The ultimate prestige gift amongst wealthy Vietnamese who wish to curry favour with influential politicians and businesspeople is a rhino horn hangover cure. The powdered horn, priced at several thousand dollars for a few grams is packaged in an ornate little casket and presented with pride.
This is the latest development in the ultra high-end Asian market that is destroying our rhino. Unlike other luxury brands, rhino horn cannot be reproduced in a factory. The consequence of this trend is heading one way – to the extinction of our black and white rhino.
According to Tom Milliken rhino trade expert for the international wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, the upsurge in rhino poaching in South Africa over the last couple of years is directly tied to increased demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Vietnam. It carries prestige, not only as a post-partying cleanser but also as a purported cancer cure and aphrodisiac.
“According to traditional Chinese medicine experts, rhino horn has no proven cancer treating properties and, contrary to popular myth, it has never been used in traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac,” comments Milliken. It’s obvious why rhino horn, with its phallus-like appearance could be associated with sexual performance but the truth is that rhino horn contains no more medicinal value than our own fingernails. And it is no hangover cure.
“Like our fingernails, rhino horns are made up of keratin; the only difference is that human fingernails do not fetch US$60 000 or R420 000 per kilogram on the black market. So our rhinos are being murdered for a myth,” says Dr Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project at the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve near Krugersdorp, where a rhino was poached last year.
According to South African National Parks statistics, 448 rhinos were poached in 2011 in South African reserves, including private reserves. Of these, 252 were in Kruger National Park. In 2010 333 rhinos were poached nationally and 122 in 2009.
Last year, 19 of the total number poached were black rhino, classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. South Africa is estimated to have about 4500 black rhinos left in the wild. Our white rhino population stands at 20 000 and is classified as Near Threatened. Approximately 20% of our rhinos are on private game farms.
If you consider that the average anterior horn weighs 3 kilograms, that’s well over R1-million per horn and R18-R19-million for 15kgs. By the time it’s passed through several hands on its journey to the East, horns can sell for considerably more. Compare this with the black market price for poachers, who, according to those in the game industry who are fighting poachers daily, are paid around R100 000 per horn.
Given that South Africa hosts almost 90% of the world’s rhino populations, it makes us an obvious target, especially since rhino populations in the rest of Africa and Asia have been decimated. WWF announced the extinction of rhinos in Vietnam in October 2011 when the last Javan rhinoceros was killed by poachers and its horn removed.
“Rhino poaching is being conducted by sophisticated international criminal syndicates that smuggle horns to Asia,” says Dr Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF-South Africa. “It’s not enough to bust the little guy; investigators need to shut down the kingpins organising these criminal operations. Governments in Africa and Asia must work together across borders to stop the illegal trade.”
In both Africa and Asia, WWF and TRAFFIC are providing assistance to field rangers, criminal investigators, prosecutors and customs authorities. TRAFFIC has also facilitated visits between South African and Vietnamese government officials to discuss law enforcement. A bilateral treaty to ramp up law enforcement co-operation between South Africa and Vietnam was negotiated in September 2011 but still remains unsigned. “We are facing an environmental disaster. Once a species goes extinct, others start following suit because entire ecosystems are suddenly out of whack,” states Hern. “Conservationists’ single biggest fear at this stage is that the rhino goes the same way as elephants being culled wholesale for their tusks and lions and tigers being murdered and mutilated for their bones. “At the current rate of poaching our rhinos will go extinct in 5 to 8 years.”
Illegal traders are running circles around the government and law enforcement agencies. In South Africa sentences imposed for rhino crimes have increased in recent years, with poachers and horn smugglers receiving up to 25 years in prison. In Vietnam, however, according to TRAFFIC, the last arrest of a rhino horn smuggler was in 2008.
The strongest possible action and conservation and law enforcement efforts are essential, as has happened in Nepal where rhino poaching and trading is severely punished and where no rhinos were lost to poaching in 2011.
The disbanding of the Endangered Species Protection Unit post 1994 is widely regarded as a gross error of judgement on behalf of our government. Local police stations and the Hawks do not have the resources or time required to focus on a specific species. A specialist unit needs to track the end point of sale to start targeting the so-called kingpins in southern Africa and Asia.
Many of the poachers, particularly in the Kruger Park area, are coming from Mozambique where poaching carries no harsher penalty than ‘damage to property’. A meeting between South Africa and Mozambique held earlier this year to address cross-border poaching was attended by attended by Minister of Tourism in Mozambique, Fernando Sumbana Jnr and South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa.
“Mozambique is currently pondering legislation that will elevate the offence of wildlife poaching to a criminal offence carrying heavier sentencing rather than the current offence of damage to property,” Sumbana said, adding that Mozambique’s natural resources are also being plundered by “organised Mafia”.
Molewa has announced various measures to address the problem in Kruger Park, including bringing in 150 additional field rangers to increase the number of law enforcement officers; increasing military presence in the park, enhanced intelligence gathering and strengthening the border between Massingir and Komatipoort.
“Most of the poachers in the Hoedspruit reserves near Kruger National Park have been Mozambicans but they are certainly not operating alone,” says wildlife specialist Tim Parker and CEO of Game Ranch Management Services, which manages an anti-poaching unit at Blue Canyon Game Conservancy, one of about 40 private game reserves in the greater Hoedspruit area.
“At Blue Canyon I’ve got a field ranger force that has undergone intensive training and all of whom are armed with semi-automatic firearms,” says Parker. “This kind of unit is imperative. Over the course of last year about 30 rhinos in the Hoedspruit area were lost to poaching.”
Because of this the owners and managers of all the private reserves in this area have came together to fight rhino poaching. “The majority decided to de-horn our rhino, which we did at Blue Canyon in August and September last year – we got permits from our local conservation authority to do this. Every horn is microchipped for identification purposes and placed in official safekeeping,” continues Parker. In addition, an initiative called Rhino Revolution has been launched to raise funds via the sale of t-shirts and caps to support collective anti-poaching initiatives, including a 24-hour six-man reaction team.
The Rhino Rescue Project has taken horn protection a step further and is treating the horns on live rhino with eco-friendly organic compounds that are extremely toxic but non-lethal to humans. An indelible pink dye is also infused into the horn, and can clearly be seen inside a treated horn and remains visible even if the horn is ground to fine powder.
“All animals in the initial sample are in excellent health,” says the Rhino Rescue Project’s founding member Hern. “The treatment was first administered to rhinos on our reserve in 2010, and since then two cows have given birth to healthy calves, both of whom are lactating normally. Another cow has fallen pregnant during this time. We have also re-tested the horns over time to establish distribution of the treatment inside the horn over time and to ensure that the treatment did not find its way into the animal’s system and affect its overall health.”
The Rhino Rescue Project horn treatment remains effective for approximately three to four years, after which re-administration would be required.
“We are really happy to be able to say that not a single animal has been poached since administration of the treatment,” says Hern.
Apart from the obvious necessity of using every possible method of increasing protection for our rhino on the ground, a group of private game ranchers are calling for the lifting of the CITES ban on the trade in rhino horn. They claim that if rhino horn can be sold on the open market, this will destroy the illegal trade. They say rhino horn will lose its ultra-luxury status because legally stockpiled horn that has been harvested over the years to protect the rhino will ‘flood’ the market.
The anti camp argues that legalising the sale of rhino horn might even increase demand. They say it will not stop the illegal poaching of rhino because there simply aren’t enough rhino left in the world for the market to be ‘flooded’. Instead it will send out the wrong message that it is okay to hunt or deface rhino and the market will simply expand from the ultra-rich to the rich as a coveted luxury item.
Rhino bulls produce about 1kg of horn a year, females about 600g. One of South Africa’s largest rhino ranchers, John Hume, who has a game farm in Mpumalanga and who has dehorned all his rhino, is said to have more than 500kg of white rhino horn registered with the provincial government. The horns are implanted with government-issued microchip identification and stored in safety deposit boxes at three banks around the country, waiting for trade to be legalised. He stands to gain a phenomenal sum.
Hume believes that rhino can be ‘farmed’ for their horns, which take approximately five years to grow back to full size. This way, he says, it is possible to produce enough horn to meet increasing demand for the product.
TRAFFIC’s Milliken is not convinced demand could be met. “We really don’t have a handle on what the demand out there is,” he says. The reality is that there are not nearly enough rhino left in the world to test the market. Before we know it, they’ll be extinct and we’ll be left debating what should have been done.
For more information about the Rhino Rescue Project: www.rhinorescueproject.com
For more information about WWF: www.wwf.org.za/act_now/rhino_conservation/
For more information about TRAFFIC: www.traffic.org/
OTHER SPECIES AT RISK
Rhinos are one of our legendary Big 5. As a highly profiled and charismatic species, they attract a lot of attention and support. At the same time so many of our other animal species are also being targeted by the East in particular for their so-called medicinal properties, including our lions, leopards and sharks.
It is well known that China has a voracious appetite for tiger parts, based on the myth that by ingesting a part of the tiger they will inherit the strength and majesty of the animal. This has driven the largest big cat to the edge of extinction. Tiger-bone wine is also allegedly a cure for arthritis and rheumatism. To make the wine a tiger’s skeleton is soaked in a large vat of wine for an extended period. With so few tigers around, lions and leopards are now being hunted for the same purpose. The demand for free-ranging lions and leopards is far higher than for their captive counterparts, which spells great danger for our wild populations. The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) suggests that a significant number of leopards are being hunted illegally in South Africa.
To address the trade threats to our big cats, EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme, in conjunction with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), is implementing a project to assess the scale and impacts of consumptive utilisation of their body parts.
As for our sharks, it is well known their fins have huge monetary value and are primarily sent to Asia for shark fin soup. Fishermen are often only interested in the fins, which are sliced off the live animal that is then thrown back into the sea. It is estimated that 100-200 million sharks per year are killed for their fins. Shark cartilage is also popular as an alleged anti-cancer agent. There is no medical basis to this other than the fact that sharks show low cancer rates. TRAFFIC is monitoring this trade and promoting stronger marine law enforcement.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUPPORTING ENDANGERED SPECIES
The rhino onslaught has triggered outrage in South Africa and we have rallied to support anti-poaching causes. It’s a wonderful demonstration of standing together to protect our heritage but the question we need to ask ourselves is why many of us feel so much more for animals in distress than for human atrocities or the disappearance of traditional cultures.
Gauteng-based clinical psychologist Pierre Brouard sheds some light on this:
“It’s not a clearcut answer because some people are drawn to multiple issues and give to both human and animal causes. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that human atrocities are complicated and tied into all sorts of social, political, legal and cultural issues, whereas the situation is far more clearcut with animals. Animals cannot defend themselves or prevent their own pain and are therefore the victims of forces entirely beyond their control. We have enclosed them in game reserves or zoos and we therefore have a moral duty to look after them. Linked to this is the idea of innocence, where animals are truly ‘innocent’ and have done no ‘wrong’.
“Hence when we see photographs of a butchered rhino or a calf hovering in confusion over its slaughtered mother, we are easily triggered into wanting to do something to prevent the horror. And so we buy bracelets and donate to charities and sign petitions to assuage our sense of rage and helplessness, allowing us to feel we are ‘doing something’.
“We also feel a sense of ownership about rhinos. They are our rhinos; they are here and very dear to us, and it makes us feel good and ‘empowered’ to at least try to help to save one or two of them.”
LOOKING GOOD WHILE DOING GOOD
Over the past year several ‘cause marketing’ initiatives have emerged to raise money to help fight everything from rhino poaching to environmental degradation to HIV. Bead bracelets are a visible, inexpensive way to raise awareness and support for these issues, with large retailers rising to the opportunity to assist. Their proviso is that the monies are managed by well-respected conservation and non-profit organisations.
The bracelet that shakes the world
“Wear the bracelet and shake the world!” This is the message behind the Millennium Bracelet Shake the World campaign, launched in 40 Edgars stores in August 2011 in association with the Rainbow Collection and Africaignite. Representing the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000, these bracelets come in eight bright colours, each corresponding to one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, namely:
• Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger – yellow
• Achieve universal primary education – lime green
• Promote gender equality and empower women – orange
• Reduce child mortality – turquoise
• Improve maternal health – pink
• Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases – red
• Ensure environmental sustainability – green
• Develop a global partnership for development – blue
The bracelets are handmade by women crafters in rural communities throughout KwaZulu-Natal. Approximately 800 beaders are involved in the initiative, which is aiming to market one million Millennium Bracelets through a variety of channels, locally and internationally. Edgars alone is hoping to raise R700 000 by selling over 100 000 Millennium Bracelets at R19.95 each. All the monies raised support the women crafters and a range of development and conservation initiatives that reflect the eight goals. On the environmental side, Africa Ignite is involved in water, sanitation and renewable energy projects for rural schools and communities in KwaZulu Natal.
Edgars PRO Lerato Zako says they are not at liberty to quote how many bracelets have been sold to date, but that they are selling well as they are prominently positioned at the till points.
Edgars Marketing Executive Belinda Godfrey says the Millennium Bracelet is a call for action: “By wearing the Millennium Bracelet, fashionable consumers become part of the solution: they contribute financially, while helping raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals. Edgars is a proud supporter of this worthy cause. We particularly love the opportunity to look good while doing good!”
For more information:
www.shaketheworld.org; www.africaignite.co.za; www.rainbowcollection.nl
The Rhino Force Bracelet
Rhino Force is a philanthropic commercial initiative that dedicates R6.50 from the sale of each Rhino Force bracelet to the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Rhino Fund. Funds are used exclusively for rhino and include conservation and anti- poaching activities (such as funding trained sniffer dogs at Oliver Tambo cargo section).
Rhino Force founding member Joanne Lapin explains that the bracelets retail at R30 apiece, with the retailer receiving R5, EWT R6.50 and the remaining R18.50 going into the costs of raw materials, packing, distribution and to pay the people from disadvantaged communities around Gauteng who make the bracelets. “We have a wide range of retailers including the CNA and we are in negotiation with GROUPON and Edgars,” she says. “We even have Asian restaurants selling them to show they are against rhino poaching. Only a small percentage of Asians are involved in this racket yet all Asians are unfairly tarnished by it.”
Since the launch of the campaign in August 2011 over 250 000 bracelets have been sold.
Lapin also focuses on ‘endangered people’ through the Kalahari Spa product range she distributes. “Our Kalahari Beads Project helps support Khoisan families in the Kalahari and we have a running water and education project for Khosian children, including an initiative to ensure the children continue to learn their traditional language,” she explains. “The Khoisan are the world’s oldest people but their culture is under threat. I want to create billboards linking the rhino and Khoisan, with a child and rhino walking together into the sunset.”
For more information:
www.rhinoforce.co.za; www.afrikaforce.org.za; www.kalaharispa.com