Written by: Barbara Maas, Head of Endangered Species Conservation at NABU International
Rhino poaching in Africa has been on the rise for a decade and reached a record high of 1,342 in 2015. Legalising international trade in rhino horn as a way to stop the killing is one of the hotly contested issues on the agenda of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) CoP17 currently happening in Johannesburg, with Swaziland’s proposal to trade in rhino horn to be heard on Monday.
A new study by NABU International highlights that even the global rhino population of just under 30,000 individuals is not nearly enough to meet demand. Opening trade in horn is therefore likely to further escalate poaching and hasten the demise of the world’s rhinos.
Almost seventy percent of the world’s 29,300 rhinos live in South Africa, which hosts CITES this year and has registered a strong interest in legalising trade in rhino horn. Rhino horn is highly prized in Vietnam and China, where it retails for up to US $100,000 per kilo on the black market, making it more valuable than gold.
“Trade advocates insist that ‘flooding the market’ with legal horn will price illegal traders out of the market and discourage poaching,” explains NABU International’s Dr Barbara Maas who carried out the research. “However, our study shows that this is not a realistic scenario, given the potential size of Asian markets and the limited amount of rhino horn available globally.”
NABU International estimates the total mass of rhino horn that is theoretically available from the world’s remaining 29,324 rhinos is 141,000 tonnes. By apportioning this amount to different market scenarios in the two largest consumer countries, Vietnam and China, using common doses prescribed in traditional Chinese and allied medicines (TCM), Maas identified a vast shortfall, even if only a few grams of horn are used. Her results show that a single prescription of three, nine or 50 grams administered to 3.8%, 1.3% and 0.2% of the adult population of China and Vietnam respectively, would require the horn mass of the entire global rhino population.
“Because the majority of privately rhino owners in South Africa are pushing for the legalisation of rhino horn trade, we also looked at how far their horn would go amongst Asian consumers. Our results show that ‘flooding the market’ with horn from these sources is not a credible option, even if a tiny single dose of rhino horn is used. Whichever way you cut it, there simply aren’t enough rhinos left on earth to risk legalising trade,” explains Maas. “It’s a dangerous gamble that could seal the fate of rhinos everywhere within a very short timeframe.”
NABU International suggests that rigorously enforced national and international trade bans combined with effective demand reduction initiatives are the only way to turn the current crisis around and prevent the rhino’s extinction.
Rhino horn consists of a protein called Keratin, which also makes up human nails or hair. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat a large variety of ailments.
Although rhino horn has been shown to reduce fever in extremely high doses, it is less effective than Aspirin. Traditional Asian medicine also offers consumers a host of herbal alternatives. In the mid-2000s rumours of rhino horn as a cancer treatment began to sweep across Vietnam and China. There is no evidence from clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine or elsewhere to support this belief, nor is it documented or approved in TCM manuals.
Yet, this use of rhino horn has become one of the primary drivers behind the dramatic surge in rhino poaching. Chinese and Vietnamese consumers also use rhino horn is also used as a party drug to relieve hangovers, as a status symbol, and more recently as ornaments and jewellery or a hard-nosed investment.
“Rhino populations everywhere are under siege from poachers, illegal traffickers, national and international criminal cartels, corrupt officials and conservation community insiders, art collectors, status and pleasure seekers, medical patients and financial speculators intent on cashing in on the animals’ increasing rarity,” says Maas. They are killed even in some of the most heavily guarded areas, including South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park. Making trade legal cannot be sustainable. It would open a flood gate that no one will be able to close again in time to prevent the last rhino from dying for its horn.
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