More Rhinos Hacked Apart as Horn Demand Spikes

John Roach
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2009
Bloody and incomplete, their horns hacked away by poachers, rhinoceros carcasses are appearing in greater numbers, due to growing Asian demand and international trade, groups say.

In Zimbabwe, for example, gangs of poachers use rifles to shoot the one-ton animals and then hack off the horns with axes, according to an account from Save the Rhino, a London-based conservation group.

Poachers target adults, often leaving behind calves that are too young to survive on their own, the group added.

Investigators say two phenomena are largely to blame: rising demand for rhino horn as medicine and ornamentation plus increasing sophistication among crime rings happy to meet that demand.

"It's a dangerous spike," said Susan Lieberman, the species program director at the international conservation organization WWF.

"At this rate of poaching, we will lose rhino species."

In 2008, for example, an average of 12 rhinos a month were poached in South Africa and Zimbabwe alone.

By contrast, only three rhinos a month were killed, on average, in all of Africa between 2000 and 2005. The African rhino population is currently around 21,500, according to figures compiled by Save the Rhino.

In Asia an estimated ten rhinos this year have been poached in India and seven in Nepal since January (Indian rhinoceros pictures, facts, map, more). The combined rhino population in Asia is approximately 3,050.

(Related: "Rare One-Horned Rhino Bouncing Back in Nepal.")

Together with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, WWF detailed the killings at a meeting on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva, Switzerland, on July 9. The convention bans the international commercial trade of almost all rhino species.

Ground up and added to liquids, rhino horn has been used for millennia in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers and other ailments, Lieberman said.

Now the belief that rhino horn can cure cancer is apparently taking root, fueling some of the new demand.

"There is some mythology developing in Vietnam because somebody took rhino horn and went into cancer remission, or at least that is the information we're getting," Lieberman said.

"But it is not, and never was, a cure for cancer."

In addition, there's a lucrative market in Yemen and Oman for daggers with rhino-horn handles—often given to boys during rites of passage—said Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino. (See video on the rhino-horn knife trade in the Yemeni capital.)

Asian Appetite, African Menu

Growing wealth in Asia and increasing Asian-African trade also appear to be driving up demand for rhino horn.

"There seems to be evidence that the growing Far Eastern footprint in Africa has led to local spikes in poaching," Dean said.

For example, there's a correlation between Chinese roadbuilding contractors in northern Kenya and a spike in rhino killings there, she said.

The cost of protecting rhinos is also spiking, she added.

A Save the Rhino partner organization in Kenya was recently forced to increase its payments to antipoaching informants, because the poachers were paying larger bribes, Dean said.

Lax law enforcement in Zimbabwe is of particular concern, WWF's Lieberman added.

But in many countries—such as Botswana in Africa as well as Nepal and India in Asia—officials are simply being outmatched by well-financed, sophisticated poaching operations.

"This is the most dangerous [wildlife] trade right now, because it involves organized crime," Lieberman said. "This isn't the case of someone smuggling a few [products] across the border."

Combating the Trade

Some overwhelmed countries could benefit from hands-on help from countries such as the U.S. to stem the trade, Lieberman said.

Other countries such as China are competent at undercover investigations and simply need to make stopping wildlife crime a priority, she added.

For its part, Save the Rhino is focusing on raising the value of living rhinos and their habitat in the eyes of local communities.

Ecotourism operations are one way to increase the local value of rhinos, though Save the Rhino's Dean said the tourism trade is too fickle to guarantee a steady income.

Other avenues include trophy hunting, breeding-compensation programs, and sustainable "harvesting" of the animals, with the proceeds returned to rhino conservation, she said.

"Local communities have to have a say in rhino habitats that they manage," Dean said. "They need to see some form of economic reward and incentive."

Though the outlook is grim, WWF's Lieberman remains optimistic.

"There was significant poaching—almost at this level—15 years ago," she said. "It can be turned around with high-level government commitment and enforcement."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.