The world's rhinos are in crisis.
Demand for rhino horn in the Far East has escalated in recent years to the point that a kilo of powdered horn is now reported to be selling for as much as US$65,000 on the black markets in Vietnam and China.
Although there is no evidence that it has any medicinal value, powdered rhino horn has long been a component of traditional Chinese medicine and is used to treat anything from headaches and fevers to rheumatism and gout. Rumours that a high-ranking official in Vietnam used rhino horn to cure his cancer began circulating a few years back and since then, the demand, and the price, has soared.
Rhino horn is now worth more by weight than gold, cocaine or heroin.
In South Africa alone, where roughly 70% of all remaining rhinos are to be found, more than 1,200 rhinos have been killed by poachers since 2007, and the killing is accelerating.
The high value of rhino horn has attracted well-financed criminal networks that use helicopters, sophisticated veterinary drugs and highly efficient and evasive routes to move the horns out of the African range states and onwards to the main markets in China and Vietnam. These networks always seem to be one step ahead of the authorities.
No mercy is shown by the poaching gangs. Instead of shooting to kill with rifles, which is noisy and attracts attention, the poachers have shifted tactics and now more often knock out rhinos using dart guns and immobilizing drugs and then hack off their horn and half their face using chain saws. The rhinos, left mortally wounded, are considered lucky if they die while still sedated, because those who recover face a far worse fate where they are left to stagger around in agony while they slowly bleed to death or die from infection. Pregnant or nursing females aren't spared, and their calves are either killed for their own tiny horns or left to starve as they mourn their dead mothers.
Rhinos are ancient animals. They are vital components of the ecosystem in which they live and they also attract tourists making them an important source of income for many range countries. Around a quarter of all rhinos in South Africa are owned by private ranchers who support tourism but also, regrettably, attract trophy hunters to their ranches. A debate is now raging about how rhinos can best be protected against the poaching scourge. The South African government has poured resources into protecting rhinos in its parks and has even deployed the military to patrol the long border with Mozambique that borders one side of the massive Kruger National Park. Private ranchers have employed security teams, and some have even dehorned their rhinos or resorted to infusing toxic substances into the horns in an attempt to deter potential poachers.
Now some private rhino owners are calling for the international trade ban, introduced by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in the 1970s, to be lifted so that the stockpiles of horn from rhinos who have died or been dehorned can be sold off.
Reports suggest that the South African government is considering bringing such a trade proposal to a future CITES meeting.
The idea that legalising trade in an endangered species can help to reduce poaching and protect the animals isn't new, and it can sound persuasive until you examine the evidence.
For example, bears have been "farmed" for decades for their bile in parts of Asia. As many as 10,000 currently exist in appalling conditions on Asian bear bile farms. However, this hasn't stopped bear farmers capturing wild bears to replenish stocks, nor has it reduced demand for the bile and gall bladders from wild bears as far afield as North America. "Wild" bile products are considered 'cleaner' and more potent than their farmed equivalent.
On the ivory front, CITES has sanctioned two 'one-off sales' of ivory from southern African stockpiles to China and Japan in recent years on the assumption that it will help control or reduce elephant poaching, but it hasn't worked. Seizures of illegal ivory have risen markedly since the last legal 'one-off sale' took place in 2008, with at least 30 tonnes seized in 2011 alone, representing around 3,000 dead elephants. This is probably only 10% to 20% of the total illegal trade. Elephant massacres continue, with hundreds killed in parts of Central and West Africa earlier this year, threatening the survival of whole elephant populations.
Tigers have fared no better. China has a scheme for registering, labelling and selling the skins from tigers who have died on tiger farms. In spite of a domestic and international ban on the trade in tiger parts, particularly bones, China still allows tiger farmers to breed tigers and store the carcases of those who have died. Meanwhile, wild tigers remain on the brink of extinction with as few as 3,000 remaining in the wild whilst three times that number are estimated to be languishing on Chinese tiger farms.
The way forward
The truth is, despite the pro-trade hype, none of these trade mechanisms has succeeded in protecting endangered species. Legalising the sale of rhino horn won't save wild rhinos. At best, it will result in farmers 'harvesting' the valuable horn from captive rhinos. It will give legitimacy to a 'product' that has no real value, confuse the consumer, and provide a means by which illegal rhino horn can be laundered into trade.
The only real hope for rhinos is better protection on the ground and sensitive, well-thought-out education programmes aimed at consumers in Asia, many of whom don't realise or understand the impact their demand is having.
If we are to save these ancient and majestic creatures from the ravages of the marketplace, we must get away from valuing rhinos simply on the basis of the price of their parts. Indeed, we need to rethink how we should value the amazing and fast-diminishing diversity of all life on Earth.
Otherwise the true value of rhinos and other endangered wild animals may only become apparent once they've gone.