There are 5 species of rhino, the black and white rhino are endemic to Africa.
The white rhino is the largest and most populous species and has 2 subspecies, the northern is critically endangered with only 3 still living in the wild, and the southern is our beloved white rhino which numbers just over 20,000. The grumpy black rhino has 5 subspecies. There are just over 5000 black rhino in total and in 2011 the first rhino subspecies to be declared extinct was the West African black rhino.
The first threat to the rhino came from loss of habitat and increased urbanization and population growth. The numbers in Southern Africa fell from 500,000 at the turn of the 20th century to just 70,000 in the 1970’s, and this was the impetus for a successful breeding program pioneered by our local game reserve at Umfolozi. Living in the heart of Zululand, only an hours drive from Umfolozi-Hluhluwe game reserve, it is no surprise the rhino occupies a special place in our hearts. Indeed the rhino is virtually the mascot of Zululand. Under the breeding program numbers grew and many reserves in South Africa and its neighbouring countries were restocked with rhino from Umfolozi’s success. However, this was before the black market rhino horn trade took off and poaching became such a huge factor, indeed the most significant factor in rhino survival.
The rhino horn trade raised its head first in the1980’s. Before that the numbers poached were very small, less than 15 a year. In 2008 86 rhinos were taken and since 2015 it is over 1000 a year and growing on an exponential curve. Suddenly we are looking at the reality of rhino extinction, not as a distant possibility but as a near certainty within our lifetime.
So what are the driving forces of this epidemic? Rhino horn is used widely in south east Asia, most notably Vietnam. It is not traditionally an aphrodisiac. That is a common western misconception. It was used traditionally in Chinese medicine for fever, liver disease, convulsions and to cleanse the blood but was removed from the Chinese pharmacopeia after a multinational agreement. That, along with trade bans and poaching crackdowns controlled both supply and demand until the 1980’s. So what changed? It is believed one of the driving factors for the increased demand was fueled by a Vietnamese politician who announced, in the mid 1980’s, that he had been cured of his cancer by rhino horn. Why was this important? Well to answer this you have to understand something of the epidemiology of disease and infrastructure of the health system as well as social and population development in Vietnam.
In the last 5 years the tally of multimillionaires in Vietnam has increased by over 150% This burgeoning economy has created a middle and upper class with much more disposable income. As in many rapidly developing countries the infrastructure and facilities have not caught up with the demands and expectations. Health infrastructure, in particular, is still lacking. Cancer has a high incidence but the waiting time for treatment is long. As a result cancer is diagnosed in late stages and treatment is delayed with predictably poor response and outcomes. What happens in medicine when traditional medical systems fail? It is a desperate and emotional diagnosis and people are driven to great lengths to find a solution. They fall back on alternative treatments which is one of the driving forces behind the demand. Never mind there is no scientific rationale. Even some highly respected doctors recommend it. The high cost would have been a limiting factor previously but is no longer such a barrier because of the increase in disposable income. Additionally a status has been applied to the horn because of the high cost, more expensive by weight than gold, cocaine or diamonds. So there is additional use as a symbol of wealth, as a gift, especially to people of influence, or in a social situation. Spurious indications have also broadened with changes in lifestyle to include the use as a hangover cure. Even people in authority promote and readily admit to the use. The market expands, the demand increases, risks to profit ratios become attractive and the poaching epidemic is born and driven. Newer hunting technology fed by a deep reservoir of funding complete the picture of this unequal battle.
Clearly education and social and health reforms must form the backbone of the fight against the consumer use of rhino horn. The burning of rhino horn by Vietnam in 2016 signaled its resolve to actively work against the illegal trade. Under resourced and battling corruption and perverse incentives ourselves, it still seems like an insurmountable challenge. Men and women around Africa put their life on the line every day to rise to the cause. We pay tribute to all those involved in the fight.