More than 1,000 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa alone since 2006, reports Peter Gwin of National Geographic. These horns are prized for their use in traditional “medicines” throughout Asia – fetching $33 – $133 a gram. That’s double the price of gold, sometimes higher even than the price of cocaine. And despite the arrest of more than 200 poachers in South Africa last year (and the deaths of 22 more), the illegal trade seems to have no end in sight.
Poachers will hire “trackers” to follow rhinos until dusk, when it’s easier for them to evade the authorities. These trackers will radio the position of the rhinos, and the poachers will move in with high-powered rifles, killing the rhinos, sawing off their horns, and leaving the carcasses for park rangers and scavengers to find in the morning.
And the once-promising progress on ending poaching forever is fading. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. It’s gone up every year since – up to 333 in 2010, and over 400 in 2011. This distressing reality is forcing conservationists to look for new solutions, and new ways to protect South Africa’s rhinoceroses.
John Hume is a game farmer who owns more than 700 rhinos. He’s part of a group of entrepreneurs who believe that there are humane ways to satisfy the demand for rhino horn without harming the animals.
“We take wool from sheep, why not horn from rhinos?” Hume asked National Geographic. “If you cut the horn about three inches above its base, it will grow back in two years. That means there is a never ending supply of rhino horn if we’re smart enough to keep the bloody animals alive.”
Hume is frustrated with South African laws that require hunters to kill rhinos in order to export the horns as a trophy. He explains a few reasons for this law:
Among the misconceptions, Hume says, is that ivory and horn are the same. Ivory is an elephant’s tooth, while rhino horn is keratin, similar to a horse’s hoof. When an elephant’s tusk is severed, the nerve inside can become infected, killing the animal. Also, darting an elephant is much more dangerous than darting a rhino, because of its greater size and the protectiveness of its herd.
He also disputes the charge from conservationists that the legal and humane harvesting of rhino horn will simply encourage poachers. He believes as more legal horn enters the market, poachers will be driven out of the business by decreasing profits – eventually it just won’t be worth risking the jail time. “The fundamental difference is that poachers go after rhino horn for easy short-term profit. Farmers are in it for years of steady returns.”
This approach is, of course, frowned upon by many conservationists. They don’t want to encourage the horn trade. One way that they’re trying to discourage poachers is by cutting or removing rhinos’ horns to remove any incentive for poachers to kill the animals.
What do Care2 readers think? Are rhino ranches inhumane? Is the alternate solution of de-horning wild rhinos to discourage poachers any better? Share your thoughts in the poll and comments below.
Photo credit: Brandon Daniel