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Rhino horn: The world’s bloodiest animal trade?

If someone was to ask you the most valuable animal product on the planet, you would reasonably assume it would be something that has a unique benefit to it. Something that other replacements can’t match, like the marbling in a Wagyu beef steak, or the flavours of high-end caviar. Or maybe you’d think it would be something of outstanding beauty like true pearls. All would be wrong. In actual fact, the most valuable animal product on the planet is completely and utterly useless to people. It serves no medical benefit, has no remarkable beauty, and the same material can be found on the heads, hands and feet of the 7.6 billion people on this planet. The most valuable animal product in the world is keratin, the exact same stuff that your hair and nails are made of. The only difference is the source, rhino horn.

All species of rhino have horns that grow continuously from a plate at the front of the skull. Rhinos use these horns for a number of behaviours, principally in defending territories as well as their calves. These uses obviously don’t apply to people, and given the demonstrable lack of medicinal properties, it is starkly clear that the only thing that needs a rhino horn is a rhino. And yet the belief in rhino horn as a miracle cure to all ailments and diseases has existed for thousands of years, and despite vast amounts spent on educational programs, the belief continues to persist into the modern-day. In ancient Greece, it was believed to be able to purify water, and in modern-day China and Vietnam, wealthy business elites mix powdered rhino horn with water or alcohol as a hangover cure. So campaigns relying on educational adverts are doomed to fail, and the rhino doomed with them. That is unless the hard fact is addressed, that a belief that has existed for longer than Christianity will not be eradicated by a few adverts. The arrogance in suggesting that rhino horn is simply an African snake-oil is of enormous significance in the fight against poaching, as it conveniently ignores the vastly complex web that drives rhino poaching, but at the centre of it is money.

In 2019 I visited a reserve in South Africa to study the wildlife and had the experience of coming face to face with the Southern White rhino. It is truly humbling to see first-hand such a magnificent and terribly endangered animal. Up until that experience, I don’t think I have ever truly appreciated how vitally important the protection of our natural world is, or how soul-crushingly violent, brutal and sadistic poaching actually is. It was here that I learned of how a rhino is killed for its horn, a horrific ordeal that devastatingly the reserve has had to go through for a second time early this year, losing a mother and 5-month-old calf, as well as having their dominant bull severely injured by a high-velocity rifle.

Firstly a team of poachers (commonly former child soldiers) break into a reserve carrying assault rifles. From there they track down a rhino, which – when within range – is peppered with bullets to bring it down. It is hard to imagine the damage an assault rifle causes without having seen it first-hand. But what many people don’t realise is that a bullet is designed to expand rapidly on impact, meaning that an exit wound is usually larger than the entrance as a rapidly expanding lump of metal rips through the poor animal at 2500 feet per second, or 1700mph. However, rhinos are extremely tough, and those bullets won’t kill them immediately. They just wound it, and slow it down enough for the poachers to get closer. The poachers will then approach and draw out machetes. At this point, the rhino isn’t dead and is still an incredibly powerful animal, so to stop it from moving or running away the spinal cord is severed. This stops the animal from struggling during the next terrifying stage. They will then proceed to hack the face of the animal off, burrowing right to the skull to ensure the entire horn down to the growth plate is removed (why leave anything behind when 1kg of the horn can fetch up to $100,000?). All this happens whilst the animal is alive. Worse still, calves attempting to defend their mothers have been caught up in this violence, often sustaining equally gruesome wounds. If not killed already for the tiny minute horn they have. Mother and child left hacked apart and dying in the most agonising way imaginable. This is the brutal reality faced by anti-poaching units and reserve owners every single day.

In the last decade, there has been an estimated 10,000 African Rhino that lost to poaching, and between 2007 and 2014 there was a 9000% increase in rhino poaching. That is 10,000 rhinos that have been hacked apart whilst still alive. To put that into context, on average a rhino is killed for its horn every 22 hours in South Africa, the country which is home to 93% of Africa’s white rhino population. The scale of the problem is so vast it has even reached Europe, where there are no wild rhinos, with break-ins and theft of rhino horn from museum displays in France, Ireland, and Ipswich among others such is the desperation and demand for horn. All of this before the human cost is addressed, between 2012 and 2018, 269 rangers were killed across Africa, the majority of them by poachers.

In the context of these staggering figures, it is vitally important to recognise the problem extends far beyond the front-line: with rhino horn, every level of authority is absolutely rife with corruption and black market collusion. Funding to confront this is scarce, and what little money there is must be poured back into fences, anti-poaching units, trained dogs, and vehicles to desperately try and protect these beautiful animals. This is so cripplingly expensive that the majority of reserves in South Africa no longer keep rhino. And yet despite all this, the reserve owners keep going. Battered from a nightmarish reality, but never broken. These incredible people continually suffer daily hardships worse than many people would face in a lifetime, purely for the humbling goal of ensuring the rhino never goes extinct.

Yet as hopeless as this all seems, there is a simple and effective solution. Legalising the sale of rhino horn alongside tried and tested anti-poaching methods does offer hope for the future of the rhino. As counterintuitive as it may seem, legalising the sale of rhino horn can be a real tool in the fight against rampant poaching, so long as it is combined with the continued, effective anti-poaching tactics and tireless efforts of those employing them.

Rhino horn (unlike ivory) grows back. It is already trimmed throughout many reserves in order to deter poachers. It is so valuable it is illegal to destroy and yet currently illegal to sell, so has to be stored. But banks, however, commonly refuse to take it as the risks of holding it are so high. And so – ironically and at a further insane cost – the reserve owners have to pay private deposit boxes and storage facilities just to store the horn. All this means that with a completely renewable and sustainable source of horn, and an enormous existing stockpile already worth millions, the black market could be undermined and crippled overnight. The development of an independent international governing trade organisation, proper certification and rigid legislature would allow the legal sale of horn that would render the poaching of rhinos redundant. Why pay more for an illegal horn, and why poach rhino at great risk to your own life when you’ll have no one to sell to? Furthermore, the sale of rhino horn could save many reserves from bankruptcy. Adding a genuine value to an animal that in the current climate, costs too much to protect for so many- emotionally, physically and financially. Without a legal market for the sale of rhino horn, rhinos could be extinct within ten years. Legalising the sale of rhino horn could be a crucial tool in saving the rhino and surely given the stakes, it is worth utilising every tool we have to save these magnificent animals.

If you want to help make a difference at the reserve, follow the Nkombi volunteer programme on Instagram, or donate to their non-profit to save the rhino here.

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