Throughout history the hunting and poaching of rhino has always been present in one form or another. Rhinos were killed for their horn and for sport. Over 150 years ago, the African savannah was home to well over a million black rhino and white rhino. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the numbers were dangerously low. Relentless hunting by European settlers saw the numbers perish and distribution decline. Poaching also escalated as the demand for illegal trade grew for rhino horn, a prized ingredient in traditional medicine in many Asian countries.
Various conservation efforts throughout the middle decades helped improve the numbers but by the mid-2000s, the demand for rhino horn exploded, leading to an unprecedented level of rhino poachers in South Africa.
Rhino Poaching Numbers
The poaching statistics for the last decade make for grim reading. Whilst only 13 rhinos were lost to South African poachers in 2007, by 2014 the number of rhinos had increased considerably to 1,215 – a whopping 9,246% increase in just seven years.
This trend has continued to stay high in the following years and whilst recent numbers for 2018 indicate a drop in the numbers to under a 1,000 for the first time since 2012, there is still much work to be done in order to continue to protect and maintain population levels and minimize poaching incidents.
Why are rhino being poached?
The current poaching crisis can be attributed to the growing demand for rhino horn in Asian countries, most notably Vietnam and China. International trade in rhino horns has been banned since 1977, but it continues to fetch huge profits on the black market. At its peak, rhino horn was selling for up to $65,000 per kg, more than gold or cocaine. The price over the recent years has dropped to close to $25,000 per kg. This trend is good news, but may also bring about new challenges in the short term as buying horn becomes more affordable to a potentially wider customer base.
And yet there is no medicinal value in using a rhino horn. A rhino’s horn is made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails and despite the fact that numerous scientific studies have proved there is no medical benefit to taking rhino horn remedies, the demand in many Asian countries is still very high.
What is the rhino horn used for?
Rhino horn is used in Traditional Asian Medicine (TAM). TAM is used across a wide spectrum of illness, including rheumatism or fever and pain and there have even been stories of people claiming they had been cured of cancer by taking rhino horns. Many myths of its medicinal benefits abound.
The horn is also used for remedies to cure hangovers or as an aphrodisiac. It is often used to honour terminally ill relatives.
The growth in wealth in countries such as China and Vietnam has meant that the percentage of these countries' populations that can now afford to purchase rhino horn is much larger than it was only a few years ago. This ‘middle-class’ boom has lead to the use of rhino horn as a status symbol, with many individuals openly using rhino horn as a way of showing off their wealth.
Additionally, studies done by illegal wildlife trade organisations show that the demand for rhino horn is independent of price, meaning people will buy it no matter how expensive it is.
Investigations of rhino trade also indicate that consumers prefer wild rhino horn rather than farmed rhino horn and that they are neither concerned about rhino populations nor the stigma attached to using it. This suggests that the demand for rhino horn is unlikely to fall because people’s beliefs are firmly engrained in the culture.
Rhino horn has been used to make ornaments and jewellery, although this is often a means through which rhino horn can be smuggled into countries.
Other threats to rhino
The other most significant threat to rhinos is habitat loss. In both Africa and Asia, the natural habitat of the rhino is being eroded as more and more land is claimed for human settlements and farmland.
As we reported last year, a compelling UN report released in May 2019 has revealed that one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction. The report painted an alarming picture of species extinctions, wildlife population declines, habitat loss, and depletion of ecosystem services confirming that we are losing nature at a dramatic and unsustainable rate.
Rhinos are often being pushed out of their current habitat. This might be due to such factors as lack of food or water, or the encroachment of their habitat by human interaction through the increase of farmland or buildings and developments.
Rhinos are solitary animals that usually shy away from human contact. They tend to live alone and require a large area in which to graze and live. But as human settlement moves increasingly into the rhino’s territories, there is a depletion in the natural resources and the rhinos are often forced to search elsewhere for a suitable place in which to live, breed, and raise their young.
The impact of habitat loss for rhinos also has a ripple effect on other plants and animals that live within that ecosystem. For example, a black rhino is a browser, and by eating leaves from shrubs and trees, they are natural pruners. This keeps these plants from growing uncontrollably and stops certain vegetation from choking other types. This is one of many examples of how valuable the rhino is within its ecosystem.
Finally, if rhinos are forced out of their specific areas due to habitat changes, they may well find themselves less protected from poaching. It is therefore imperative that we do all that we can to reduce environmental threats and habitat loss.
Another threat to rhino is war
In areas where law enforcement is reduced or non-existent, particularly in war zones where there is political instability or corruption, protection for rhinos is usually reduced or non-existent. This makes it easier for poachers to kill rhinos and other endangered species.
The northern white rhino once roamed over vast areas of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the 1940s there were over 6,000 northern white rhinos in Africa, but by the 1980s that number had declined to less than twenty. Since then, the numbers have declined completely. The northern white rhino is now considered to be extinct in the wild, and with only two females left anywhere on the planet after the death of the last male Sudan, at our partner Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the entire species is now ‘functionally extinct’.
One of the main reasons for their decline was the high level of poaching that took place in these countries, particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, as civil war and unrest led to unchecked and corrupt political administration.
What can you do to help?
Helping Rhinos is working in many ways to ensure that Asian and African rhino populations are maintained and continue to thrive. By continuing to work with conservationists and projects on the ground and local communities we are empowering ownership and pride in conservation.
Please help us spread the word and raise awareness by sharing this information with your friends and family. You can become more involved through our adoption and sponsorship programmes, reading up on the latest rhino news and you are always welcome at any of our informative rhino events.