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The upsurge in poaching of the Asian and African rhino species has continued for the last few years. Underlining this is the declaration from the IUCN that the Western subspecies of the black rhino is extinct. This is sad news in light of the once prolific numbers of this species. At the beginning of the 20th century there were an estimated 100,000 black rhinos in Africa. Their range extended from below the Sahara all the way to the Cape. In 1960, there were still an estimated 60,000 of these large animals.[1]

This is an animal that in the past had little to fear from predation. Elephants and lions are wary of these animals. The black rhino can gallop at 50 km per hour and easily smash their way through thorn brush. The threat it faces is well known. Rhinos are hunted for their horns. This slaughter has been unsustainable. By the late 90s, only one unfenced population of more than 100 animals existed (Namibia).[1]


White Rhino picture- via http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1262665

So what in a nutshell has gone wrong?
Well, we've gambled nearly everything on one premise. That is if the trade in rhino horn is illegal, then demand will disappear. This premise has driven conservation policy decade after decade. And it ultimately it has failed. The loss of the western black rhino emphasises this.

Another measure of how badly the policy has failed is the price of rhino horn. Rhino horn has reputed values of between $40-60,000 per kilogram. In the period 1982-86 the average price of African horn was $538 per kilogram.[2] An adult rhino can have horn weighing up to 5 kg (albeit average weights are lower). In short, no collapse in horn-prices has been observed. Rather rhino horn has become one of the most expensive wildlife products on the planet (in comparison, a tiger is worth about $US50,000 in the black market).

A dead rhino in effect, is worth over $US250,000 to the poaching syndicate that is trafficking it. It's difficult to see how this is acting as much of a deterrent to poachers. The current prices are sufficiently high that killing dehorned rhinos still makes economic sense. There is enough horn left in the stump to make the effort worthwhile.

Demand in Asia has remained stubbornly high. This is despite anti-consumption campaigns. This is despite law enforcement. This is despite attempts at suasion. China banned the trade in rhino horn in 1993, and at the same time purged mention of rhino-horn medicine in TCM guides. Demand for rhino horn is based on three main uses. The first is in the Middle- East where they're used as jambiyyas- a type of dagger handle. The second is in China and Vietnam where it is used as an ingredient for traditional medicines (as a cardiotonic or antipyretic)[2]. The third and emerging use is as a reputed anti-cancer agent.

It is worth repeating that rhino horn is not used as an aphrodisiac. There is no research in TCM that supports it having this trait. Its use as a cure for impotence is not mentioned in any TCM texts. Middle-aged men who encounter problems getting a hard-on are not the cause of the rhino's demise.

One suspects that if we had been using legal trade over the last 30 years and had achieved this outcome, conservationists would be clamouring for a change in policy. Instead, the loss of the Western black rhino is unlikely to alter the situation at all. Many conservationists will continue championing the current strategy of banning trade and relying on law enforcement to save the rhino.

We are now trying to confront sophisticated crime networks, who are better equipped than many of the local enforcement agencies. The demand in Asia is indifferent to Western concern and it has been unaffected by anti-consumption campaigns. It is hard to see that the current plan to save rhino numbers has a realistic chance of succeeding. It is perhaps time, to be debating other options.


[1] Cunningham, C., and Berger, J. (1997). Horn of Darkness: Rhinos on the Edge. Oxford University press.
[2] Mainka, S.A. and Mills, J. (1995). Wildlife and Traditional Chinese Medicine- Supply and Demand for Wildlife Species. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 26(2): 193-200.