Fascination has always surrounded the rhinoceros as it is a huge and powerful animal, unique in form and highly dangerous. There are just over 20,000 left in Africa and most are in captivity, as they have been brought to near extinction by habitat destruction and poaching. A rhino horn can fetch over £59,000 on the black market, so it’s no wonder one is killed every day. This puts huge pressure on game reserve owners as rhinos are often their most valuable assets, not only as they cost so much to trade but also because they are a massive tourist attraction.
So why is rhino horn so valuable? The truth is, it’s not. It’s used in traditional Chinese medicine for various reasons. Some people say it’s an aphrodisiac (it isn’t); some say it cures possession by the devil (it doesn’t); some say it’s a painkiller (it isn’t); and it supposedly has many more properties. In reality, though, it’s just hair. Keratin. It can’t do anything eating your own fingernails can’t, as pointed out by the guys from RodneyTheRhino in the video. But unfortunately, so many people in Eastern Asia insist it can.
Rhino poachers used to be from poor communities next to a reserve, who killed rhinos as food and medicine because they could not afford to buy these from other sources. Crude methods, such as snares or getting dogs to chase the animals off cliffs, were used. But this is a thing of the past; today the black market rhino horn business is booming, and poaching is organised, sophisticated and skilled. In most cases, organised, ex-military groups infiltrate the local community, find out as much as they can about nearby rhinos and reserves, and plan out their kill. Some groups have gone so far as to scout with a helicopter and dart the rhino with a lethal amount of tranquiliser – the animal dies quickly, there is no conspicuous gunfire and it is easy to get away if seen. These poachers can afford, or at least are willing to invest in, helicopters and dart guns because of the high price rhino horn fetches.
With crime as sophisticated as this, it is becoming very expensive for African game reserves to protect rhinoceroses. Possible prevention measures include higher, stronger, more sophisticated fences and constant patrols of the perimeter of the reserves, but it would be risky to get into a fight with an armed poacher. However, the majority of the population prioritises issues such as housing and schooling over conservation, and therefore the attitude of the government reflects this. Private game reserves must be self-funded or run as charities, leaving little extra money for such improvements.
Some rhino owners believe they should be allowed to de-horn their animals and sell the horn. This would remove the incentive to poach rhino and also lower the value of rhino horn. It does grow back in some form, but there will never be any large, juicy specimens to tempt the poachers. However, part of the beauty of the rhino is lost and it is stressful for the animals and dangerous to keep removing them. Whilst the exact function of the horn is unknown, it may be used for protection and male fights – and all females like a big horn! However, maybe it’s better to have a rhino with no horn that no rhino at all.
Others see legal rhino poaching as both an incentive and a potential source of funding for rhino conservation, as profits generated by the sale of rhino horn could be channelled into new protection programmes, filling the gap left by inactive governments. It could also be used as a cull to control the male population, which becomes over aggressive if there are too many in one place. There is however a moral issue of whether it’s right to kill endangered animals, even for the good of the species, and whether there are alternatives to culling.
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