By David Pilling
To conservationists, Solio Ranch in Kenya’s Central Highlands is home to one of the biggest concentrations of rhinoceroses in Africa. To poachers, it is a moderately well guarded bank vault. Rhino horns are now literally worth their weight in gold – not to mention platinum or cocaine. At about $30,000 a pound, a single horn can fetch up to $300,000.
There are a mere 50,000 rhinos left in the world, a fraction of the 600,000 that existed half a century ago. Fortunately, poaching is tightly controlled at Solio, where armed guards patrol a restricted area protected by a tall perimeter fence. In much of the rest of Africa, though, rangers are fighting a losing battle. In South Africa, home to the world’s biggest rhino population, the magnificent animals are disappearing at the alarming rate of more than 600 a year. A decade ago, the annual loss to poachers was a mere 15.
The surge in poaching is largely the result of a precipitous rise in demand from Asia, where the newly affluent are increasingly able to indulge their taste for exotica. In the case of rhino horn, much of the new demand is coming from Vietnam, where the substance has acquired an entirely bogus reputation as a cancer therapy. As shocking, powdered rhino horn is being adopted by wealthy partygoers as a sort of cocaine substitute, a supposed aphrodisiac and hangover cure rolled into one. In fact, rhino horn is made of nothing more mysterious than keratin. Those in search of a buzz – or a cancer cure – would do just as well to bite their nails to the quick.
The rise in illicit animal trade is not limited to rhino. There has been a worldwide rise in poaching and smuggling of endangered species, with illegal trade conservatively estimated at $7bn-$10bn a year. Demand in Asia for big cats, great apes, elephant tusks, snakes, tigers, turtles and monitor lizards is insatiable. Much of the pull comes from China, the biggest single importer, where many rare species have been prized for centuries as ingredients in traditional medicine.
Take the pangolin, the world’s only fully scaly mammal, which is considered to be a remedy for everything from inflammation to psoriasis. More....