Rhino Conservation

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 probably psychological.

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.

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.