In the late 1960's, it was estimated that
the combined population Black and White Rhinos (both African species)
exceeded 65,000. Today, these same two species total only 3,500 animals.
In fact, since 1970, over 90% of the world's rhino population has
disappeared. The sharp decline is a direct result of the demand for the
rhino's horn. And this deplorable situation is despite the fact that the
international trade of rhino products was banned in 1976 by the
Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna
and Flora (CITES). Unfortunately, poaching for rhino horn still
continues, due to the lack of enforcement by some member nations. In
1987, CITES extended the ban by outlawing the domestic trade of rhino
products. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
prohibits the trade of all rhino products within its borders, the only
exception being the importation southern white rhino trophies, which
require necessary documentation from South African authorities.
There are two markets for rhino products, and both are rooted in
traditional practices. The first market is the Oriental medicine
industry. Throughout Asia, rhino body parts have been used in
pharmaceuticals to cure a variety of illnesses for over 2,000 years.
Ailments of which rhino body parts supposedly cure include skin disease,
bone disorders, and fever. The most common use of rhino horn is to
alleviate fever. This market demands smaller horns because consumers
believe they are more concentrated and have a higher potency. The horns
of Asian rhino species are more desired than those of African species
due to their smaller size. Of course, no scientific data supports the
pharmacological use of rhino horn, and any effects from its use are
The second market for rhino horn is the dagger trade in the Middle
Eastern nation of Yemen. Carved rhino horns are used as handles for
ceremonial daggers called 'jambiyas'. These jambiya daggers are
exhibited as status symbols by their owners. Due to its close proximity
to Africa, most jambiya handles are composed of horns of African rhinos.
Fortunately there is good news concerning this market. Yemen, the
largest consumer of rhino horn in the early 1980's, importing an average
of 1,500 kilograms of African rhino horn each year, has completely shut
down the illegal trade of rhino horn within its borders. Through
negotiations with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a series of strict
domestic laws has outlawed the trade of rhino horns. Also, economic
recession resulted in the introduction of less expensive substitutes,
including water buffalo horns, camel nails, and plastic. Rhino horn
imports have virtually stopped in this nation.
Efforts to curb the illegal trade of rhino horn have been largely
successful. Nations from which rhino horns are exported have created
programs which focus on protecting rhinos from poachers. Rhinos must be
preserved in their chosen habitat. Trans-located animals often die due
to unfamiliarity with their new habitat. Death may be caused by
ingesting poisonous plants, straying over unfamiliar dangerous inclines,
dehydration or starvation resulting from other dietary changes adversely
affecting their delicate digestive system. To fulfill this requirement,
a variety of practices have been implemented. The availability of
automatic weaponry has elevated the conflict between authorities that
protect rhinos and poachers. In Nepal, a guard force of Nepalese
soldiers was needed to protect one population of Indian rhino from
poachers. This population numbered 95 animals in 1968, and had grown to
400 animals by 1991. Game wardens in Namibia and Zimbabwe, nations where
less funding is available for such protection, have adopted less
confrontational methods to keep their rhinos alive. The tactic is
'dehorning'. The wardens humanely remove the horns of Black rhinos and
White rhinos to prevent poachers from finding any rhinos worth killing.
Since rhino horns are not true horns, composed only of agglutinated
keratin fibers and no bone, the removal of the horn is not harmful.
Unfortunately, a lack of funding from the Nepalese government, and the
governments of Namibia and Zimbabwe has resulted in a reduction of
manpower in these programs. The result has been an increase in poaching.
But there is still good news. Poaching has a negative result on tourism.
Some African nations have recognized this. Economies of communities
surrounding national parks benefit from tourists coming to observe wild
rhinos. To further promote goodwill and protection towards wild rhinos,
the some African governments now train and pay local inhabitants as
"community game wardens". People who once poached rhinos now have
incentive to protect them.
Nations that import rhino horn have also adopted methods to end the
illegal trade. In 1989, steps were taken to register rhino horn stocks.
Over 10 tons of rhino horn has since been registered - an equivalent of
4,000 dead rhinos. Compliance with CITES regulations is necessary for
rhino horn imports to stop, and some member nations do not fully
cooperate or enforce these regulations. Scientists in Taiwan have
developed a new method to combat the rhino horn trade. In September
2003, rhino mitochondrial DNA was decoded by the Central Police
University in Taiwan. This breakthrough resulted in techniques that
could detect the presence of rhino horn in Asian pharmaceuticals, as
well as identify which species of rhino the horn came from. Since rhino
horn is composed of keratin, chemical analysis can determine the
animal's former diet. Each species of rhino has a very distinct diet,
resulting in a reliable method to determine species. This type of
analysis is very specific, giving scientists the ability to
differentiate between populations within a given species. Each wild
population has a slightly different range. From the differences in
range, one can deduce where the rhino was killed! Scientists working at
the Institute of Zoology in London have even developed a mass
spectrometer technique to analyze rhino horn samples based on carbon and
nitrogen ratios. Such specific results are used to notify local wildlife
authorities so they may concentrate their efforts on the rhino
populations in danger. For the illegal rhino horn trade to end, the
market for rhino horn must end. An end to rhino horn demand will
decrease the financial incentive for poachers, preserving rhinos for
future generations to observe and love.