Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Big Five – Part 4

The first of Africa’s Big Five animals that I wrote about was my favourite animal, the elephant – full of character, family oriented, with a great sense of humour.  The second was my favourite cat, the leopard – beautiful, cunning, difficult to see, and a great tree-climber.  The third was my least favourite of the Big Five – the African or Cape buffalo – a surly beast if there ever was one.
This week I am writing about the rhinoceros – at least the two species that live in Africa, known as the black rhino and the white rhino.
In reality, you will fine that this post is more about people, their greed, their cruelty, and their need to survive.
First a little background. 
There are five rhino species, three in Asia, two in Africa. Both species of African rhino have two horns – the Asian varieties have one.
Eighty percent of the world’s rhino population, which is estimated to be about 25,000, live in South Africa.  Another fifteen percent or so live in other African countries below the equator – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.  Within South Africa more than half of the rhinos are in the Kruger National Park and its surrounding protected game areas, which together are about the size as Israel, Wales, or New Jersey.
By far the most common of Africa’s rhinos is the white rhino, outnumbering the black by about 9 to 1.  The white rhino is a grazer – that is, it eats grass more than anything else.  To make this easier, the mouth of the white rhino has flat, or square, lips.  The white rhino is much bigger than the black, and can weigh up to 3,500 kg (over 7,500 lbs).  It can be up to 4.5 metres long (15 ft), not counting its tail.  The male is bigger than the female.
White rhino - square lips

The black rhino is smaller – up to 1,600 kg (3,500 lbs) in weight and 3.9 metres (12 feet) long.  It is a browser – that is, it eats leaves more than grass.  To facilitate this, its lips are pointed.  It is more adapted to the drier regions of Africa than the white rhino.
Black rhino - pointed lips

In general, African rhinos have bad eyesight and are bad tempered – particularly the black rhino.  If you are hiking in the bush and have a chance encounter with a rhino, the conventional wisdom is to keep quiet and not move.  If the rhino comes towards you, the advice is the same, although keeping quiet and keeping still are more difficult to do.  If the rhino charges, the advice remains the same – yeah, yeah.  I have yet to meet someone who can stand still (and quiet) when two to three tonnes of angry meat is charging towards you – with a very sharp point aimed right at you.
The idea behind this advice is that the rhino will only be able to see you if you move because their eyesight is not good.  If you keep still, and the rhino is not coming directly towards you, it probably will think you are a short tree and trundle by.
In reality, the advice given is rarely followed.  But to be safe, you don’t have to be able to outrun the rhino, which you can’t.  All you have to be able to do is run faster than someone else with you!
Of course, everyone knows that the rhino has been in the news, not for its beauty, but rather for the horrendous increase in its slaughter for its horns.
Some more background: the rhino horn is not a horn, but rather made from keratin, like hair or fingernails.  If removed, it does grow back.
Up to 2007, it is estimated that about 15 rhinos were poached every year.  Then the numbers started to increase rapidly.  In South Africa, in 2010, it is estimated that 330 rhinos were killed.  This year, the number will be right around 1,000.  Not only is this tragic, but it is also alarming because the death rate is now about the same as the birth rate.  Any further increases, will lead to the populations becoming critically small.
Protesting the killing - a cross for each dead rhino
Many South Africans have red rhino horns on their cars to protest the slaughter

Why this increase?
The demand for rhino horn comes mainly from Vietnam and China.  Contrary to popular belief, the primary use is not as an aphrodisiac, but rather either for medicinal purposes or for status.  Studies have shown that rhino horn has no medicinal benefits, but the belief in its benefits continues to grow.  A gift of rhino horn, either intact, or in powdered form, is regarded very highly.  I have been told that in the clubs of Vietnam, it is cool to have and use rhino horn powder – it has become a status symbol.
The demand is such that the street price of rhino horn n Vietnam, for example, is in the region of $65,000/ kg ($30,000/lb).  This means a big horn can be worth a quarter of a million dollars.  Rhino horn, at the moment, is more expensive than gold.
So what is being done to slow or stop the killing?
First, particularly in South Africa, anti-poaching efforts have grown rapidly.  Game rangers have become active in preventing poaching and in hunting down poachers.  This is becoming increasingly successful.  In South Africa, the number of poachers apprehended has risen from 165 in 2010 to over 300 or so this year.  The number of poachers killed has risen to about 50 this year.  This number is likely to rise again next year as anti-poaching methods improve, more helicopters are deployed, and those involved get more angry.
A sad part of the poaching story is that the poachers themselves are generally local blacks, who are living below the poverty line.  They are often doing it for the survival of themselves and their families.  Although I do not know how much they earn from bringing in a horn, my guess is that it is very little – but a relative fortune to them.  The kingpins of the trade are safely ensconced in Vietnam or China.
What is particularly galling is that on several occasions in South Africa, veterinarians have been arrested as being part of a poaching organization – again a horn or two would bring in much more money than a year’s veterinary practice.  I believe that such people should receive hugely more severe sentences than the people who are doing it for survival.  Perhaps cutting off their noses would be a start!
Second, countries like South Africa are putting increased pressure on Vietnam and China to get on board against the poaching.  They are trying to get the use of rhino horn outlawed in these countries.  It seems that some progress is being made, but not enough to slow the number of animals being killed.
Third, South Africa and other affected countries are trying to get the trade of rhino horn legalized.  The argument is that several countries have huge stockpiles of rhino horn, usually taken from rhinos that have died from natural causes.  If these stockpiles are put onto the market, the price of rhino horns would plummet, since supply would be far greater than demand.  It would no longer be hip to have rhino horn powder.  The profits would disappear, and the need for killing rhinos would diminish.  But I suspect these proposals will meet stiff opposition from non-African countries.
Whatever the situation, the current practice of using rhino horns is barbaric, particularly because there are no known benefits from a health perspective.  From a conservation perspective, the killing of rhinos is tragic.

Wishing you all happy holidays and a healthy and happy 2014.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Your piece taught me two things, Stan: First, that the real purpose behind the rhino slaughter was in elevating status...not the other thing, and second, why you're so anxious to have me and my ailing knee accompany you into the bush in search of a rhino sighting.

    Happy New Year.

  2. Thanks, Stan! It's a shame that so many of the threatened/endangered species are because of greed and avarice rather than simple ignorance and indifference. The latter seems easier to correct than the former.

    And the only way I'll ever go sight-seeing in the bush is with Jeff, literally, "in tow."