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Born Free USA column: The rhino ruse


Adam M Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, begins his brand new monthly column for Wildlife Extra with his views on moves to legalise the trade in rhino horn

For many years, my Facebook picture was of me in Kenya with an orphaned baby rhino whose mother had been poached by thoughtless rhino traffickers. 

The threats facing rhinos are very real; the value of rhino horn on the black market is very high; and the push to legalise the international rhino horn trade is a very real threat. 

Just this week, I read a statement from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs on the issue of rhino horn trade.  In it, the government claims that international anti-trade campaigns are gathering momentum and that South Africa’s proposal to legalise rhino horn trade at the 2016 Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which South Africa will host, will be based on sound research and, “will not be influenced by any individual wanting to ‘line their pockets’ or any group opposed to South Africa’s sustainable utilisation policies.” 

It strikes me that South Africa’s position is clear, the desire to legalise trade is predetermined, and no amount of sound science or evidence of poaching will change their minds.  But for me, my colleagues at Born Free USA, and others who are passionate about doing right by wildlife everywhere, we will use the next two years to mount a scientifically credible and appropriately precautionary approach to conserving rhinos and protecting them from the horrific trade that threatens to wipe them out forever.

An Indian rhino enjoying a cooling wallow

An Indian rhino enjoying a cooling wallow

Today, rhino poaching to satisfy global markets – illicit markets – is on the rise and the hacked remains of individual animals litter the African landscape. In South Africa, where wildlife law enforcement is well-funded compared to other African nations, the number of rhinos killed has risen steadily in the past few years: from 333 in 2010 to more than triple that alarming number in 2013. This year? The number is 419 and counting.

The problem is price. Some estimates place the value of the horn at more than $60,000 (£35,000) per kilo. Wildlife traders stand to collect more income by weight than any drug dealer out there. And the result is an endangered species, further declining – a species that could go extinct, not in my daughter’s lifetime, but my own.

The Javan rhinoceros, once widespread, is now considered about the most endangered of earth’s mammals, with only a few dozen left.  It is totally gone from India, Nepal, Myanmar, Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra, and, just four years ago, Vietnam.  The smallest rhino with the most ancient lineage (related to the woolly rhinoceros once hunted by Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans), the Sumatran rhino is down to fewer than 300 animals.

The huge Indian rhino once roamed from Pakistan to China but is now restricted to a few sanctuaries in India and Nepal, and one in Pakistan, with two thirds of the all members of the species confined to a single national park in the Golaghat District of Assam, India. The two African rhino species have similarly suffered serious declines. 

The problem is a global one. In New Jersey recently, a wildlife trader moving rhino horn and elephant ivory was sentenced to just 70 months in federal prison for trying to buy black rhino horns. The trafficker apparently moved millions of dollars of rhino horn to China.  I believe quite clearly that the punishment must fit the crime in order to deter those nefarious perpetrators of rhino horn poaching.  There needs to be longer prison sentences, significant monetary fines, and concerted efforts to not only apprehend individual smugglers but also to dismantle entire criminal syndicates that support the trade. 

What’s happening on the ground is alarming: poaching is militarised and, as with the ivory trade, a threat to national and regional security. Ivory’s Curse (www.bornfreeusa.org/ivoryscurse), a new report commissioned by Born Free USA, illustrates how soldiers in South Sudan are poaching rhinos, well-positioned Zimbabwean elite are moving rhino horn as part of organised trafficking syndicates, and poachers from Mozambique are moving into South Africa – no wonder poaching numbers are so high and increasing.

Somewhere in Asia, perhaps Vietnam specifically, there is a family stashing away every Vietnamese dong they can earn to fund a cure for cancer, because a mother, brother, grandfather, child suffering from the debilitating disease, perhaps dying. And the remedy they seek is the powdered horn of the highly endangered rhinoceros. The family has been sold a lie and they will save, spend, and only when it’s too late discover that the promised medicinal application is an ineffective ruse.  Rhino horn does not cure cancer. Rhino horn consists of keratin, like human hair or fingernails.  But the poachers and profiteers, pilfering the planet of this majestic animal, will claim rhino horn is the panacea to make a buck (or a dong or a renminbi or a baht). 

Rhino poaching for rhino horn is driving the species to extinction. This is an international crisis with significant consequences, and Born Free USA is urging every government globally to take action – rhino range states need to increase law enforcement capabilities and punish offenders; donor nations must invest in on-the-ground protection; consumer countries must eliminate rhino horn markets once and for all.

My daughter deserves to live in a world with living wild rhinos, secure in their natural habitats. And so do I. 


For more information about the work of the Born Free Foundation visit: www.bornfree.org.uk or www.bornfreeusa.org