anything from headaches to gout, fevers to rheumatism. So rhino horn is used as a component for traditional medicines.

To make matters worse, a prominent Vietnamese official was reported to have claimed that rhino horn cured his cancer, which has led to a huge increase in demand for rhino horn products in Vietnam.

The poachers show no mercy. Any rhinos with horns are targeted. Calves are often left behind to starve beside their dead mothers. The poachers often use veterinary tranquilizers to stun their victims, and sometimes rhinos will survive having their horns hacked off, only to die in agony hours or days later from the horrific injuries inflicted by the poachers.

How much does rhino horn sell for?
Reports vary wildly, although I've seen prices quoted as high as US$60,000 per kg for powdered horn in Vietnam. That makes it more expensive weight for weight than gold, or street cocaine in the UK!

Is there any evidence that it works?
None whatsoever. You'd be just as well saving your money and chewing your own fingernails.

Where is the supply of rhino horn coming from, where's it being sold, and who's selling it?
Most of the horn is coming out of Southern Africa, since that's where most of the rhinos are. Last year South Africa alone lost at least 333 rhinos to poachers - that's almost three times the previous year, and 30x the level in the 1990s. Zimbabwe has also been badly affected, and rhino populations in other countries, such as Kenya, India and Nepal, are also targeted.

The major markets for powdered rhino horn are in Vietnam and China, although markets also exist in other Asian countries such as Thailand and Korea. However, illegal traders will often route the horns through other countries in Asia or even Europe as they try to evade the law.

It's thought that most of the powdered horn in Asia is coming from illegal poaching, with some from hunting trophies and rhinos that have died naturally.

Because of the high value of rhino horn, poaching is now largely organised by sophisticated crime syndicates, using helicopters, high calibre weapons and veterinary drugs. It's hard for the law enforcement agencies in many countries to keep up.

So what international agreements are there in place to protect rhinos?
All rhinos are protected under international law. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed all rhinos in Appendix 1 by 1977, effectively outlawing any international trade in the animals or their parts. Sadly, white rhinos in South Africa were moved to Appendix 2 in 1994, and in Swaziland in 2004, to allow some trade in live animals and hunting trophies. We believe this "legal" trade is being used to help launder illegal horns into the market, and possibly even to set up "rhino horn farms" in the likes of China and Vietnam. In doing so, it's making it more difficult to control the illegal poaching.

Wouldn't legalising the sale of horn from stockpiles help satisfy the demand, and reduce the poaching pressure?

We don't believe so. Zimbabwe and South Africa have suggested they might want to sell off rhino horns held in stockpiles. The problem is, at today's prices, it would take a huge amount of horn to flood the market to the extent that the price would drop sufficiently to put the poachers off. Legalising the trade also lends it legitimacy, and would provide an opportunity for the laundering of illegally acquired horn, and stockpiles held in private hands.

There's also a moral question here. Should we be legalising a trade in a product which has no medicinal value, but which people are prepared to pay a large amount of money for on the basis that it might cure their diseases? We'd be effectively legitimising extortion.

The legal "one-off sales" of ivory that have been allowed through CITES from time to time have never been shown to reduce the poaching pressure on elephants - in fact we believe they've had quite the opposite effect.

Why not dehorn rhinos?

Apart from the two valid points already discucssed, there is a third reason. Evidence shows taht if poachers have spent time and effort tracking a rhino through the bush, only to find it has no horn, they often kill the rhino anyway so they don't follwo it again at a later date. -Editor

Why not dehorn rhinos?
There are two reasons you might want to dehorn rhinos. Firstly, to protect them from poachers on the assumption that a rhino with no horn is no longer a target. Secondly, in order to generate horn for legal sale.

I've already covered the second point.

In terms of protecting rhinos, with rhino horn fetching such high prices it's still worth poachers targeting rhinos that have a little bit of horn left after being dehorned, and this has happened in some cases. Dehorning needs to be done frequently (at least once a year) if it's to have any chance to be effective, and with wild rhinos this is difficult, expensive, and dangerous to both operators and rhinos. Rhinos also have horns for a reason - to help them protect their young, and to get to high-up browse in some cases; if we remove the horns the rhinos may not be as well equipped to survive.

So what else can be done?
We need more consistent legislation, enforcement, and stricter penalties for poaching or trading rhino horn.

We need better international cooperation to stop the trade and identify the poachers and traders. There are already some good initiatives happening, like the setting up of the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime, bringing the likes of Interpol, the World Customs Organisation, and the CITES Rhino Task Force together. The UK has led moves to ban the export of antique rhino horn trophies, which were being bought up by Chinese and other traders for export to the Far East to fuel the trade.

Lastly but arguably most importantly, we need to educate people who use rhino horn products, explaining why it's not a good idea either for them or for rhinos. We need to do this by engaging with the countries in which rhino horn is commonly used, and through the traditional medicine organisations.

If rhinos are to survive in the future, we need to act now. Otherwise we may lose these magnificent animals altogether.

What does Care for the Wild International do to help rhinos?
CWI runs anti-poaching and desnaring teams in Kenya, who patrol areas around National Parks removing lethal snares and helping the authorities identify poachers and bring them to justice. We also fund enforcement work in India aimed at exposing the trade in illegal wildlife. Our work alongside other organisations within the Species Survival Network aims to strengthen international legislation and enforcement to help protect rhinos and other endangered species.

Our rhino adoption programme provides funding to help rescue rhino calves that have been orphaned by poachers, and prepare them for release back into protected wild areas

How can I help and where can I go for more information?
You can visit CWI's website, www.careforthewild.com, for more information and ways to help.

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