A century ago half a million rhinos roamed Asia and Africa. Today fewer than a 10th remain.
The 21 horns from as many African rhinos were on their way to Vietnam via Istanbul before X-ray machines revealed the illicit fare in the bags of two passengers from South Africa during their transit in Turkey.
The illegal hoard, which also included several packs of animal claws, would have been worth an estimated $2.8 million on the black market. Sadly, large sums like that paid for parts from endangered animals ensures that the illegal trade in them will carry on.
Does that mean rhinos are doomed? Not necessarily. Yet stepped-up anti-poaching and anti-smuggling efforts will be needed to try and roll back the trade in the illegal trade in animal parts, especially in Vietnam and China, two countries that dominate the global black market in exotic animals and their parts.
The situation is pretty bleak for rhinos everywhere in the wild. A century ago some half a million rhinos roamed across large swathes of Asia and Africa. Today fewer than a 10th – a mere 29,000 of them – remain. Three out of the five wild rhino species are critically endangered.
Poaching for their horns is the greatest threat facing African rhinos. Western black rhinos were declared extinct by the IUCN in 2011. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the number of Southern white rhinos poached in South Africa has increased by around 9,000% since 2007 as a result of unrelenting demand for their horns (which are simply protrusions of keratin, the same substance that forms your nails and hair) in traditional medicine in places like China and Vietnam.
Legal trophy hunting of rhinos in South Africa, notes the conservationist group WildAid, was infiltrated by Vietnamese organized crime. “Suddenly a large number of rhino horn ‘trophies’ were exported from South Africa to Vietnam and it appears that this was used to develop new markets in Vietnam, which are now being fed by horns from poaching,” the conservationist group explains. “In addition, increased Chinese economic activity in Africa contributed to an increase in the apprehension of Chinese smuggling rhino horn.”
Southern white rhinos, which live mainly in South Africa and are the second largest land animal in the world after elephants, have once been brought back from the brink already. In the 1960s, their number plummeted to a few dozen individuals. Today they number around 20,000, but they continue to be poached relentlessly. A record 1,342 rhinos were poached in Africa in 2015 alone.
A year before 1,215 of them were killed for their horns in South Africa, which surpassed the then-record of 1,004 from 2013. Many of the animals are safe from poachers only because they are kept in captivity and guarded with guns on so-called rhino farms.
Among the measures urged by conservationists are harsher penalties for poachers and traffickers, especially in countries like Vietnam. As a major consumer of rhino horns, Vietnam “needs to step up its efforts to discourage the use of horn through targeted consumer behaviour change measures,” the anti-wildlife trafficking group TRAFFIC notes.
That is indeed the key. Unless people stop buying rhino horns, the animals may well die out in the wild within a matter of years.