An average rhinoceros, armed with a large horn and protective skin 1.5 cm thick, can grow to a thousand kilograms. In 2015, no fewer than 1,175 of these seemingly dangerous animals perished at the hands of poachers in South Africa. While South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, have received intense coverage of their rhino populations’ plight in recent history, rhino poaching is no local, or regional matter. This March, poachers broke into the Thoiry Zoo in the suburbs of Paris, shooting dead a 4-year-old rhino and removing its horn. In April, six men were arrested in Kaziranga, India for their involvement in poaching.
Rhinoceros poaching has increased exponentially in the last decade. Originally concentrated near the South Africa-Namibia border in the Kruger National Park, poaching has spread across South Africa, threatening rhinoceros populations in private game reserves and national parks alike. The threat of poaching is so significant that most private game reserves often forbid tourists to publicize the presence of rhinos within their boundaries; some reserves and parks go so far as to completely prohibit any photography of their rhinos in order to keep them hidden from the rest of the world.
In South Africa, a rhino horn costs about 3,000 USD per pound; when the same horn is shipped across the world to China, and especially Vietnam, the price tag jumps tenfold, going up to 30,000 USD per pound. Today, the rhino horn out-prices elephant ivory and giraffe tails as the world’s most expensive appendage. The outrageously high demand for rhino horns in Asia has its roots in traditional medicine and sometimes, popular myths and rumors, all of which falsely suppose that the horn has therapeutic qualities that can cure anything from cancer to a hangover. In reality, rhino horns consist mostly of keratin, similar to our hair and nails.
Until recently, the solutions to counter the poaching threat have focused on tougher sentencing laws and proactive field protection. South Africa has seen some success in curbing rhino killings as the country kicked its enforcement into higher gear over the last couple years. In India’s Kaziranga National Park, rangers are given “shoot to kill” orders against any poachers. The park is patrolled by almost a thousand armed rangers, and uses drones and satellite surveillance to keep its rhino population safe; hardline policies have led to the park earning the fitting nickname, “Fortress Kaziranga.” While the park has been incredibly successful in preserving its wildlife populations, its violent approach has come at a heavy human cost, with an increasing number of innocent villagers around the park being shot.
This April, South Africa overturned its national ban on domestic rhino horn trade, arguing that a legal domestic market would deter poaching in the future. However, the effects of the ruling on poaching are unclear, as South Africa has no domestic market for rhino horns.
The solutions so far have failed to produce meaningful results because of the typical bureaucratic trap governments fall into when tackling illicit trades and black markets. Focusing on arrests, poachers shot, and fancy technology all make for nice statistics and graphs, but they not only miss the point of countering the nature of the threat, but also fail to address the problem in the long run. Furthermore, there is only so much a single government, like that of South Africa, can do when the trade is both international and underground.
Poachers are rarely traders and sellers of the horns themselves. In fact, rhino poaching and horns trade have been linked to transnational organized crime syndicates, who hire poachers for a fraction of the profit they turn from the sales of horns. There is almost an endless labor pool of potential poachers at disposal for the criminal enterprises behind poachers, and unless these firms are targeted directly, poachers will continue to risk everything for a shot at fortune.
More fundamentally, similar to the illicit drug trade, governments need to start focusing on reducing demand, specifically in China and Vietnam. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Yemen, all of which have been major consumers of rhino horns in the past. In 1970s, Japan was the biggest consumer of rhino horns; after international pressure and increased public awareness on the medical irrelevance of the horns, Japan ratified the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 1980. After the ratification of the treaty, Japan banned the use of rhino horn in any product; since the treaty, Japan has never been a major consumer of rhino horn. After Japan came South Korea and Taiwan, both of which ratified CITES in 1993. The trend seems to be increased demand for horns with economic growth, and eventual fall in demand after international pressure and public awareness.
The demand reduction strategy clearly has worked in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, none of which is a major consumer of rhino horns today. Perceptions and awareness play significant roles in this black market industry, and both China and Vietnam, the two biggest consumers of the horns, must be pressured into doing their parts in stepping up domestic enforcement and raising public awareness. There is no inherent value in, or incentive for killing a rhinoceros or dehorning one; demand for the horns drives the entire industry. While the demand may shift elsewhere from China and Vietnam, the world needs to start focusing on reducing demand where it is high right now, instead of arresting another poacher from Mozambique looking for his life-changing payday, or shooting a villager in India straying into the national park looking for his lost cattle.