WRITING in 1917, R.B. Smart, deputy commissioner and settlement officer in Akyab district of British-ruled Burma (now Rakhine state in Myanmar), was worried about local rhinoceroses. His volume of the “Burma Gazetteer” notes that their blood and horns were much prized as medicines and aphrodisiacs. As a result “these animals are ruthlessly hunted down and shot.” The state was already one of the few parts of Burma where rhinos were still fairly plentiful, but “they will become extinct in the near future if not preserved.”
Smart’s concern seemed more for the loss of big game for the “European sportsman” to kill than for biodiversity. But he was right. It is a long time since a rhino was seen in the wild in Myanmar. Now Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, once scattered across South-East Asia up to the foothills of the Himalayas, is confined to a few isolated pockets of Indonesia and Malaysia. A 2011 estimate put the global population as low as 216.
They are still threatened by poachers, as are other rhino species in India and Africa. In the Kaziranga reserve in India’s north-eastern state of Assam, 16 rhinos have been shot so far this year, and the authorities have started using drones—unmanned aircraft—in an effort to curb poaching. A rhino’s being dead or in a cage affords little protection to its precious horn. In the past two years there have been at least 20 thefts in Britain alone from zoos, museums and private collections.
In traditional Chinese medicine, powdered rhino horn was—wrongly—believed to be effective against fevers, rheumatism, gout and much else. It was also used in pre-modern medicine in India, Korea, Malaysia and elsewhere. Asia’s population and wealth have both grown spectacularly. Tens of millions of people have become able to afford expensive cures. Small wonder the rhino and other endangered species are feeling the pressure.
The same, after all, is true of many other species whose products are much sought-after in Asia for their culinary, curative or decorative properties. Just this week it emerged that a Chinese vessel that ran aground in a protected coral atoll in the Philippines on April 8th was carrying 400 boxes—ten tonnes—of meat from the pangolin, the endangered scaly anteater. Better-known prey is the tiger, a living pharmacopoeia: nearly every part of it has medicinal value, or some other lucrative commercial use, such as in a rug. That is why tigers may disappear from the wild. Elephant populations are also in crisis. On March 14th and 15th, just as a ten-day meeting of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was winding up in Bangkok, at least 86 elephants, including 33 pregnant females, were killed by poachers in south-western Chad for the ivory from their tusks. More....