By Adam Welz
As home to more than 80 percent of Africa’s rhinos, South Africa has attracted the intense and unwelcome attention of poachers, who, through their illegal hunts, send the animal’s horns into a soaring international black market that supplies users concentrated in China and Vietnam.
Rhino horn has played a minor role in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, mainly as a fever reducer. Today, although all rhino species are red-listed and international trade in rhino horn is banned, rhino horn is still consumed in China. In recent years it’s become fashionable among rich Vietnamese urbanites as well, who employ it as a hangover cure, a nonpsychoactive club drug or merely as a sign of wealth, according to journalists and illegal wildlife trade researchers.
This increased demand has driven retail prices over the $50,000 per kilogram mark, say conservationists. An adult southern white rhino can easily carry five kilograms of horn, a cool quarter million dollars’ worth of hard keratin growing on its face. That astronomical value is spurring on an increasingly sophisticated, cash-flush smuggling network that recruits African “triggermen” to kill rhinos across the country.
Between 1990 and 2007, South Africa lost 13 or so rhinos to poaching each year. In 2008 it lost 83, and every year since has seen a massive increase. An unprecedented 668 were poached in 2012.
Rhino poaching carries serious penalties in South Africa, and millions have been spent to protect the animals. Companies of soldiers with aerial support have even been placed in the Kruger National Park, a poaching hot spot. Triggermen often die in shootouts with authorities, but the payoffs are so great they keep coming. This year’s South African rhino poaching tally has just passed 550.
South Africa and the world are under pressure to do more, fast, to save these iconic beasts. Most conservationists advocate even stronger — and very expensive — law-enforcement measures. More....