Powerful, proud, muscular, vegetarian and victim, are all words which can describe the Rhinoceros – coming from the Greek “rhino” meaning nose and “ceros” means horn. These majestic mammals are truly impressive in the flesh, and it’s nothing short of a tragedy that these beautiful creatures are being ruthlessly hunted into extinction by poachers, who are after their prized horns.
Composed of a substance called keratin, (the same substance that your own hair and fingernails are made of), the rhinoceros’ horn is seen as a necessity for it’s survival in the wild, as well as for some, a weapon of self-defense. The rhinos also use their horns to dig into the ground to uncover food, female rhinos use it to guide the babies around, and it is key in attracting a suitable mate – and when the horns are removed in the usual, brutal manner, often without anesthesia, the shock and pain more often then not results in the rhino’s death.
Almost forty years ago, the rhinoceros population faced it’s biggest threat from East African poachers. These poachers smuggled the stolen horns into Yemen (a country on the Western side of Asia, closest to Africa), where they were then carved into handles for ceremonial daggers (called jambiyas) and worn proudly by youths who reached adulthood – signifying them becoming men. Nowadays, the jambiyas are made from buffalo horn, plastic and are decorated with gemstones – forgoing the “Porsche” version made from rhino horns.
Today, the reasons behind rhino poaching include a combination of factors, namely:
- The amount that a single rhino horn is worth – clocking in at a higher value on the black-market then both gold and cocaine.
- The poachers greed – one of the higher profile cases known to the public is of the infamous Groenewald gang (husband, wife, professional hunter and three vets) – who ran a hunting operation called “Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris”. Allegedly, they bought rhinos which were on auction (from the Kruger National Park), and then slaughtered them – selling the horns and burying the carcasses (over 20 rhino bodies found thus far on their farm), rather than pay the upkeep costs. Their court case will resume April 2012.
- The use of it in Traditional Chinese Medicine – where it is believed to have magical healing properties. The rhino horn is ground into powder to help “cure” ailments such as vomiting, arthritis, headaches, fever – and some Vietnamese even believe, cancer.
- The apparent ease with which rhino horns are smuggled out of Africa – along with many other endangered species.
Of course, an enlightened person would realise that there are absolutely no curative properties to be found in rhino horns (just ask people who bite their nails or chew their hair what benefits they’ve gotten from the keratin consumption). But despite scientific evidence which proves beyond any doubt that there are no changes in patients who consume rhino horn, tradition still seems to take presidence over the facts.
It’s not just in South Africa that these atrocities are being committed. In India and Nepal, gangs of poachers pay impoverished locals to locate rhinos, where the gangs then move in and kill them; while in Malaysia and Indonesia, the teak forest plantations are growing to keep up with the demand for palm oil, and in doing so are destroying the habitat and adversely affecting the Sumatran and Javan Rhino population – which has declined to less than 50 world-wide.
Rhishja Cota-Larson, the creator and head of the Saving Rhinos LLC, believes that rhino poaching is not taken as seriously as it should be: “Exactly like illegal drugs and weapons, the illegal rhino horn trade depends on activities such as fraud, money laundering, racketeering, and violence. It requires the involvement of corrupt officials at the local, national, and international levels.”
The poaching crisis has become very hard to stop, as poaching gangs generally have access to better equipment than most park and reserve staff, says Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International.
But there is hope! Cathy also states that: “Save the Rhino International together with its regular partner the International Rhino Foundation, has launched a joint online appeal, which aims to raise funds for the Big Four rhino range countries (Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) and to raise awareness of the rhino poaching crisis.”
The theme that resonates over and over again across pro-active organisations, dedicated to saving rhinos, is that there is one simple yet effective way to combat rhino horn poaching: Raise the public’s awareness and dispel the myth that rhino horns have medicinal properties. So spread the word and donate where and if you can. It may be difficult to dispel the myth of the medicinal properties, so perhaps we should start a new, equally preposterous myth – one that’s already shared many times over on facebook, namely: “Did you know rhino poachers testicles cure cancer?”