Category Archives: Rhinos

Why is the illicit rhino horn trade escalating?

Why is the illicit rhino horn trade escalating?

Jacques Rigoulet, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN) – Sorbonne Universités

In South Africa, domestic trade of rhinoceros horn, forbidden since 2008, is about to become legal again. On April 7 2017, a court effectively overturned the national ban. The Conversation

This controversial move was welcomed by commercial rhino breeders, who argue that legalising safe, sustainable horn removal from living animals could prevent wild rhino poaching. But animal preservation groups have warned that any legal trade would have the opposite effect.

Poaching has indeed reached new heights this year. On March 7, a rhinoceros was killed in the Thoiry zoo, near Paris, and its main horn was sawed off and stolen. This is the first time a living rhinoceros in a European zoo has been killed for its horn.

That same week, in South Africa, 13 rhinos were found dead in a single day, decimated by poachers.

Only 62 rhinos were poached across Africa in 2006. The following year this figure shot up to 262 animals, then 1,090 by 2013, 90% of which were killed in South Africa.

A sharp fall in population

According to 2015 surveys, there are less than 30,000 rhinoceros left on the planet.

Rhinoceros are divided into five separate species. Africa (mainly South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe) is home to white rhino (around 20,400 specimens, 18,500 of which are in South Africa) and the black rhino (5,200 specimens, 1,900 of which are in South Africa). As their names indicate, the Indian rhino (3,500 specimens living in India and Nepal), the Sumatran rhino (250 animals) and the Javan rhino (only 50 animals) are found in Asia.

Depending on its age and species, an adult rhinoceros can have up to a few kilograms worth of horn, the white rhino being the best endowed (up to 6kgs). Indian and Javan rhinos have only one horn, while the other three species have two.

Rhinos poached by African country in 2006-2014.
R. Emslie et al, CC BY-NC

In 2015, a total of 1,342 white and black rhinos were poached across the continent. Over the last few years, as many (or more) rhinoceros have been killed in South Africa than are naturally born in Kruger National Park and on private farms put together.

Bogus medicinal properties

Rhino horn, highly valued in China and Vietnam, is used in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers and cardiovascular disease. More recently, it has been prescribed as a cancer treatment and an aphrodisiac.

While there is no scientific evidence for such medicinal properties, these unfounded beliefs are feeding soaring Asian demand for powdered rhino horn. Prices are skyrocketing: up to US$60,000 a kilo, which is more expensive than gold.

In truth, rhino horn is simply a formation of keratin, a protein found in human nails and animal claws, with a few amino acids and minerals, phosphorus and calcium.

Controlling a lucrative criminal market

Criminal trade in wild animals constitutes one of the world’s largest illegal markets, according to the UN, along with drugs, counterfeit products and human trafficking. Each year, it affects tens of millions of specimens of animals and plants.

In 2014, this trade was estimated at between US$10 billion and US$20 billion.

Today, there is clear evidence that organised crime groups have taken over this illicit market. It is among the most highly developed criminal activities confronting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a 1977 international agreement signed by 182 countries.

With support from Interpol, Europol, the World Customs Organisation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), CITES applies the ban on rhinoceros-horn trading. Using a system of permits and certificates delivered under special conditions, CITES regulates the market for rhinos and about 35,000 other wild species, categorised into three groups according to the level of protection required.

The white rhino, which is not necessarily threatened with extinction, is an appendix species II for South Africa and Swaziland, meaning the trade there must be controlled in order not to jeopardise the animal’s survival. For all other African range states, the white rhino is listed on appendix I: all trade of this endangered species is forbidden, except for non-commercial purposes such as scientific research.

Appendix III contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has sought assistance in controlling their trade.

Prior to the 2000s, and up until 2007, pressure on consumer countries (Yemen, Korea, Taiwan and China) to stop the rhino trade helped reduce poaching activity, leading to an increase in the African rhino population.

But demand for rhino horn surged in the mid-2000s, chiefly in Vietnam, because of rumours that a government official suffering from cancer went into remission after its use.

Likewise, there is still demand in China and Hong Kong for wealth-signaling objects made of rhino horn, such as libation cups and jewellery.

Where, then, do all these horns come from? According to UNODC, today the major shipments of rhino horn originate primarily in South Africa, followed by Mozambique (where rhinos are gone, but poachers have dipped into stocks at South Africa’s Kruger National Park), Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Both the United Arab Emirates and Europe have served as trading routes. In 2011, the Czech government discovered that some of its citizens were selling trophies they had hunted in South Africa to Vietnamese traders. Some 90 rhino horns were also stolen from museums and auction houses across Europe between January 2011 and June 2012 by the Irish Rathkeale Rovers, a gang since dismantled by Europol.

The import of trophies

Though the international rhino horn trade has been forbidden since 1977, CITES recognises some exceptions. It allows, for instance, limited hunting of Appendix II and I species, including, under exceptional circumstances, of endangered white and black rhinoceros

This allowance recognises that well-managed and sustainable hunting is actually consistent with and contributes to conservation efforts. It provides both livelihood opportunities for rural communities and incentives for habitat conservation. And it generates benefits that can be invested in conservation.

It also demonstrates that effective conservation, management and monitoring plans and programs are in place in a number of African range states, meaning that some populations are recovering enough to sustain limited off-takes as trophies.

Though bringing these rhinoceros-hunting trophies (including horns) hunted in South Africa home as personal property is authorised by CITES, their sale is not. Trophies may then be exported to certain African countries under specific conditions (a non-detriment finding by the exporting country is required beforehand).

Rhino horns are sought after for social status and medicine, and even trophies are hunted down.

Between 2006 and 2011, 1,344 hunting trophies, including African rhino horns from both species [were legally exported]( (page 5) as personal property. They mainly came from South Africa, where just under 75 trophy-hunting expeditions were organised prior to 2006, and to a lesser extent, Namibia. Vietnam was the top importing country, ahead of the US, Spain and Russia.

After a sudden upsurge in requests for hunting permits from Vietnam, where it was discovered that rhino horns had been illegally sold, South African authorities in 2012 put an end to permits for Vietnamese nationals.

Opening the market?

As demonstrated in last week’s South African court case overturning the ban on the rhino trade, some countries are showing signs of restlessness under the current CITES regime.

Swaziland, for instance, would also like to see change. During the last international meeting of CITES signatory parties in late September 2016, this small country submitted a proposal to allow limited regulated trade in white rhino horn. It has a small population of about 75 white rhinos living protected in parks.

Between 1988 and 1992, an intense period of poaching wiped out 80% of Swaziland’s rhino population. This left it with a large stock of horns that it would like to be able to sell. The proposition was voted down by the majority of CITES countries.

Now, South Africa’s legal U-turn could open a new avenues for the rhino trade. Most South African farmers believe that the ban only encourages poaching and that they themselves could fulfil Asian demand by providing horns from living animals.

Farmers know how to cut the horn with a saw so that it will grow back, a painless procedure for the animal that is put under anaesthetic for around 15 minutes. Protecting rhinos on ranches costs them millions of dollars as they face raids from poachers.

The current poaching crisis differs from a prior crisis in the 1990s in two ways. First, the illegal rhino horn trade has been taken over by organised crime groups because it is less severely punished than other illegal trades (although this is changing thanks to new legislation introduced in most countries).

Then there’s the skyrocketing traffic to East Asia, which reveals the region’s ever-growing demand of miscellaneous African animal products for traditional Asian medicine, from rhino horns to elephant ivory and, now, the skin of domestic African donkeys

What can be done?

Conservation groups should remain resolute at this critical juncture.

National, regional and sub-regional networks have intensified their fight against this transnational criminal market and are now being coordinated by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crim, which brings together CITES with various anti-fraud organisations. Thus far, their battle has produced very good results.

It is now up to Asian authorities to raise awareness and discourage the use of rhino horn. China has already taken steps in this direction and, in November 2016, Vietnamese authorities burnt a stock of rhino horn.

Still, some say it will take a generation to change attitudes. Can the planet’s remaining 30,000 rhinoceros survive until then?

Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast for Word.

Jacques Rigoulet, Vétérinaire, expert CITES, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN) – Sorbonne Universités

The trouble with using synthetic rhino horn to stop poaching

In 2014, one rhino was killed every eight hours. That was in South Africa alone, where most of the world’s rhinos live. At this rate, rhino deaths may overtake births by 2016-2018, making the concept of the rhino’s extinction very real.

Spurred by this grim prospect, governments, businesses and governmental organizations have discussed a wide range of solutions to stop rhino poaching, the key driver of rhino mortality.

One proposal that recently generated a lot of interest is the manufacturing of synthetic rhino horn. The concept first reached the media limelight in 2012 when the company Rhinoceros Horn LLC launched a crowdfunding campaign to get the idea off the ground. While that campaign failed, the idea has recently been rekindled by Pembient, a US-based company that describes itself as “the De Beers of synthetic wildlife products.”

This bioengineering start-up plans to flood the market with synthetic 3D-printed rhino horns. The company hopes this will help save rhinos by making synthetic horns cheaper to purchase than the real thing.

Pembient is looking to develop synthetic rhino horns that not only are genetically similar but feel and smell like the real thing, so much so that consumers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. To achieve this, the company has recently embarked on a crowdfunding effort to sequence the genome of the black rhino. Pembient hopes the first synthetic horns will hit the market about a year from now.

The question, though, remains: will it work? An examination of both consumer motivations and business models behind these types of ventures exposes some pitfalls.

Bear bile and cubic zirconia

The best available consumer research tells us that demand for rhino horn stems largely from the social status this perceived luxury product gives to its users, tied to the (erroneous) beliefs of its medical properties. How would synthetic rhino horn fit into this picture?

In terms of its luxury status, it is the rarity and high price of rhino horn that give it its allure. As such, it is unlikely that current consumers will turn to cheaper and commonly available options no matter how indistinguishable they may be to a lay audience, much the same way that the availability and lower price of cubic zirconia has not led to a crash of the diamond trade. Diamonds carry a social value that while arbitrary keeps consumers willing to pay large premiums. Thus it seems unlikely that a cheaper synthetic alternative may replace the original product in the minds of the wealthy consumers driving the demand for rhino horn.

Demand for rhino horn is driven by the mistaken belief that it has medicinal properties.
animalrescueblog/flickr, CC BY-NC

As far as traditional medicine goes, the push for alternative products has been tried before. Take bear bile, for example. Used in Asia for centuries as a part of traditional medicine, the trade in bear bile flourished in the 1970s with the advent of “bear farming,” in which bile is obtained from live bears.

The number of bears required to fill these farms became a threat to Asian bear populations. As a result governments, NGOs and businesses have worked for decades to promote a wide range of plant, animal and synthetic substitutes. Yet, there is little sign of the practice disappearing, with a minimum of 12,000 bears still being kept in legal and illegal bear farms in Southeast Asia. Several reasons have been put forward for this, from the preference of consumers for wild products to the reluctance of practitioners to prescribe alternatives.


Taking all this into account, it seems unlikely that this synthetic rhino horn will have an impact on the demand for the real deal. However, the circulation of a synthetic product that so closely resembles the real product could easily become the worst nightmare of enforcement agencies worldwide, as authorities will have a hard time distinguishing between synthetic and illegally obtained rhino horn.

Another related issue is that by making synthetic rhino horn widely available, Pembient faces some perverse incentives to perpetuate the idea that it has indeed some medical properties. After all, the company’s bottom line depends on there being demand for rhino horn. This can undermine the work of conservation NGOs, traditional medicine practitioners and even governments, who have spent decades trying to break the link between rhino horn and traditional medicine.

If a Western company commercializes a product from sequencing the DNA of the black rhino, does the country of origin, which pays for conservation, benefit as well?
whatsthepointsa/flickr, CC BY-SA

Beyond any potential impact this initiative may or may not have, the entire business case for this enterprise is underlined by a broader moral issue. Is it ethical for a US-based company to profit from a product based on genetic material coming from several developing countries, without a clear form of compensation?

History is riddled with cases of fortunes being made by companies in the West that have developed commercial ventures based on plants or animals from some of the world’s poorest corners without any compensation, in what has become known as biopiracy. The rosy periwinkle, for example, a plant native only to Madagascar, was found to contain a chemical compound that is effective in treating several forms of cancer. Millions of dollars were made from the two drugs subsequently developed, yet no compensation was ever given to Madagascar. The list of similar cases goes on and includes the Neem tree, turmeric, basmati rice, Ayahuasca, Rooibos Tea, Quinine and Quinoa.

Cost of conservation

Rhino conservation is costly, with countries having to invest heavily in management and anti-poaching efforts. Yet rhinos are distributed across a number of developing countries with pressing needs around food security, health and education. It would be hypocritical for the international community to ban the trade in rhino horn, thus denying rhino range countries a source of revenue, while allowing private companies from elsewhere to profit from the trade in a product based on the rhino’s genetic material.

It is clear that conservation is much in need of entrepreneurship and people willing to think outside of the box – just the kind of thinking that the people behind efforts to make synthetic rhino horn have demonstrated. Yet, the context around the trade in rhino horn is very complex and simple solutions that sound too good to be true often are.

The Conversation

Diogo Veríssimo is David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at Georgia State University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.