The Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) of Africa was declared extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last November. There have been no sightings of the sub-species since 2006 despite intensive survey throughout its Cameroon homeland.1 Two other rhino species, the Northern white rhino in central Africa and the Javan rhino in Vietnam, have also been declared to be on the verge of extinction. Why should we care? Rhinos are a significant component to the landscape and are considered by many conservationists as “umbrella species.” This term refers to species that may heavily affect the integrity of ecosystems and the survival of other species. Although some rhino species are experiencing rising numbers, poaching is still a significant cause for concern among conservationists. This article will discuss some of the reasons for the resurgence in poaching, the many players involved in the horn trade debate, and new methods that might curb the problem.
There are currently five existing species of rhinos left: White, Black, Indian, Javan and Sumatran. Only the White and Indian species are not considered critically endangered by the IUCN.2 One key reason for the increased rates of poaching is the strong demand for their horns. In these past few years, there has been an epidemic of rhino poaching due to black market demand in certain East Asian countries. The demand for rhino horns has historically been enormous, and prices can be higher than that of gold, costing up to $65,000 for 2 pounds.3 Poaching is prevalent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mozambique, Nepal, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.4 Home to the largest population of rhinos, South Africa is especially facing increased rates of poaching: in 2011, 333 rhinos were killed, a 400% increase compared to 2008.5
One reason for the increased rise in poaching arises from a popular belief based in traditional Chinese medicine — that rhinoceros horns can cure or prevent many ailments. The horn trade was once also very popular in Yemen, where horns were used traditionally as ceremonial dagger handles. Unlike other animal horns that have only a thin layer of keratin, a rhinoceros’ horn lacks a bony structure and is made up entirely of keratin, similar to human hair and fingernails. In traditional medicine, the horn is ground into a powder and mixed with boiling water to treat ailments ranging from headaches to cancer. A common misconception in the West is that it is used as an aphrodisiac, but most treatments are for headaches and fevers. One popular rumor in Asia is that rhino horn cured a politician of cancer—but no one can trace the origin of the rumor or even the identity of that politician. Stories like this, coupled with centuries of traditional medicinal beliefs, may be largely responsible for the resurgence of rhino poaching.
The trade is also exacerbated by the growing economic power of East Asian countries, especially China and Vietnam. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was started in 1993 to engage countries that have significant black markets in rhinoceros horn trade, such as China, Vietnam and, Thailand.2The horn market continues to expand in these countries; there are reports of rhinoceroses being raised in China to get around the ban and government officials in Vietnam being involved as consumers.7
However, some traditional Chinese medicine educators are speaking out against the practice, citing that the medicinal benefits of rhino horns are wildly exaggerated or false. Lixin Huang, the President of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine released a statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines, stating that the use of rhino horns was removed from Chinese pharmacopeia in 1993.8In her statement, Huang also supports for the conservation of endangered species, especially rhinos. Studies done in Europe and China have found that rhino horns do not have any curative properties; in fact, Dr. Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London stated that using rhino horns as medicine was as effective as “chewing one’s own fingernails.”6, 9
In August, the standing committee for CITES met in August to discuss the poaching problem. On behalf of the European Union, Britain issued a proposal encouraging China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand to educate their citizens on the lack of evidence on the medicinal benefits of the horns.2 Nonetheless, urban legends and ancient beliefs can be difficult to eradicate, despite not being supported scientifically. Others have suggested legalizing the horn trade. South African ranchers and rhinoceros owners argue that legalization lowers the price of horns and gives governments greater control over regulating and monitoring the market.10 Unsurprisingly, reaction to this proposed tactic has been mixed, as it is risky and might further increase rates of poaching.
We clearly need to look for new ways to curb poaching, since suggested methods of discouraging poaching are flawed or risky. While the overall numbers of Black and White rhinos are rising, most species are experiencing a rapid decline in population thanks to the strong demand for rhino horns. The Western Black Rhino was once saved from extinction in the 1930s, but within a few decades the population starting diminishing again, heading toward extinction. This case, among other similar situations, hints that discouraging poaching is a complex and ongoing effort. Although many anti-poaching regulations exist and many officials have spoken out against the horn trade, the problem continues to grow due to the growing economic power of Asian countries and centuries-old beliefs that rhino horns can cure any number of illnesses.
- Emslie, R. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, “Diceros bicornis ssp. longipes.” Last modified 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012. http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/39319.
- McCarthy, Michael. “Britain urges Asia to act over surging trade in rhinoceros horn .” The Independent, August 15, 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/britain-urges-asia-to-act-over-surging-trade-in-rhinoceros-horn-2337789.html (accessed February 5, 2012).
- “Rhino poaching hits record as horns worth more than gold .” MSNBC.com, December 30, 2011. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45823839/ns/world_news-world_environment/t/rhino-poaching-hits-record-horns-worth-more-gold/
- Vasquez, Juan Carlos. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), “African Elephant Fund launched at CITES meeting.” Last modified August 19, 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012. http://www.cites.org/eng/news/pr/2011/20110819_SC61.php
- Hatcher, Jessica. “Deadly trade: rhino horn poaching surges.” The Telegraph, December 10, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/8935724/Deadly-trade-rhino-horn-poaching-surges.html (accessed February 8, 2012).
- Nature. PBS, “Rhino Horn Use: Fact vs. Fiction.” Last modified 2011. Accessed February 8, 2012. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/rhinoceros/rhino-horn-use-fact-vs-fiction/1178/.
- Jolly, David. “Epidemic of Rhino Poaching.” The New York Times, August 17, 2011. http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/17/an-epidemic-of-rhino-poaching/ (accessed February 5, 2012).
- Huang, Lixin. “Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.” Letter to CITES, 2011. http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/index_test.php?s=1&act=refs&CODE=ref_detail&id=1313448821 (accessed February 5, 2012).
- Larson, Rhishja. “Scientific Studies Find No Medicinal Value in Rhino Horn.” Jeff Corwin Connect. July 6, 2011. http://www.ecomii.com/blogs/jeff-corwin-citizen-blog/2011/07/06/scientific-studies-find-no-medicinal-value-in-rhino-horn/ (accessed February 7, 2012).
- Taylor, Darren. “Wildlife Experts Distraught as Record Rhino Killings Plague South Africa.” Voice of America, January 21, 2012. http://www.voanews.com/english/news/africa/Wildlife-Experts-Distraught-as-Record-Rhino-Killings-Plague-South-Africa–137825334.html (accessed February 5, 2012).
- Senckenberg Museum. Diceros_bicornis_longipes. Wikimedia. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diceros_bicornis_longipes.jpg (accessed February 9, 2012).
- DJMcCrady. Northern White Rhino (The last male Northern White Rhino in the world). Flickr. http://www.flickr.com/photos/djmccrady/3279645252/ (accessed February 9, 2012).