Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Sides to the Rhino Horn Trade

There are two sides to every question, right? Of course it is an old cliché, but one would think that when it comes to rhino horn trade the answer would be an emphatic NO WAY!

Well, as far as some members of the South African Game Farmers Association are concerned there are indeed two sides.

As we wait for the CITES decision on the ivory trade the situation with rhino poaching has continued to deteriorate.

Here is a summary of some facts as outlined by noted rhino expert Dr. Pete Morkel about recent developments in South Africa.

"South Africa has lost another 24 rhino since last week," the CEO of SA National Parks (SANParks) David Mabunda said in a statement.
"The Kruger National Park remains the hardest hit, with 15 rhino being poached for their horn since 20 February 2013."
According to the latest statistics by SANParks the Kruger National Park has had 107 poaching since the beginning of the year. Across South Africa 146 have been poached so far this year, which brought the total to 1,595 over the past four years. Each year the number of poached animals rises. And at over two animals per day in 2013 the trend is likely to continue. 
To those of us outside South Africa this horror story can be simply stopped, or at least curtailed by simple strokes of the several pens. If CITES would ban all forms of rhino horn trade and then help importing countries to enforce the ban, the trade would dwindle. The major importers are in Asia, with Vietnam leading the way, but Korea and China are well in the mix.
Vietnam and South Africa have signed an MOU, but as has been pointed out, MOUs are probably not even worth the paper they are written on if the parties have no intention of honouring them.
I have written before about the snake oil sales pitch in Vietnam and the claim that the stuff (merely keratin) is a cure for cancer. A ridiculous new claim has arisen. Derek Mead has written that rhino horn is now being used as party drug to cure hangovers.
Mead has picked up on a Global Post article of August 2012  headlined Forget cocaine: Rhino horn is the new drug of status
Picture of a woman grinding rhino horn in a specially designed bowl was on Mead's post, but no photographer is named.
Erin Conway-Smith, the author of that article states that “Tom Milliken, a rhino expert with TRAFFIC who has worked extensively in Asia and Africa, said that in Vietnam, offering your friends rhino horn at a party has become a fashionable way to show wealth and status.”
She goes on: “The TRAFFIC report describes the disturbing phenomenon of “rhino horn touts” stalking the corridors at hospitals, seeking out desperate patients with cancer.”

Sounds to me like a new form of the much-despised ambulance-chasing lawyer.

One Vietnamese news website described rhino horn wine as “the alcoholic drink of millionaires.”
Mead has another thought-provoking post on the Motherboard site. In this one he is relating his own direct experience when he logged into an underground message board in “search of rhinoceros horn.” He was soon offered some. He reported that some vendors have even used Facebook to make sales! The price of horn is now in the $90,000 per kg range.

This black rhino bull was found wandering Zimbabwe's Savé Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both its horns. Veterinarians euthanized the animal because its shattered shoulder could no longer support its weight.  In the past six years poachers have killed more than a thousand African rhinos for their treasured horns. Photograph by Brent Stirton / National Geographic

It would seem that this is a simple issue. Stop the slaughter, stop the trade. Amazingly there is another side to this story, and it has gone under the radar.

Despite the carnage, which has escalated since the cancer cure claim emerged in Vietnam, the numbers of white rhino are on the increase. This is because the South African game farming industry has done a good job of caring for them and that they have bred successfully.

White rhino in Meru National Park, Kenya.
A hundred years ago there were fewer than twenty southern white rhino left anywhere. Their recovery from the brink is generally attributed to two men. One was Frederick Vaughan-Kirby, a hunter turned park ranger. The other was Ian Player, brother of the golfer Gary, who was involved in early translocation efforts that have led to the species being found in 17 different countries and many other areas of Africa.  There are several thousand world-wide, but most of them are in South Africa.

Some members of the South African Game Farmers Association see the possible legal sale of rhino horn as a real opportunity for income, especially at today’s prices. They stress legal.

Rhino immobilization is not difficult. Since the days when I immobilized about 150 of them for translocation the techniques and drug regimes have improved. In the hands of experienced veterinarians losses are minimal. It really would be no problem to dehorn rhinos every two or three years (rhino horn grows continuously, just like fingernails) and take the harvested product into the market.

We should accept (albeit heartily dislike) the fact that rhino horn is now considered a commodity in the orient, and that major organized crime syndicates are involved in the trade. If legal trade were permitted it might take the pressure off the free-ranging animals in parks.

However, Dr. Morkel thinks that “legal sale would be a fiasco.”  

There is no doubt that wealthy rhino owners would become even wealthier if this happens, but Dr. Morkel thinks this may be a pipe-dream for the rest. As he put it to me the wealthy ones "will probably have the resources to protect their rhino but as for the rhino in the smaller SA private reserves, SA government parks/reserves and other African and Asian range states I have serious doubts whether legal trade will do them any favours. Legal trade can only work if there is tight control and that just does not exist in the range states or consumer countries. There is also this myth that all this money will come flowing straight back into rhino security. They are dreaming. It did not happen with the money from the legal sale of ivory so why should it be any different with rhino horn?"
On the other hand here is a model for the legalization thinking. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 in the USA. It failed.

As I said, two sides.


Anonymous said...

I would assume that a rhino's horn has some significance in social and/or sexual interaction. While I guess it's better to be a live rhino with no horn, it seems there could be significant unintended consequences to dehorning them--?

Jerry Haigh said...

I have not seen any studies on the role of horns in the sex lives of rhino. However, about 20 years ago controversial study out of Namibia suggestd that female rhino which had been dehorned were less able to defend their calves against predators (hyaenas) than those with horns. The work was indeed controversial and a discussion of it, and rebuttal of the conclusions can be found at

If you'd like to see a Youtube piece about the role of antlers in the lives of moose (& other deer) you can check out

Val said...

A thought-provoking piece - I'm happy to have found your blog Dr Haigh!