I was recently shocked, again, as I heard that rhino horns are now being locked away or replica horns being displayed in museums across Europe, as there has been a huge increase in the number of thefts of rhino horns from museums. Just what is the situation with rhino poaching?
Fact – Rhinos are being killed in greater numbers each year and if poaching continues at its current rate, South Africa’s rhino herd will go into population decline by mid-2012!
How devastating were rhino losses in 2011? South Africa is home to around 90 percent of the planet’s estimated 22,800 rhinos. And in South Africa alone, a devastating 448 rhinos fell victim to poachers, which is a new record. This total includes 19 critically endangered Black Rhinos, of which fewer than 5,000 remain in the wild. In 2010, 333 South African rhinos were killed by poachers, nearly three times the number killed in 2009.
Why are these noble creatures being killed? The recent upsurge in rhino poaching has been tied to increased demand for rhino horn in Asia, particularly Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, as it is believed to have powerful healing powers, plus it also carries prestige as a luxury item, as a post-partying cleanser – although it has no proven medicinal qualities at all. Compounding the assault, is the price of powdered rhino horn, exceeding that of gold. The black market price of rhino horn is now in the region of £50,000 ($80,000) per kg.
What is so special about rhino horn? Far from medicinal properties, the reality is that rhino horns are made up of the protein keratin, which is also the chief component in fingernails, hair and animal hooves. In short, you’d do just as well chewing on your own fingernails!
What else can be done to save the rhinos? South Africa has been the epicenter of poaching, and recently the country’s government has commissioned a study into whether legalising the trade in rhino horn could help reduce poaching. But one game reserve owner, Damian Vergnaud, of Inverdoorn reserve (Western Cape), has initiated his own campaign to deter poachers, and has resorted to injecting a red poison into the horns of several of their rhino. Rhinos are first darted with a sedative, then have holes drilled into their horns, and poison injected into these holes. The poison will not kill, but is designed to make anyone who consumes the ground-up horn feel sick.
The horns are also injected with a bright-red dye that effectively defaces their interior, making them unusable as ornamentation, such as the dagger handles of the Janbiya dagger, which is particularly popular in Yemen, representing the higher status of its owner.
Finally, barium is also injected into smaller holes, which will show up on X-rays, and therefore deter the horns from being smuggled through airport security.
Has it been successful? 20 rhinos have now undergone this procedure, and 19 have been successful. Unfortunately, only last month, one of the male rhinos didn’t recovered from the sedation. According to Lorinda Hern, spokeswoman for a private reserve near the capital, Pretoria, “this death was the first among up to 20 rhinos that have undergone the procedure and an autopsy is under way to determine the cause of death. She also stated that the dyeing will continue.”
It is heart-wrenching to think that such extreme wildlife conservation measures have to be implemented, but if something more is not done now, how long will it take before rhinos disappear altogether?
So, whether it’s wildlife courses, ranger training or becoming a wildlife volunteer during a gap year in Africa, I hope that animal conservation will now be even more at the forefront of your mind?