Archive for September, 2017

Remembering Rhinos on World Rhino Day

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

September 22nd is World Rhino Day. It’s a day to celebrate these ancient, magnificent animals that are thought to have roamed the earth in one form or another for 50 million years, and once dominated whole continents.

It’s a day to remember the thousands of rhinos who have tragically lost their lives in recent years, and to reflect on how we can secure a future for the five remaining species.

And it’s a day when we remember the many brave men and women, the Rangers, Wardens and Scouts, who are injured or even lose their lives on the conservation front line, protecting these iconic wild animals.

Fewer than 30,000 rhinos currently roam the plains and forests of Africa and Asia. Africa’s 20,000 southern white rhinos are by far the most numerous, with South Africa home to more than 90%. Black rhinos are spread across 10 sub-Saharan African countries, and with a total population of just over 5,000 are critically endangered.

The other three extant rhino species all live in Asia. Some 3,200 greater one-horned rhinos survive in National Parks across Nepal and north-eastern India. Indonesia is home to both the Javan and Sumatran rhino. Smaller than their African and South Asian cousins, they are also the rarest with less than 100 individuals of each species clinging on.

There are many reasons why rhinos, once so numerous and widespread, have declined so precipitously. Over millennia, they have gradually been outcompeted across many parts of their historic range by other species. In more recent times, their remaining habitats have shrunk as people have moved into wild areas and converted land for pastoral and agricultural use.

Hunting has also had a huge impact. Rhinos have been hunted by people for centuries, but uncontrolled sport hunting during the colonial era nearly wiped rhinos off the planet altogether. Only concerted conservation efforts during the latter half of the 20th century prevented their extinction.

In recent years, while sport hunting continues to be a problem for some populations, poaching to supply rhino horn into lucrative illegal Asian markets has taken over as the largest threat. Rhino horn has been prized by a tiny elite as an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, but increased wealth among the rapidly-emerging middle classes, particularly in Vietnam and China, has led to a huge rise in demand for horn, not just for traditional medicinal use but increasingly as a symbol of wealth and social standing.

As a result, rhino horns change hands for the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars per kg, and organised criminal networks have turned rhino poaching into an industry, defying local and international laws and trade bans. Some 7,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa alone over the past decade, and poaching incidents are on the rise in other rhino range States including Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Around a third of South Africa’s rhinos are owned by private ranchers, some of whom want to be able to profit from the sale of horn. Two of these rhino owners recently successfully overturned South Africa’s domestic moratorium on rhino horn trade which had been in place since 2009, and John Hume, the owner of some 1500 rhinos who has a reported stockpile of over 6 tonnes of horn, auctioned off a part of his stockpile in August, unashamedly targeting Asian bidders.

The ultimate stated intention of Mr Hume and other rhino owners is to legalise international trade in rhino horn, to enable them to access key Asian markets directly and maximise their profits. They argue that opening up legal trade will enable them to satisfy the demand and control international markets – rhino horn can, after all, be ‘harvested’ periodically without unduly harming the animal. This, they say, will render poaching uneconomic, and generate money to help them protect their rhinos.

But quite how South Africa’s authorities will prevent the domestic trade in legally purchased horn from fueling  illegal international trade, let alone manage to control markets in Asia, is a mystery. After all, South Africa is already the source of most of the illegal rhino horn entering markets in Vietnam, China and elsewhere. Criminal syndicates, the very people who have the biggest interest in hoovering up rhino horns from legal sales and using them as a means of laundering horn from poached rhinos, are already way ahead of the authorities.

Legitimising the sale of rhino horn within South Africa also sends a confusing message to potential Asian consumers, and undermines the considerable ongoing public education efforts aimed at reducing demand. As a result, demand could increase dramatically, new markets could emerge, dormant markets could be re-energised, and the incentives to poach wild rhino for their horns will most likely rise dramatically.

So while a handful private rhino owners in South Africa stand to profit handsomely from legal sales, wild rhinos are set to suffer not just in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, where poaching is already a big problem, but also in Kenya, India, Nepal, and other countries that have thus far managed to largely contain this heinous activity.

Previous attempts to deal with wildlife poaching crises by opening up legal trade have failed miserably. The most recent one-off sales of elephant ivory sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) were followed by some of the worst declines in elephant populations ever seen, with more than 150,000 (30%) of African elephants killed by poachers since 2012. There is no reason to think that rhinos will fare any better if trade is legalised.

Rhinos are in crisis, but it’s a crisis that we cannot trade our way out of.

So while we celebrate rhinos on World Rhino Day, we must remember that the future for rhinos, along with that of elephants, tigers, pangolins and other species affected by poaching and trade, depends on our ability to protect these wonderful animals in their wild homes, and persuade global consumers not to buy rhino horns and other wildlife products.

Born Free works tirelessly to protect rhinos. To help with this work, the book ‘Remembering Rhinos’ will be launched by Born Free’s co-founder and President Will Travers OBE and Margot Raggett, its creator, on 1st November at the Royal Geographical  Society in London. The follow up to the enormously popular ‘Remembering Elephants’ book and exhibition, ‘Remembering Rhinos’ features images donated by many of the world’s top wildlife photographers. An exhibition will also be held at La Galleria, Pall Mall, London, which will run from 30th October to 11th November 2017, at which copies of the book and images can be purchased. 100% of the proceeds will go towards helping the ‘Remembering Rhinosteam, Born Free and its partners protect rhinos in the wild.

By purchasing Remembering Rhinos, you’re not just remembering those who have gone before, but also helping to secure a lasting future for these amazing and ancient animals.

You can find out more about ‘Remembering Rhinos’ here

Written by Dr Mark Jones, Vet and Associate Director of Born Free