November 22, 2013

Sorry Folks, but the Western Black Rhino has Not Just Gone Extinct. ~ Sanja Cloete-Jones

Recently CNN republished an updated version of a two-year-old article which unleashed a sudden but shockingly tardy wave of outrage and upset.

The last Western Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes) was in fact seen in Cameroon way back in 2001 and the subspecies has been declared extinct since 2011.

Why is a decade old extinction suddenly such a big story?

Could it be because we are all taking the conservation of our environment and its creatures more seriously than we did even 10 years ago?

Or is it just one more misunderstanding in the fog of nonsense surrounding one of this planet’s most important species of land animal.

Misconceptions like:

1. In Chinese Traditional Medicine Rhino horn is prescribed as an aphrodisiac.

According to the 16th Century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen the horn could be used to treat snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning and ‘devil possession.’ Practically the only problem it is never prescribed or used for is to increase libido or sexual prowess.

2. Rhino Horn can cure everything from hangovers to cancer.

In spite of extensive research the horn of a rhino has not been found to harbour any magical solutions to intractable problems.

Traditional Chinese Medicine has been an important part of Chinese culture for centuries. In fact, it saw a massive revival in the mid 20th Century due to Chariman Mau Zedong using it as a political tool and actively pushing it through a massive propaganda machine. (So much so that even Western people started believing in it.)

3. The use of Rhino horn is predominant in Chinese culture only.

Greek mythology purported rhino horn to have the ability to purify water. Ancient Persians thought the horn could be used to detect poisoned liquids—a belief that survived until the 18th and 19th centuries among the royal courts of Europe.

4. All beliefs about the power of Rhino horn are false.

Not true. Because it is composed of the protein keratin (also the chief component in hair, fingernails and animal hooves) many strongly alkaline poisons may react with the horn—making the Persians seem slightly less delusional. Extremely large doses of rhino extract have been proven to slightly lower fever in rats.

5. Rhino horns are made of modified or compressed hair.

They resemble horses’ hooves, turtle beaks and cockatoo bills more closely.

6. China is the biggest market for Rhino horn.

Nope. This honour goes to Vietnam by quite a large margin.

7. The use of this horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the only reason Rhinos are hunted.

Rhinos may legally be hunted in South Africa. So people come out on pseudo hunts for the trophy when all they want is the horn…

Also the surge in rhino horn demand from Vietnam has nothing to do with meeting traditional medicine needs; “it’s to supply a recreational drug to party goers or to con dying cancer patients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC rhino expert and author.

8. But South Africa has banned Vietnamese nationals from hunting rhino.

Indeed—so now they use Thai prostitutes and Czech nationals who have never held a gun in their lives to come out and pseudo hunt for them.

9. Rhino extinction is a sign of our times.

By 1892 the White Rhino was considered extinct due to big game hunting. Then in 1895 a rogue community of around 20 were discovered in South Africa and following conservation efforts the population currently numbers in the 20,000s.

10. Rhino poaching has escalated only recently.

While the White Rhino is currently being poached at an expanding rate, 98 percent of the black rhino were already killed between 1960 and 1995

11. White rhino numbers are healthy.

The sharp escalation in killings has been stunning. In 2008 the number of poached rhino were barely in the double digits. In 2013 the number was 700 by September. If current poaching rates continue the White Rhino kills will outnumber births by 2026.

12. African governments need more fire power and more money to fight poaching.

The Clinton Global Initiative has pledged US$80 million to fight illegal ivory trade with US$70 million to be raised specifically for anti-poaching. Hillary Clinton has publicly called the illegal wildlife trade a national security issue. President Obama launched a US$10 million plan to combat illegal wildlife trade and related organized crime.

There is so much money in poaching that African governments could lose control of regions destabilized by poachers. On the ground people are talking drones, night-vision goggles, GPS trackers and task forces with carte blanche. Kenya’s ambassador to the United States has called for the deployment of US Marines causing Gary Reid, the US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations to warn that it will require ‘a steady presence of Special Operations Forces personnel in remote parts of the world.’

On social media platforms everyone is up in arms literally as well.

Posts like: ‘Dehorn the poachers’ and ‘They should be slowly tortured and left to rot’ pervade discussions of elephant and rhino poaching.

Various African governments flaunt a shoot to kill policy.

Everyone is ready to get all Rambo in this crises.

Unfortunately the military approach is one of the few ideas that has actually been tried, tested and found to fail miserably: In one of the best managed National parks in Africa, the Kruger of South Africa, ranger manpower, anti-poaching funding and arrests climbed… while rhino poaching skyrocketed.

13. The problem lies with the poachers.

Poachers are more often than not caught up in the web of crime that a US$100 million a year global trade carries with it. The risk is lower than drug trafficking. And the profits are unfathomable for people who often live hand to mouth and have to support large families. They literally pick between refusing to kill an animal (which may legally be hunted) and providing food, housing, schooling, clothes and decent medical attention for their children.

This means that poverty and corruption are bigger culprits along with poor compliance over rhino horn stockpile management, loopholes in sport hunting policy and an ever surging demand for horn in Vietnam. If the money involved can turn the head of game ranch owners, professional hunters and wildlife veterinarians as well as officials based at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria, what chance has your average poacher got to resist the temptation?

In spite of all the smoke and mirrors every effort is now made to turn the tide…

There has been a memorandum of understanding signed last December between Vietnam and South Africa to strengthen cooperation in biodiversity conservation and protection.

Vietnam has a ban on the use of rhino horn and has launched a public awareness campaign aimed at reducing consumer demand for rhinoceros horns. Workshops are held from now through 2015 and Facebook and other social networking, women’s groups, business leaders, students and Eastern and Western medical practitioners will be involved to develop and implement demand reduction strategies.

Education, not war, is the answer.

And, as the flood of excitement over a subspecies that has already been extinct for over 10 years recently showed that education might very well need to start in the West.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Image: Flickr.}

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