Busting the Myth – Saving the Species

When I opened my Facebook this morning, I read the terribly sad news that Absa, Aquila’s rhino, who has been fighting for his live since Saturday, tragically passed away during the night. For those of you who have not followed the story, poachers came into Aquila Private Game Reserve (2 hrs north of Cape Town) early on Saturday morning and darted 3 of their rhinos. Their anti-poaching team disturbed the poachers and found Absa still alive with his front horn cut off by a chain saw. His daughter was unhurt, but darted and barely alive (fortunately she has made a full recovery). A third young male was not so lucky and had both his horns hacked off by a chain saw and machete and was left to bleed to death.

I felt that I needed to update this blog and was then shocked to find out that since early June, when I wrote the below blog, 100 more rhino’s have been butchered to death by poachers for their horn. This brings the total for South Africa in 2011 to date to 274 rhino’s!!! This has left me extremely sad and shocked.

This senseless killing has to stop!

25th August 2011

Since the start of 2011, hardly a day has gone by without reading about the horrors of rhino poaching. The poaching really has taken epic proportions with the current figure halfway 2011 in South Africa alone standing at 174 rhinos. Kruger National Park seems to carry the brunt of the poaching activities with 120 rhinos killed since the start of 2011, nearly the same number of rhinos as in the whole of South Africa in 2009. The rhino poaching stats make a frightening read, a 2450% increase from 2007 to 2010!

Image courtesy of the Stop Rhino Poaching 

All this rhino poaching has not gone without human loss either. According to SANParks the total arrests in 2011 so far are 122 and the number of suspected poachers killed in shootouts with anti-poaching units is 20.

Unfortunately, rhino poaching is not restricted to South Africa only either. Only a few days ago, Swaziland was under attack for first time in nearly 20 years when poachers killed a white rhino in Hlane Royal Park. With only 89 white and 18 black rhinos left, Swaziland’s rhino population doesn’t need many poaching incidents to bring the rhinos back to the brick of extinction.

Rhino Facts

If we look at the Rhino facts, we will understand that if the poaching of this species will continue at its current rate, we will soon lose a species that has been part of our natural heritage for about 50 million years.

In Africa, the Black rhino is one of the most threatened of its kind. In 1970, the estimated numbers in Africa were still 65,000. However due to poaching, the population declined sharply to about 4,860 surviving today with about only 2,300 remaining in the wild.

The White Rhinos can be divided into two distinct subspecies, the Northern and Southern White Rhino. Southern White Rhino is least endangered with a current population of about 20,600 and is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. However, the Northern White Rhino is feared extinct in the wild with only 8 known remaining rhinos worldwide!

Rhino Horn Myth

The one thing that really makes me mad is the reason for the rhino poaching, i.e. the myth of the rhino horn. It has been scientifically proven that rhino horn has absolutely no medicinal properties, no curative benefits, and definitely no magical powers. Despite this scientific evidence, millions of people in Southeast Asia still believe rhino horn is a cure-all for a wide range of illnesses, including fever, devil possession, and even cancer.

Rhino horn as an alleged cancer treatment is thought to be the driving force behind the shocking increase in rhino poaching over the last 3 years. With the estimated black market price for rhino horn ranging from US$25,000 to US$60,000 per kilo, it is no wonder that the poaching gangs are well-resourced and highly organised.

The rhino horn myth needs to be tackled and action groups, such as the Rhino Conservation Group, put a lot of effort into campaigns like the recently launched Bust the Myth – Save the Species. This is a global public awareness campaign calling for a coalition approach to debunking the rhino horn medicine myth with campaign materials being produced in English, Vietnamese, and Mandarin.

Unfortunately, these awareness campaigns take time to make an impact. The growing market for rhino horn as a cancer treatment and the resulting increase in rhino poaching has people who care panicking that we might be running out of time for the rhino. Voices have been raised suggesting to sell rhino horn stockpiles and even legalising the rhino horn trade.

Rhino Horn Trade Legalisation?

Is the highly controversial rhino horn trade legalisation from natural mortality and stock piles, as well as professional hunting, the solution to the rhino poaching problem? It raises various concerns that need careful consideration before making any suggestions towards legalisation.

To legalise the sale of rhino horn, either from natural wastage or legalised hunting, is to condone the idiocy of the unfounded myth that has built up around rhino horn’s non-existent medicinal properties.

A similar situation occurred in 1997 at CoP10, when Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe succeeded in having their elephant populations downlisted by CITES to a less endangered status. The three countries were allowed to sell stockpiled ivory, collected from elephants that died of natural causes or those that were killed in population management schemes, to CITES designated buyers. The first sale was in 1999, when 50 tonnes of ivory was exported to Japan. In 2000 at CoP11, South Africa’s elephant population was also downlisted.

At the time, scientists and conservation groups raised the concern that the sudden influx of ivory onto the Japanese and Chinese markets would make it very easy for poachers to smuggle illegal tusks and pass them off as legally obtained. They were right in their concerns, as in June 2002 the largest shipment of illegal ivory since the 1989 ban was seized by Singapore authorities (532 tusks and more than 40,000 cut pieces of ivory, a total of 6.5 tonnes). DNA analysis showed the ivory had actually originated in Zambia, a country that had NOT downlisted their elephant population and therefore the ivory was indeed illegal.

Another concern is how the funds raised from legal ivory or rhino horn trade would be used? In principle, it makes total sense to invest the revenue back into conservation of the species. However how can we enforce this? How can we guarantee that this money will not line the pockets of politicians, business people, and criminals alike?

Lessons Learned from Lifting the Ivory Trade Ban

So before we panic and call for legislation of the rhino horn trade, we should carefully look at the lessons we learned from lifting the ivory trade ban.

Please note more information can be obtained from Fact Sheets by the Amboseli Trust for Elephants produced for the Kenya Elephant Forum as scientific background in the campaign to sway minds and hearts at the CoP15 meeting of CITES.

It is well documented that elephant poaching increased throughout Africa since the one-off sale in 1999 of ivory from Namibia and Zimbabwe to Japan. In Tanzania alone, the percentage of elephant mortality attributed to poaching rose from 22% in 2003 to 62% in 2009. An estimated 38,000 elephants are killed annually to supply the ivory trade. If this rate were to continue, elephants could be gone from most of their former range in less than 15 years!

With booming economies in Asia, the top destination for much of the ivory trade, the demand for ‘white gold’ continues to rise. The wholesale price of high-quality ivory went through the roof between 2003 and 2007 (US$200/kg 2003 to US$850/kg 2007), and then doubled again by 2009.

Since 1999, the demand for ivory in China escalated with an increase in ivory carving factories and sales of ivory items. Ten years later, China approved an additional 37 stores as new, official ivory retail outlets. If only a small percentage of the 1.3 billion Chinese people would purchase ivory, the effect on the elephant population will be devastating.

Image courtesy of Wildlife Trade

Confiscations of illegal ivory have also greatly increased.

The Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) has shown that between 2007 and 2009, over 2,000 seizures of illegal elephant material were recorded by authorities, a sharp increase from years past. The increased rate of poaching, coupled with the large quantities of ivory in individual seizures, suggests that criminal networks are behind the trade and manipulating local populations to increase their profits. (MediaGlobal, 21-11-09)

Hopefully these lessons will be sufficient to stop the debate on rhino horn trade legalisation. Making a mistake once is bad enough, making it twice is insanity.

Good News

Fortunately there is still a glimmer of hope for the rhino. This week, Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Uganda celebrated the historic birth of the country’s first female rhino in 30 years. This is the second time mother Nandi has made history, as she gave birth in June 2009 to Uganda’s very first calf Obama following the regional extinction of the species in 1982.

It is the fourth baby rhino born at the Sanctuary and two more babies are on their way soon. The new arrival weighs 50 kg and brings Uganda’s rhino population to just 13. However, a female baby rhino is of major significance to the survival of the species.

Image courtesy of Saving Rhinos

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