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Why the South African Rhino is so important and we must act now!

South Africa will remain at the centre of the rhino crisis and trade debate because it carries over 80% of the Worlds surviving rhino population.

The sun is setting and you are sitting by a water hole. In the distance you see a puff of air, warm and made visible against the cool night breeze. As you watch, slowly she walks towards you. She stops and gazes out at the scenery, as if she sees something beyond. She walks to the water hole pauses and catches your eye. The majesty of meeting a rhino in the wild is an unforgettable moment.

Rhinos are one of the great elders of the animal kingdom. Ancient bushman rock paintings in Southern Africa depict rhinos, which have always played an important role in the circle of life. They are prehistoric creatures and according to science they have been around for 50 million years. They represent an ancient wisdom of the beauty of solitude (private thoughts).

The rhino is the symbol of Africa, If we lose the wise elder rhino, then we lose the wisdom of Africa.

Why are they so critically endangered?

This is due to the fact that some 96% of the world rhino population had been decimated by humans in a short time period. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were one million rhinos in the wild. By 1970, there were around 70,000.

The insatiable demand from Vietnam and China has resulted in the worst 4 years on record for rhinos. Poachers in South Africa killed 333, 448, 668 and 1004 rhinos respectively in the last four years, often in the most gruesome circumstances, where their horns are brutally removed whilst they are still alive. The taking of younger rhino (as young as two weeks) and smaller horns is on the increase and confirmed by carcasses of very young rhinos with horns removed found at poaching sites.

In South Africa the White Rhino, which is near threatened at 18,500 individuals, and the Black rhino, which is already critically endangered with just 4,000 individuals left in the wild, are facing an uncertain future and close to extinction, probably by as early as 2020. We are losing 3 a day and the figure is increasing!

Arguably, rhino horn is currently one of the most valuable natural resources.

One could argue that, composed largely of keratin, it has little value other than to the rhino but rhino horn is in demand as a commodity equal to drugs and weapons for global crime syndicates.

The horn probably has the most value for the rhino itself. Rhino evolved with their own renewable ‘multi-tool’. The rhino uses its horn for protection and defence, mark territory, display, digging, pushing, lifting and carrying, breaking branches, rolling etc. The rhino mother uses her horn to protect, defend, guide, lift and break branches for the calf.

The horns have a concave base which sits on a bony protuberance (growth point) on the front of the skull. Underlying the horn base is a large network of sinus cavities and supporting structures. Under natural or free ranging conditions, the horn may break off, become detached or damaged as a result of general use, wear and tear, or fighting. Generally, if the damage is not severe, the horn grows back.

Another problem, there is almost no literature available on the anatomy and physiology of rhino. The only extensive work is on immobilization and the anatomy of the reproductive tract. Two papers exist on the composition of rhino horn, but it does not address the issue of where the horn exactly grows from, how big this growth centre is and where this layer is situated. There is also no data available on treatment of rhino e.g. what antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and painkillers to use, what dosage and for how long. All this data is currently taken from horses, which is the closest specie to the rhino but this can lead to mistakes as was recently learned. A horse has two flexor tendons at the back of his legs, helping him with propulsion and flexion of the limb. We assumed it was the same with rhino but eventually found out that rhino have only one flexor tendon, which makes them vulnerable if caught in snares or traps.

Even though rhinos are well built for survival, they were not prepared to face an organized gang of humans with an insatiable taste for greed.

 Legalising Trade

The premise that legalising rhino horn trade will make illegal trade unprofitable is neither based on sound economic theory nor supported by solid data

Attempts by South Africa to sell its rhino horn cheaply, thereby undercutting the illegal market, will likely fail. As market power is concentrated in the final stages of commercialisation, a legal supply of horn from South Africa will be unable to influence (much less to control) retail prices or final demand

Legalising trade will simply create two parallel markets –legal and illegal –which will operate alongside each other, as with ivory, reptile skins and numerous other wildlife products.

Surveys in Vietnam have shown that, if trade is legalised, many more people would buy rhino horn.

A basic calculation shows that, even with rhino farming, there would not be enough rhino horn to sustain a legitimised market. Organised wildlife crime syndicates will exploit the legal market by laundering illegal horn through it.

Establishing a legal trade in rhino horn will endorse rhino horn as a legitimate medicine and a cure for cancer, thus helping to mislead seriously ill people.

During an EIA Investigation in China in 2012, they spoke to a tiger trader who is essentially stockpiling skins and suggested that he was encouraged to do so by the government authorities. This is what is happening with rhino horn here in South Africa!

One cannot state strongly enough that, the plans for rhino and rhino horn trade, currently under discussion, spell disaster for rhino in the wild in South Africa. So if we care about the rhinoceros, the only sane decision is to end speculation and discussion about trade in rhino horn unequivocally, universally, and in perpetuity.

It is time for us to think differently; maybe we need to establish ‘A World Heritage Species’ to fund for their protection and conservation on a global, non-commercial basis. It’s time to park talk of a legal rhino horn trade, get round the table and, together, work to conserve the species, not consume it.

Rhino horn bans, coupled with effective wildlife law enforcement and field protection, do work when they are properly and comprehensively applied, with no loopholes, and with’ appropriate stiffer’  penalties for all offenders involved.


Professionally trained and armed militia from Mozambique enter South Africa to plunder the country’s natural resources on a daily basis. These actions are tantamount to ‘acts of war’ and such actions are putting not only South African citizens at risk but also one of South Africa’s most valuable economic sectors, namely tourism. South Africa’s rhino hold significant value within the ecotourism industry as part of the Big 5. The South African Government needs to do something about this today!

A recent survey / report highlighted that the amount that people are willing to pay to see the rhino is significant and it is on the increase. This is evident since the rhino is the only species that showed an increase in willingness to pay and an increase in the amounts respondents were willing to pay. It also confirmed that the Big 5 has a significant value and is a major contributor to conservation in South Africa but not the sole solution.

Projects – we need your help today!

 As with other wild animals, managerial talk of simply “conserving the species” can miss the point, as if they are to be thought of and cared about only in the collective.

Financial support – as poaching has gone beyond the realm of pure conservation concern and impact. More resources are needed or alternative compensation mechanisms (particularly for the private sector) to support the rising cost associated with securing rhinos.

Our aim is to stop poaching, one rhino at a time. We will do this by setting up ‘adoption’ schemes, tracking devices, Anti Poaching Units, CCTV systems to catch poachers, supporting local game farms and breeding programmes. We will also be lobbying the Government to outlaw the trade and create awareness and help via the local community.

Two veterinarians have taken the initiative and started a project called Saving the Survivors (STS), with the aim of looking after and treating animals that have been shot, snared or been disfigured. Approximately 1 in 5 rhinos survive, and the aim is to treat these animals, whether they are adults or orphans, and to give them the best chance of survival. We will donate towards this cause.

Go to www.poachedrhino.org for further information. 

Registered UK Charity No. 1153221.  SA Trust IT1001/14

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