South Africa’s Rampant Rhinocide

I published a similar version of this post in The Water Tower.

Let’s get down to business: there’s a war on rhinos. Well, there’s been a war on rhinos for years: in Africa, white and especially black rhinos were poached nearly to extinction, by Western tourists looking to bag a new beast, or by desperate Africans looking to sell the precious rhino horn–prized in Eastern medicine as a cure for everything from fever and cancer to nightmares and erectile disfunction–on the black market. Science has proven these horns medically useless, being made from the same fibers as hair and fingernails, but while some countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea have banned the rhino horn trade, others have yet to call this ancient alchemy into question, and the demand for horn in China, Vietnam and Thailand is rising. And with African food prices also rising and the rhino horn price coming in at $65,000 a kilogram, there is little to hold back a needy African father from killing one of the continent’s most threatened big mammals.

The numbers tell it all. At the start of the 20th century, there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia; by 1970, there were 70,000; and today, there are less than 29,000. The white rhinos of the open savannah landed on the “Near Threatened” list, while the black rhinos of the jungle are now “Critically Endangered.” Conservation efforts have had some success at turning this fatal trend around, with white rhino numbers rising by 9.5% annually and blacks by 6% as of 2007. South Africa has seen the most progress in this, considering that of the 25,045 rhinos in Africa (as of 2010), 20,711 of them live in South Africa. Other countries didn’t witness this degree of rhino conservation, but they at least resisted the terminal trend that dominated the 20th century.

But in the past decade, as several East Asian nations have grown into wealthy manufacturing giants, the demand for rhino horn has spiked, and the war is once again in full swing. South Africa’s successful conservation has ironically made it a prime target for these poachers. The country’s ranchers and park rangers lack the resources to combat poaching gangs, some just groups of needy tribal men, others full mobs organized by foreign investors and equipped with night-vision goggles, gun silencers, and helicopters. As a result, the South African poaching rate has spiked 5000% since 2007, rising from 13 rhino deaths in 2007 to 668 in 2012. And the rhinos spread throughout the rest of Africa suffer too, and one subspecies, the Western black rhinoceros, was declared extinct in 2011.

So what do we do? This is not a local problem; in fact, if Africa were independent of the globalized world, it would never have a rhino poaching problem. Tracing the rhino horn trade is a trip around the world, and conservation activists have tried to enact change at every link in the chain. The nonprofit Rhino Reality fights to raise awareness of the rampant poaching and the fact that rhino horn is about as medicative as chewing your fingernail, but these traditions don’t change overnight. Western government agencies try to capture and prosecute members of wildlife crime, an $8 billion annual industry (third to arm and drug trafficking), but as deputy chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Edward Grace points out, ​​“Criminals see the wildlife trade as low risk, high profit. Get caught smuggling a kilo of heroin, you will probably go to jail for the rest of your life if; smuggle a kilo of rhino horn, which nowadays is worth more than heroin or gold, in several countries worldwide you may only go to jail for a couple of years.” Both the South African government and international nonprofits have pumped increasing sums to combat poachers on the ground, but the death toll keeps rising. Some groups lobby to legalize rhino horn trade, in order to reduce the demand and regulate the conservationist harvesting of horns (which can be done lucratively without killing the rhinos). Others argue this will do nothing to reduce the problem. For all I know, there’s probably another organization trying to arm the rhinos.

I can’t say which causes are worthier than others. But conservationist efforts to repopulate Africa with both black and white rhinos have shown signs of success, so we can’t let armed poachers or Asian medicines deter us. Other African conservation issues, such as elephant poaching, habitat destruction, and of course rising planet temperatures, are equally contentious for distinct reasons, but the approach to all of them demands first, broad-mindedness, and second, perseverance. But for now, I leave you one request with infinite interpretability: Respect the Rhino.

A baby rhino mourns his mother, who has been killed for her horns and left to rot. Many babies hang around their dead (or still living) mothers, crying as poachers chop off their mom’s horns, and unlucky young ones who bother these poachers get chopped up too. Other babies run away for hours or days on end, wondering why their mothers aren’t responding to their calls. Credit:

Rhino poaching


One thought on “South Africa’s Rampant Rhinocide

  1. This is very well-written. Your acknowledgement of the complexity of these issues makes it especially compelling. Also, the photo of the rhino baby mourning its mother is particularly heart-wrenching. I hope to see more in this section, keep up the good work!


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