By John Frederick Walker
Zzzzrrrghh! The saber saw screeches as it cuts through the front horn of a sedated two-ton rhinoceros kneeling on the parched earth. A team of game guards push against the massive beast to steady it; another two hold a tarp under its head to capture pale shavings spewing from the snarling saw. On the black market, rhino horn is more valuable per ounce than gold—even tiny flecks are worth saving.
From tranquilizer dart to recovery, it takes less than 10 minutes to de-horn this creature at breeder John Hume’s 16,000 acre South African ranch, several hour’s drive from Johannesburg. The cut-off two-pound tip will join others in an undisclosed vault for safe-keeping, where they’ll remain in conservation limbo. That’s because rhino horn hasn’t been legally traded internationally since 1977. Most conservationists think sales should remain banned. Hume strongly disagrees.
A thick, 2-inch-high stub is all that remains on the rhino’s nose. A vet administers an antidote while the team backs off. The animal shuffles to its feet, groggy but unharmed, takes a few unsteady steps, and starts grazing, as if nothing happened.
De-horning is one of the ways Hume hopes to deter poaching. He’s bred nearly a thousand white rhinos, more than any other breeder, helping to swell the species’ numbers. There are only 20,000 left, two-thirds of all the rhinos in existence. But Hume fears he’s fighting a losing battle.
The horn is keratin, the same substance as toenails. But it comes from a rhino, a fact that makes all the difference to many in Asia, where demand for this scarce organic substance from one of Africa’s most iconic creatures—for supposed cancer cures and traditional tonics, carvings, and its sheer rarity—can only be satisfied illegally, supplied by the criminal networks behind horrific killings.
Today’s poachers are brutally efficient, entering protected areas at night to shoot rhinos with silencer-equipped weapons. They saw half the animals’s faces off to steal the horns and escape before detection. The ghastly media images of the bloody corpses left behind have outraged the international conservation community in recent years. Yet nothing that’s been done so far seems to stem the rising slaughter. South Africa alone has lost nearly 6,000 in the past decade. Over 1,300 were killed Africa-wide in 2015.
The numbers wiped out by poachers have been partially offset by breeders, but even a wealthy rancher like Hume can’t continue to raise rhinos at a loss. He sells them to preserves, zoos, and other breeders, but they don’t fetch a premium—a rhino comes saddled with the steep cost of protecting it in the field. Hume spends over U.S. $200,000 a month on his private security force, equipped with canine units and a patrol plane.
“Criminals can fund their operations by selling rhino horns,” he says, “but not ranchers.”
It’s a view shrugged off by conservationists convinced that reopening trade would be a grave mistake. That’s why the surprise proposal by the Kingdom of Swaziland seeking permission to sell its rhino horn at the recent CITES meeting in Johannesburg that ended October 5 was so controversial.
Swaziland, a small, impoverished, land-locked country surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique, zealously guards its tiny population of white rhinos in its parks and de-horns some of them as part of its highly-successful anti-poaching efforts. The government has collected almost half a ton of rhino horns, including those from natural mortality, worth some $10 million—that is, if it became legal to sell them.
The Kingdom proposed a CITES-supervised horn trade of its existing stocks (plus an additional 44 pounds a year from de-horning) to help defray the ever-more expensive conservation of rhinos. That includes the army-level anti-poaching measures now needed to ensure their survival, costs which the Kingdom says it can’t continue to bear without monetizing its growing horn stocks.
“Time to try a different policy?”
Ted Reilly, the 80-year-old pioneering conservationist behind Swaziland’s parks and preserves, spoke passionately about the rhino horn ban during a meeting at the Kingdom’s Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary last month. “It’s been in place for forty years and it isn’t working. Isn’t it time to try a different policy?”
He ticked off the obvious: You don’t have to kill a rhino to get its horns. After dehorning, it grows back. In fact, it can be trimmed regularly. DNA technology now makes it possible to track a horn or its parts from rhino to final user, vastly upping the possibility of regulating a legal horn trade, which, properly run, could undermine poaching. Well, that’s the argument, anyway.
Swaziland’s pro-trade arguments are echoed by a vocal minority of largely Africa-based conservation economists. In their view, such a trade would help protect these lumbering giants by making it a profitable business for African communities in rhino habitats. Though tourists on safari aren’t keen to see rhinos with truncated horns, repugnance at the idea of de-horning or breeding rhinos is misplaced, considering the poaching crisis. Simply put, rhinos can’t be conserved if they don’t exist.
Some anti-trade observers surmised that by proposing legal trade Swaziland was acting as a stand-in for South Africa, which invented rhino ranching. The South African government is sitting on a 25-ton stockpile, and that doesn’t count breeders’ stocks. Hume is said to hold five tons himself. South Africa initially indicated it would support reopening trade in rhino horn at CITES, but backed down under intense international pressure and internal squabbles over legal domestic trade.
Many wildlife advocates were swift to condemn Swaziland, arguing that the member nations of CITES should be backing a total, unified ban on wildlife products from endangered species—rhino horns, elephant tusks, pangolin scales, the works—without exception.
Despite an impassioned presentation by the Swazi delegation and support from South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, the proposal to legalize Swazi horn trade was soundly defeated by a 100 to 26 committee vote, with 17 abstentions, and later confirmed by member nations.
Swaziland’s last-minute proposal had distinct limitations—it was vague on who the buyers might be—but it could hardly have been faulted for refusing to accept the rhino poaching crisis as the status quo.
Rhino Ranching and De-horning Campaigns
That didn’t keep its CITES defeat from being applauded by animal groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, Born Free, and IFAW. But is there anything to celebrate in what this decision means for rhino ranching and de-horning campaigns?
The poaching crisis remains grim. An unacceptable level of killings is almost certain to grind on, ensuring a further catastrophic slide in rhino numbers.
Anti-trade conservationists say that the failure of the horn trade ban to deter poaching points to the need to step up enforcement even more, with extra drones, more shoot-on-sight policies, and increased militarization of ranger patrols to combat the ever-growing sophistication of poaching rings. This sweeping approach threatens to turn anti-poaching efforts into conservation’s equivalent of the War on Drugs, an enormously costly campaign that failed miserably.
Advocates for reopening a limited horn trade like Hume and Reilly are keen on strong anti-poaching efforts and stamping out trade in poached horns. But enforcement alone, they point out, isn’t working. Both would like to see a limited, legal and highly regulated trade in legitimate rhino horn (obtained by de-horning, and natural mortality) designed to work in tandem with enforcement, believing it could partially satisfy demand and define legitimate use. Under the circumstances (i.e. alarming levels of poaching), they think it’s worth a try.
Those who want to continue the ban on rhino horn sales are having none of this. They say it’s a dangerous “experiment” and any legal horn sales would inevitably provide cover for illegal sales. This is partly based on the belief that the level of corruption in potential selling and buying countries would make a legal market in rhino horn impossible to regulate. But if that’s the case, why assume that these corrupt countries will do an honest job of enforcing total prohibition of rhino horn?
At Hume’s ranch I saw and petted several months-old baby rhinos that had been orphaned by their mothers after their milk had dried up. The little animated tanks rolled in red mud and pushed each other out of the way to get their ears scratched by visitors. I was sobered by the thought that their future, indeed the outlook for all rhinos, is alarmingly uncertain.
There’s only one thing that conservationists on both sides of the trade issue agree on: that demand for rhino horn must be reduced to bring poaching under control. But it takes considerable time to change attitudes, beliefs, and practices—and time is something that rhinos don’t have.
John Frederick Walker is the author of Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants.