Rhino photo credit: Daryl Mitchell

photo credit: Daryl Mitchell

According to the International Rhino Foundation, gold is trading at approximately $1,410 a kilogram; meanwhile, a kilogram of rhino horn (comprised of the protein keratin, calcium, and melanin) is worth between $50,000 and $60,000 on the Asian black market. Most often, the horn is ground into powder for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Mid-20th century, there were approximately 65,000 black rhino; now, there are estimated to be only 3600 African black rhino left in the world.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES)
In 1973, an agreement among 175 member countries established CITES. This became the primary international treaty concerning wildlife trade, with the purpose of preventing species from becoming endangered or extinct as a result of international trade. Article II of CITES includes three appendices, with Appendix I listing species that are given the highest priority for protection as “critically endangered,” meaning they are closest to extinction: the black rhino is among them. The international trade of rhino horn was banned in 1976 by signatories to CITES. In 1988, the United States prohibited importation of rhino caught in the wild. In 1993, the Chinese government also banned the use of rhino horn, or any other parts from endangered species, in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

As impressive as CITES may sound, it is important to keep in mind its inherent limitations. Members adhere to CITES agreements as binding; however, decisions about measures and implementation are at each member’s discretion when creating their own domestic laws. Thus, CITES provisions figure into the protection of animals only in as much as they influence the crafting and enforcement of each nation’s individual laws. Secondly, the impact of CITES is limited because, unlike our Endangered Species Act, it does not address the preservation of species habitat. The depletion of the African landscape only exacerbates the problem for rhinos that are already losing the battle against poachers.

Laws in Africa
African countries have laws and bans in place with the purpose of protecting the rhino and other endangered species. For example, in South Africa, the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations of 2007 (TOPS), drafted in terms of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act of 2004 (NEMBA), states that no person, without a valid permit, may hunt, capture, kill, convey, import, export, keep live rhino in captivity, or possess a rhino horn. Despite these strict laws, the illegal rhino horn trade is flourishing in South Africa, where most of the remaining black rhino can be found. First, there is an exception made to allow the trade of rhino horn as part of a trophy resulting from a legal trophy hunt. And now, South Africa is considering the legalization of the rhino horn trade — asserting that legalization will facilitate regulation. However, the push for legalization puzzles me because, with internal bans still in place in Asia, South Africa will be creating a market that has no legal end point. The strategy, then, seems more of a misguided attempt that almost certainly will have tragic, irreversible consequences.

What We Can Do: A Multi-pronged Approach
Stronger laws and their enforcement are essential to helping the rhino (and other endangered species) survive the illegal wildlife trade. However, a successful program of protection must address all aspects of the trade market. Some other recommendations:

  • Anti-poaching and relocation efforts for population recovery; this will necessitate coordinated efforts of local community members and larger, well-funded organizations.
  • Injection of the horn with a non-lethal substance as a standard preventative measure. The Rhino Rescue Project  promotes the injection of chemical dyes similar to those used in the banking industry, where the dye is visible on an x-ray scanner even when the horn has been ground into powder. Although not harmful to the rhino, the use of chemicals can cause illness in others who come into contact with the treated horn. (The injection method seems more promising than the practice of dehorning rhino, which has had mixed results in deterring poachers.)
  • Education outreach, both for local communities and for global consumers. Local communities need to learn more about conservation of species and habitat; and they need to learn skills that will enable them to be self-sufficient without having to resort to poaching to make a living. Global consumers need to become more aware of the rhinos’ plight in order to make better consumer choices, thereby decreasing the demand for rhino horn on the market.

During my travels in Africa this past summer, I met several people who are active in anti-poaching and relocation programs. An anti-poaching poster — the picture of a bloodied rhino left for dead without his horn, was one of the first things I saw when I arrived at the Johannesburg airport. So the good news is that awareness is growing, and people are trying to do something about it. But the challenge remains: we’re running out of time.

While in Zimbabwe, I’d planned to visit Matusadona National Park, home to one of the few sanctuaries left for the black rhino. Unfortunately, my plane ride to the next camp arrived earlier than scheduled that day, and so my trip to the park was set aside. I hope there will be black rhino left to see the next time I am in Africa.