Conservationists were left feeling unsettled about the future of rhinos after the CITES’ (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Geneva last week. During a special panel on rhinoceros, the CITES Secretariat failed to produce any tangible recommendations, despite the rhino situation being described as “almost out of control” by one delegation. China, assumed to be the main culprit for illegal rhino horn trafficking used in traditional medicine, evaded questions and provided only vague answers—as usual. Conservationists struggled to piece together answers while strategizing to save the world’s quickly declining rhino populations.
Traditional Chinese medicine’s voracious appetite for rhino horn extends from the forests of Vietnam to the savannahs of Africa to the museums of Europe. In the past three years, rhino poaching has exponentially increased. In South Africa, where over 80 percent of the world’s rhinos reside, about a dozen animals were killed each year between 2000 and 2007. Last year, 333 were found slaughtered, and 239 have already been killed as of August 3 this year. Sawed off horns of the fallen creatures find their way to Asia, satisfying consumer demand driven by increasing wealth in countries like China and Vietnam.
The falsely rumored claim that the finger nail-like substance cures cancer has also escalated rhino horn demand. Though the Chinese government denies the cancer curing properties of rhino horn, after a high-ranking Vietnamese government official supposedly announced that the horn had cured his melanoma back in 2006, countries like South Africa have since seen an influx of Vietnamese and Chinese poachers. What was probably Vietnam’s last remaining Javan rhino was poached last year.
A worrying trend has also surfaced in Europe: widespread theft of rhino horn museum specimens. Since 2008, Susie Watts, a Humane Society International consultant and the co-chair of the rhino working group at the Species Survival Network, has counted 42 rhino horn thefts from museum collections, some of the pieces dating back to the 19th century. At the same time, legal sales of rhino horns began fetching higher and higher prices, Watts says, and often the buyers were not interested in how aesthetically appealing the horn was, but rather how much it weighed. Alarm bells began ringing, and the European Union caught wind of a large Irish gang of rhino horn thieves with connections to crime, money laundering, and fraud. “I mean, you couldn’t even make this up, could you?” Watts says.
In response to this fiasco, the European Union, led by the U.K., has banned the export of pre-1947 rhino horn, which were previously considered antiques and fair game for the market. “That’s now being clamped down on,” Watts says, with the exception of specimens used for bona fide scientific research or as part of household goods when owners are relocated. One final excemption, which has raised some eyebrows, is the trade of intricately carved antique horns whose artistic value exceeds that of its potential black-market price tag as medicine.
Rhino horn, which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over two millennia, is considered a “cold” drug used to treat “hot” ailments. According to the Encyclopedia of Chinese Materia Medica, the horn relieves heat trapped deep in the body in areas of “ying” (maintenance) and “xue” (blood). When it comes to diagnosable conditions, rhino horn is purported to cure things like arthritis, fever, and high blood pressure, though most scientific research on the substance refutes its curative properties. A 1991 paper in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found perhaps the most legitimate, though flimsy, scientific link between rhino horn and healing. The Hong Kong-based researchers reported that high concentrations (2.5 g/ml) of pulverized rhino horn could produce a drop in rectal temperatures in rats with hyperthermia, but the same results were attained with water buffalo horn and with herbal concoctions. At around $35 to $65 per gram, rhino horn would indeed be a pricey cure for a simple fever since a single dose usually entails at least 15 grams. Nevertheless, demand in China and Vietnam is unwavering, and any studies debunking the horn’s mystical properties are dismissed as tainted Western thought.
When directly questioned about rhino horn at the CITES meeting, Watts says, the Chinese delegate only said that they’ve had a law in place since 1993 banning trade in rhino horn (a fact he repeated three times). But China did not mention whether this law would change in the future, leaving other CITES attendees feeling uncertain of what’s in store for the species.
The latest plot twist is China’s proposal to import hundreds of rhinos to create a “large herd.” The country claims that this would reduce pressure on wild rhinos by placing them into protective zoos, Watts says, and that, “being a big country, China needs lots of zoos.” Watts, who says China’s half-hatched herd scheme was “quite difficult to follow, actually,” would entail African rhino species rather than Asian.
The unspoken fear amongst conservationists, though, is that China would use these “zoos” as a means to side step international law and legalize live rhino horn harvesting. China has already pulled a similarly slick move to “legalize” the trade in big cat skins. A dubious document, formerly posted to the Longhui Pharmaceutical Company’s website, proposed the “shaving alive rhino horn technology” for the production of rhino horn-based traditional Chinese medicine products. The company, which claims to have already imported a number of rhinos, predicts annual sales revenue of $60 million. This document has since disappeared from Longhui’s website, though whether or not that was a direct order from the government (after all, sale of rhino horn in China is supposed to be illegal), conservationists do not know. The document states that the “shaving alive rhino horn” technology has already been approved by the National Forestry Bureau, the branch of the Chinese government in charge of wildlife protection (also known as the State Forestry Administration). And since the document’s disappearance from the internet, conservationists have learned that Longhui did receive a patent for the shaving technology, issued by China’s State Intellectual Property Bureau. The UK and Kenya, Watts reports, did raise questions about the potential commercial use of rhino horn from live rhinos, but neither actually mentioned the Longhui document. Again, China did not provide an answer.
In Vietnam, this live shaving may already be taking place. Watts visited one such Vietnamese farm in March, and noticed the rhinos’ horns looked particularly odd. Through rhinos often rub their horns against their enclosures, especially when they’re bored, Watts suspected foul play. She’s since shown photos of the rhino horn to four experts, including a veterinarian who works with rhinos, and they corroborated that the horn has been shaved or cut. “We can only hope the ones in China will not be shaved,” Watts says, “but as I said we didn’t get very many answers [from China] which is a shame.”
Conservationists like Watts will keep busy until the next CITES meeting, which will probably take place in June or July. In light of the CITES Secretariat’s wishy-washy rhino report, pro-active parties formed a rhino working group dedicated to devising strategic recommendations in time for the next meeting. The group consists of “whoever put up their hand and said they want to be there,” says Watts, which for the moment includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, the U.S., the U.K., South Africa, India, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, China, and several non-governmental organizations (WWF, TRAFFIC, IUCN, and the Species Survival Network). In addition to conservation strategies, the group plans to undertake a consumer education campaign, like spreading the word that rhino horn does not cure cancer or is good for people suffering from strokes. The rhino group also plans to emphasize scientific research and cultural knowledge.
For more information, see this excellent TIME Magazine story on the international rhino trade.