This post is going to be heavy and in some places, blunt and hard to read. I apologise in advance for that, but there’s an awful lot about the way rhino poaching works that we’re just completely unaware of here in the UK (and other similar countries). This is a piece of writing I did for Wildlife Earth a little while ago, but as there are countless petitions to block the local trade in South Africa that the government has now given the go ahead on, it’s still very valid. This was written in March 2017.
“If I said that South African reserves support legalising trade in rhino horn, most of you would immediately shoot that down as a terrible idea. In the UK, our charities are constantly campaigning against such measures and we might even go so far as to assume these reserves are corrupt and just want to make money. I would have thought the same three weeks ago.
If I then told you the only people who want to keep trade in rhino horn illegal are poachers and large charities, and not the people who are in the field protecting the rhino they have; de-horning them, deploying anti-poaching teams, patrolling to keep the rhino away from the fence where they’re vulnerable, then what would you think?
The reserve I stayed on have 13 rhino (*Edit – I believe it’s now 14 after a successful and natural mating and birth has taken place!). There is no question that the people working on that reserve are 100% dedicated to protecting those rhino – you can see it in everything they do and hear it in every word they say. They have sacrificed an easy life in order to keep the rhino, because they do not know what will happen to them if they were to give up on them. Yet, they want to legalise rhino horn.
Let me explain. The most obvious reason is that if trade in rhino horn is legalised, the price of the horn will drop. At the moment, you have poachers risking their lives to mutilate these giant, sweet animals because the money they get is worth the risk. With that money, they can feed their families for a year, they can potentially pay off the police force and other authorities meaning they can get away with it (very corrupt system) and in general, the benefits outweigh the risk. Legalise it, and that is no longer the case.
Trade can be regulated. It’s very difficult to monitor any illegal trade due to its nature – the point is to be discreet about it. Without regulation, nothing changes. Rhino numbers continue to plummet at the hands of money hungry monsters. The only way to regulate is to legalise.
The money goes back into the reserve. At the moment, reserves across South Africa are nearly bankrupting themselves to keep their rhino alive with anti poaching units and other measures to prevent their rhino being killed. If rhino horn is going to continue to be traded, why not allow the reserve to benefit rather than the black-market? Put the money straight back into the conservation of the rhino. Over 70 reserves sold off their rhino last year as they were facing, or went into, bankruptcy.
Most importantly, it may be the only way to stop the extinction of the rhino. There is absolutely no time to change traditional Asian ideas on the powers rhino horn has in time to stop their extinction. By legalising rhino horn, you’re putting the value on the rhino instead of just their horn. Many reserves have had to make the decision to de-horn their rhino anyway, just to stop the poaching. The reserve I stayed at managed to hold off until two of their rhino were butchered. That’s when they made the heartbreaking decision to start de-horning. De-horning is not cheap and it’s not easy, but the rhino doesn’t have to die for it to happen. Legalising rhino horn trade means keeping the rhino alive so people can profit from the horn more than once. Legalising rhino horn trade means rhino might have a fighting chance.”
So here I’m going to add a few key points.
1. Rhino horn and elephant tusk are two completely different materials. Elephant tusk is ivory, and there is no way to remove the tusk without killing the elephant. I do NOT support any kind of trade in ivory. Rhino horn is keratin (the same stuff as our hair and fingernails). If done properly, with vets and experts involved, removing the horn does not harm the rhino in any way, beyond the risk of being put under – the same risk any animal faces when we get them spayed or neutered or choose to have them operated on to help them live. Many groups are campaigning against de-horning by claiming that a rhino needs it’s horn for various reasons. Although we may ultimately find that to be true, current research shows there is absolutely no ill after-effects when a rhino is de-horned.
2. The reason rhino owners are going bankrupt is that they’re having to pour so much resource into protecting the rhino. There is the cost of de-horning the rhino, the cost of maintaining the reserve, the cost of controlling other animal populations to allow the rhino to thrive (too many other grazers = no grass quality, or grass, left for rhino), the cost of anti-poaching units (clothing, food, accommodation, training, dogs and defensive weapons) and on top of all of that, if they choose to de-horn, the cost of storing the horn. The cost of legally storing horn is insane. They have to know where the horn is at all times to prove they haven’t sold it on the black market, but having the horn in their own home is incredibly dangerous and opens them up to raids from poachers. They must store it in an approved vault, ultimately that puts the vault security and workers in danger, so the price is very high.
3. CITES protection is not working. This, perhaps, should have been mentioned earlier. Since the complete ban in rhino horn trade was put into place, poaching, and ultimately rhino deaths, have gone up. In the last couple of years, there appears to have been a small drop in poached numbers, but you must remember that this doesn’t mean rhino will recover. The population has dropped too. Here, I’m going to make some figures up to show my point.
If there are 100 rhino one year, and 10 are poached, that is 10% of the population of rhino. The next year, the rhino population is 89 (10 poached, some lost to natural circumstances but a few babies were born too). If 9 of the remaining 89 rhino are poached – a smaller number than was killed last year – that is 10.11% of the population – a larger proportion, despite less rhino being killed.
In 2007, only 13 white rhino in South Africa were recorded as being poached. From 2013 onward, over 1,000 white rhino in South Africa have been recorded as poached every year. With a population that is just over 10,000 in total, they will die out within a few years if nothing changes, despite all the anti-poaching efforts going on.
What you can do is ignore the petitions calling for the local ban to be put back in place and sign any that push for the ban to remain lifted, or to lift the international ban, which is still in place (the current lift means that people can trade locally, in South Africa only). You can write to your local MP and urge them to put pressure on our representative within CITES to lift the ban. You can spread awareness – share this post, or the condensed post that you can find on Facebook via Wildlife Earth, or any other material you find. If you’re travelling to a South African reserve at any point, ask the managers and keepers what they thing about the ban. Help us to help the rhino.
3. I want to reiterate that the people I met on the reserve I stayed at live dangerously but have so much passion for the rhino, that they will put themselves in danger over and over again. One time, they had fire after fire on the reserve, all started by poachers – as soon as they put one out, another was started elsewhere. I don’t remember the exact figure, but it was something like over 20 fires in one weekend.
The purpose of the fires was to attract the rhino. When certain grasses have been grazed, burning the area allows new grass to spring up within a matter of weeks. This ultimately attracts the rhino – the purpose was to draw the rhino out to the fences where they would be more easily poached. The reserve managers worked tirelessly and eventually, all the fires were put out.
One heartbreaking story that one of the guys told me was about the dogs. He had a beautiful dog, and someone told me he got him from one of the farmers whose land borders the reserve. I asked him about it. The farmer bred dogs, and the reserve guy wanted one of the litter. The whole litter was taken by poachers. The farmer then had another litter, and the reserve guy got one of the pups. The rest of the litter was also stolen by poachers. If I remember correctly, the litter after that was also stolen. In the end, the reserve guy had to shoot the brothers and sisters of his own dog. They’d been taken onto the reserve, illegally, as poaching dogs. The reserve guy told me that once a dog is trained as a poacher dog, you can’t get it out of them. This is another cold and harsh reality of the poaching crisis. It isn’t just the rhino who suffers. It’s the dogs they steal and train, the breeder of the dogs who lose money, and the people who have to be strong enough to shoot those dogs to protect the rhino, despite clearly being a dog lover themselves. The reserve guy helps to train the reserves anti-poaching dogs and the bond with his own dog is wonderful – he would not have shot the dogs if it wasn’t a necessity.
And there ends my post. I hope that, if nothing else, you have found this post educational. I never would have seen the situation like this if I had not physically met, spoken to and listened to people who actually own rhino. Most of the remaining rhino populations are kept in places such as reserves or zoos, so I, personally, 100% back those that risk their lives daily to keep them safe over the charities who have little involvement of the day-to-day care of these beautiful creatures.
*The image was taken by me on the reserve I am talking about in this post.