In the early twentieth century, rhino populations in Africa and Asia had an approximate worldwide population of 500,000. By 2011, the Western black rhino had been declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and only 29,000 rhinos exist in the wild in total.
All five species of rhinoceros are listed on the IUCN Red-list of threatened species. This Red List produced by the IUCN is an indicator of the health of different species groups including: mammals, amphibians, birds, and corals. It categorizes species on their status, from Least Concern to Extinct, and constantly re-assess these statuses to include positive increases or negative decreases in populations. Unfortunately, according to the IUCN there are more than 79,800 species on the IUCN Red List with more than 23,000 threatened with extinction. With the rhino species, environmental destruction has been a large reason behind rapid decrease in population, however, experts attribute poaching as the main factor in the species’ move toward extinction.
Poaching in South Africa
In South Africa, where I just spent over one week in Kruger National Park, I learned more about the constant threat of poaching in rhino species. South Africa has about 75% of the world’s remaining rhinos and in the country alone in 2014, one rhino was killed by poachers every 8 hours according to Save the Rhino. Poaching rhinos has increased due to the high profits received by the horns; one ranger explained that one rhino could produce close to $1 million for its horn.
Countries in the Far East are convinced that these horns have numerous medical benefits not scientifically proven. According to traditional Chinese texts, rhino horn has been used in the country’s medicine for more than 2000 years and is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders including terminal illnesses. The horn is also said to cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, and food poisoning. In addition, in the 70’s and 80’s rhino horns were sent to Yemen to create ornamental handles of daggers.
In the 1960s through to the late 1990s, rhino poaching occurred predominantly in countries such as Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. The poaching of rhinos in these countries was easier perhaps due to civil unrest or civil war where there was a higher presence of weapons and where rhino horns and elephant tusks were often traded for weapons. There was also a limited exposure to conservationism and less time for governments to focus on decreasing numbers of rhinos. As the rhino populations dwindled in each of those countries it forced poachers to migrate south until finally reaching South Africa.
What is Happening Now?
While the black rhino species has been listed as extinct due to the research that the population is beyond repair, poaching in South Africa lessened in 2015. South African legislature has worked to respond to the threat of rhino extinction in the country since poaching picked up in 2000. In 2008, a National Moratorium was placed on rhino horn sales to try and prevent domestic sale of rhino horn from entering the illegal international market. Kruger National Park and the private game reserves surrounding it have increased funding for anti-poaching units in the park. There has also been the implementation of stricter controls on trophy hunting through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Although there is a movement of rhino conservation, South Africa is actually expected to promote the legalization of trade in the horns of southern white rhinos at the next CITES conference to be held in Cape Town in 2016. In November of 2015, a South African judge lifted a domestic ban on the trade of rhino horns and the CITES conference could lead to a lift of a global ban set since the 1970s. According to National Geographic, proponents believe a legal trade would reduce incentives for poaching of wild rhinos and the illegal trade of their horns. In addition, these advocates view rhino horn as a renewable resource because the horns gradually regrow after they’re cropped, usually taking about three years if the skull is not damaged in the dehorning process. Supporters also mention that private ownership of rhinos can be used to promote sustainable population levels in the rhino species.
Here are some of the reasons given by experts for being a proponent of the legalization of rhino horn trade:
- South Africa controls the supply and satisfies the demand, economic forces come into play, horn price drops, the incentive to poach decreases
- Generates funds to pay for anti-poaching, incentivises private owners
- The current situation is not working and legal trade cannot be worse
- It is the only option that is financially sustainable
- Rhino horn is “renewable” and a legal supply can provide more horn to the end-user than the current poaching
- There are other examples of threatened species recovering under legal trade (e.g. vicuña)
- Gets rid of stockpiled horn, which reduces risks of theft
- Anti-poaching and protectionism will not stop poaching on their own
- Makes live rhinos more valuable than dead rhinos
- It is not feasible to pretend that the trends of the last 4 decades will be reversed by persisting with current policies
Whether or not legalization takes place, according to many sources Africa’s remaining rhino populations may become extinct within just 20 years if poaching levels continue on the same scale.
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