Damned if you do, and

Copy of ND VIETNAM2 Damien Mander instructs rangers at the newly constructed ranger training academy in Victoria Falls. Picture: Davina Jogi

The rhino is being hunted to extinction for its horn. As it becomes increasingly rare, the market value increases, further aggravating the situation.

It has now become an ornamental object of status within Vietnamese society. When the market was over-supplied with these products, the value dropped and with it demand. Could this work with the current stockpiles of rhino horn and subsequent harvesting of specified rhino across the world?

The horn is also being used in the Far East for traditional medicine, as it has for thousands of years. Western philosophy calls for education in Asia to shift what has been portrayed as a culture running almost as deep as their DNA make-up itself. Media campaigns are costly and perhaps the money could be better spent on wildlife conservation.

A 35-year-old international Cites trade ban on rhino horn is due for review in 2013. If passed, stockpiles of horn may be eligible for controlled sale to the Far East. Protected areas holding rhino will, without harming the animal, be able to harvest the horn every three years as it continually grows back. If managed correctly, large amounts of funding could be injected into a struggling wildlife conservation industry.

I travelled to Vietnam to explore the option of education against the use of horn and also to understand a culture of traditional medicine use dating back 2 500 years. My insight here is not just about the survival of a species, but the logical use of a sustainable resource.

The trade, the logic

ND VIETNAM1 pic IAPF rangers on the frontline in Zimbabwe.

The illegal trade in wildlife is a multi-billion-dollar industry, one of the largest criminal industries in the world. The flagship species driving public awareness of this major threat to biodiversity at the moment is the rhinoceros.

Across Africa, rhino populations have been decimated for decades. Of note is the decline in black rhino numbers across the continent by more than 96 percent in just 30 years. This is one of the most rapid declines of any large mammal recorded. The stronghold of rhinos has now been reduced primarily to South Africa. A cascading level of destruction now sweeps remaining populations across Southern Africa.

This has sparked a knee-jerk public outcry that has put the situation on to the global stage in a seemingly bigger way than ever before. But is it too late? Has the last rhino to die already been born?

South Africa alone lost 448 rhino during 2011 in targeted attacks for their precious and increasingly valuable horn. This year is shaping up to be much more devastating, with an estimated 600 to be murdered by the end of the year. Half of these deaths will be in the Kruger Park, which hosts the world’s largest population of rhino.

Since 1977, Cites, or the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, has attempted to stop the global trade in rhino horn by maintaining an international trade ban. This ban has pushed the trade underground and on to the black market to feed demand. Many believe this is now aggravating the situation. Despite tougher sentences, the scarcity and growing price of rhino horn is increasing demand. This is making it a more viable option for poachers and middlemen involved with the trade.

The horn, holding seemingly mystical healing powers within various traditional Asian medical practices, now sells for vast amounts to the end buyer on the streets in Vietnam. Vietnam is the current hotspot destination in the Far East for rhino horn trade, fuelled by cultural heritage, economic growth, social status and desperation for disease cure.

I travelled to Vietnam to investigate the history of traditional Vietnamese medicine, the cultural beliefs that can easily be misunderstood by Western society, and the future of rhino horn use in the Far East. One thing is apparent – the fate of the rhino is at stake. The question remains though; is the solution to this raging war right under our nose? Can beliefs dating back millennia simply be changed? This is one of the primary suggestions being put forward at the moment.

What if the demand for rhino horn could be met and a good majority of the revenue put back into conservation? For this to happen, Cites representatives would need to make a landmark decision at the 2013 summit and lift a 35-year ban.

If the decision is not passed at this meeting, then 2016 will be the next opportunity to possibly save the rhino from extinction in the wild.

We argue about the barbaric use of rhino horn by Asians for what we perceive as a myth. But we all need to be reminded of some simple facts. We take milk from cows, wool from sheep, eggs from birds and honey from bees. There are not too many other creatures that we humans need mainstream products from that we don’t have to kill for. The rhino, with its precious horn, although not mainstream, could be one of these creatures. A rhino will live to be almost 40 years old. Once mature at four, the horn can be taken off every three years and it will continue to grow back, much like human hair.

I personally don’t know if the legalisation in the rhino horn trade is the definite answer to the future of the rhino, and no one can guarantee this. One thing I do know is that the current situation of trying to preserve them, with limited resources, is not sustainable overall. Rhinos are on a one-way path to extinction in the wild, and we need to be discussing our options.

We need co-ordination in the way forward and support for the rangers on the ground while perspectives are argued at policy level.

If we had a magic wand, and could inject 5 percent of South Africa’s annual defence budget, or R1.92 billion, then perhaps we would not need to be looking at alternatives. Unfortunately, conservation is an afterthought for many people globally, when weighed against the likes of defence or health care.

The rhino situation is a controversial subject with opinions for and against legalisation. Whatever you perceive my point of view to be, please remember, it is just mine.



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