WARNING: Graphic photos below.
Recently cut white rhino horns in Zimbabwe. Photos: © Michel Gunther / WWF-Canon.
Few animals face as violent, as well organized, and as determined an enemy as the world’s rhinos. Across the globe rhinos are being slaughtered in record numbers; on average more than one rhino is killed by poachers everyday. After being shot or drugged, criminals take what they came for: they saw off the animal’s horn. Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which claims that it has curative properties, rhino horn is worth more than gold and cocaine on the black market. However, science proves all this cash and death is based on a lie.
“There is no medicinal benefit to consuming rhino horn. It has been extensively analyzed in separate studies, by different institutions, and rhino horn was found to contain no medical properties whatsoever,” says Rhishja Larson, creator and head of the organization Saving Rhinos and author of the blog, Rhino Horn is NOT Medicine.
Rhishja Larson. Photos courtesy of Larson.
With a business and marketing background, Larson has taken a unique approach to advocating for the world’s rhinos. She believes that raising awareness may be key to winning the war against poaching.
“Until we acknowledge the root of the problem, we cannot take real steps to solve it. There is still a large segment of the public—including the media—that does not realize we are looking at an organized crime issue. […] Here’s an illegal market laundering an obscene amount of money—and it’s all based on a myth, a superstition about an animal part,” Larson explains, adding that, “I believe if the public knew the whole story, there would be a greater effort to disrupt—and ultimately close down—the rhino horn trade.”
According to Larson, rhino poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade in general, is not taken seriously enough.
“Exactly like illegal drugs and weapons, the illegal rhino horn trade depends on activities such as fraud, money laundering, racketeering, and violence. It requires the involvement of corrupt officials at the local, national, and international levels.”
South Africa has become the recent epicenter for rhino poaching. Last year 333 rhinos were butchered in the country alone. This year, to date, over 140 rhinos have been killed in the country. Larson says South Africa is targeted in part because it holds over two thirds of the world’s rhinos, but, she adds, “the bigger issue here is South Africa’s legal rhino trade, which is providing a smokescreen for illegal trade in rhino horn.”
Trophy hunters are allowed to kill a rhino for a premium price; however, this has allowed poachers in some cases to kill rhinos without attracting attention to their true motives.
Rhino poaching, along with rampant deforestation, have put three of five rhino species into the Critically Endangered category, the worst before extinction. In fact, the Javan rhino and the Sumatran are two of the world’s most endangered mammals. It is thought the last Javan Rhino surviving in Vietnam (there are still a few dozen in Java) was killed by poachers last year.
This Indian rhino, or greater one-horned rhino, has had its horn already taken off as a deterrent to poachers. Photo: Rhett A. Butler.
Larson wants to get the message out: rhino horn is not medicine. It will not bring down a fever or cure cancer. In addition, the illegal trafficking of these animals is not benign: it involves a litany of illegal and destructive activities. Rhinos are not the only ones who die in this trade. Poachers have been killed in the act, and guards have lost their lives protecting rhinos. Beyond pushing one of the world’s most iconic animals to extinction, the trade has a human and societal toll.
“We need to publicize the fact that the notion of rhino horn as a medicine is a myth,” says Larson. “And by ‘we’, I mean all of us: NGOs, zoos, traditional media, social media, and the public. I think this needs to be a sustained effort, utilizing every communication channel available, for example, websites, printed materials, educational events, social media. […] It is perhaps equally important to emphasize the organized crime aspect of rhino horn trafficking.”
For Larson, political-correctness or cultural sensitivity no longer has any room in the debate: “Using helicopters to kill rhinos in South Africa is not about preserving tradition in China or anywhere else. Today’s rhino crisis does not represent the cultural interests of the many—it is driven by the commercial interests of a few.”
In a May 2011 interview Rhishja Larson discussed the current rhino poaching crisis, rising demand in Asia for powdered horn, and how best to combat the organized trade.
INTERVIEW WITH RHISHJA LARSON
Mongabay: What is your background?
Rhishja Larson’s new book Murder, Myth, and Medicine.
Rhishja Larson: My prior experience is from the business world—marketing, communications, and business development.
Mongabay: Why rhinos?
Rhishja Larson: I believe that the public needs to know about the unconscionable acts being committed against this species. There is an enormous gap between the root of the rhino crisis and the public’s knowledge of this issue, and it needs to be closed. And, on a lighter note, I find rhinos to be absolutely gorgeous creatures.
POACHING OF RHINOS
Rhino poaching is never pretty or humane. Rhinos are either shot or drugged, their horns are then sawed off. Sometimes they are still alive and ultimately die from shock or bleeding to death. In this photo: a white rhino killed by poachers for its horn. Photo © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon.
Mongabay: Why is rhino poaching on the rise globally?
Rhishja Larson: The rise has been linked to increased and ongoing demand in rhino horn consumer countries, notably China and Vietnam. In the last few years, rhino horn has been marketed as a cancer treatment—not only in hospitals, but on Traditional Chinese Medicine websites. So there is still a perception among rhino horn consumers that it’s a “miracle cure” of some kind. Of course, trade in rhino horn is globally banned, but the body count and even certain activities within the antiques market indicate that the use of rhino horn continues unabated.
Mongabay: South Africa is facing a massive poaching crisis. Will you catch us up on the situation there?
Rhishja Larson: Unfortunately, the latest official release from SANParks on April 26th stated that over 138 rhinos have been killed this year. The total reported for 2010 was 333. In 2009, the number was 122; in 2008, it was 83, compared to 13 in 2007.
Mongabay: Why has South Africa become such a hot spot for poaching?
Maneuvering Black rhinoceros into net for helicopter transport to an enclosure known as a ‘boma’, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Photo: © Tanya Petersen / WWF-Canon.
Rhishja Larson: The short answer is that there are more rhinos in South Africa than anywhere else in the world. The country has about 21,000 rhinos, and the world’s rhino population numbers fewer than 30,000 for all five species. But the bigger issue here is South Africa’s legal rhino trade, which is providing a smokescreen for illegal trade in rhino horn. You’ve probably seen how this works with the Vietnamese “trophy hunters” who kill the rhinos legally, in order to get the horns to the traditional medicine markets. And then there is the high-profile case of a South African game farmer who had purchased dozens of rhinos legally at game auctions, 20 of which were later found in a mass grave, allegedly with their horns removed. These are not isolated incidents. There are several cases of professional hunters and others in the conservation community who have been arrested for suspected involvement with laundering illegal rhino horn. An audit of South Africa’s legal rhino trade and private rhino horn stockpiles could be very revealing.
Mongabay: How much corruption (bribing, inside knowledge, etc.) is involved in these killings?
Rhishja Larson: Quite frankly, the combination of the high number of rhino killings, the arrests for rhino-related crimes, and the low conviction rate suggest an extremely high level of corruption at multiple levels.
Mongabay: How is South Africa’s law enforcement doing in stopping poaching?
Rhishja Larson: Law enforcement is doing an admirable job of making arrests under the most dire circumstances. There have already been 82 arrests this year; they are doing great work. South Africa’s military is patrolling Kruger National Park at the Mozambique border. The problem is that the judicial system does not seem to grasp the seriousness of these crimes, and has a track record of granting bail, even to repeat offenders. There is also a reluctance to issue convictions for crimes related to loophole abuse, which is a shame, because these suspects are generally higher up in the trade chain than the shooters themselves. However, I do want to point out that there was some very encouraging news this week from KwaZulu-Natal—two rhino killers were sentenced to 20 years each.
Mongabay: Nepal recently announced a rise in rhino population even in the face of poaching. What is Nepal doing right?
Typical Yemeni dagger with rhinoceros horn handle. While these daggers used to be a driver of illegal poaching the market for such rhino horn handles has dried up. Currently almost all rhinos are poached for Traditional Chinese Medicine. Photo: © Hartmut Jungius / WWF-Canon.
Rhishja Larson: Much of the rhino conservation work in Nepal is done at the local level—raising public awareness and educating the communities who are literally living side-by-side with rhinos. There is a special focus on schools, as young people are critical for conservation success. At the other end, rhino poachers do not go through the court system in Nepal. They are handed over to the Forest Department, which has a history of handing out tough sentences. For example, last year, 16 rhino poachers received jail sentences ranging from ten to 15 years. Those are some serious deterrents.
Mongabay: How is rhino poaching similar to the illegal drug or weapons trades?
Rhishja Larson: Rhino horn syndicates, and wildlife trafficking in general, comprise a form of international organized crime. Exactly like illegal drugs and weapons, the illegal rhino horn trade depends on activities such as fraud, money laundering, racketeering, and violence. It requires the involvement of corrupt officials at the local, national, and international levels. Where you find one, you are likely to find the others.
Mongabay: How does rhino poaching hurt people, society?
Rhishja Larson: Illegal trade in rhino horn involves the same criminal elements as other organized crime, such as illegal drug and weapons trade. Its presence is a serious threat to safety and security at all levels.
RHINO HORNS AND CONSERVATION
Anti-poaching poster for the Indian rhino. Photo © TRAFFIC/Khalid Pasha.
Mongabay: Does the consumption of rhino horns provide any medicinal benefit?
Rhishja Larson: No. There is no medicinal benefit to consuming rhino horn. It has been extensively analyzed in separate studies, by different institutions, and rhino horn was found to contain no medical properties whatsoever.
Mongabay: How do we decrease overall demand for rhino horn?
Rhishja Larson: Publicizing the fact that the rhino horn myth has already been de-bunked is a great way to start. This information is a tool that can be used by conservationists worldwide, whether they are citizens of a rhino horn consumer country or not.
Mongabay: Why do you believe public awareness and education can save the world’s rhinos?
A white rhino killed by poachers for its horn. Photo © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon.
Rhishja Larson: Until we acknowledge the root of the problem, we cannot take real steps to solve it. There is still a large segment of the public—including the media—that does not realize we are looking at an organized crime issue. This perception needs to be updated. Here’s an illegal market laundering an obscene amount of money—and it’s all based on a myth, a superstition about an animal part. I believe if the public knew the whole story, there would be a greater effort to disrupt—and ultimately close down—the rhino horn trade.
Mongabay: Since the primary buyers of rhino horn are in Southeast Asia, how do you reach them with the message?
Rhishja Larson: The primary buyers of illegal rhino horn are in China and Vietnam. In both countries, there are the end users and the smaller shop owners. However, there is the larger and more mature drug manufacturing market in China.
Mongabay: Do you believe China is doing enough on enforcing the law on rhino horn?
Rhishja Larson: China has shown it is serious about convictions. Last year, a rhino horn smuggler was sentenced to 12 years in jail. There were an additional four people arrested in two more incidents. I think it is worth noting that the rhino horn in two of the cases was procured in Vietnam. But, there are troubling developments in China that should not be overlooked. This refers to the number of live rhinos that have been exported to China from South Africa, coupled with the revelation that China claims to have set up research provisions to “harvest” rhino horn for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. We are talking about over 100 live rhinos since 2000. In 2010 alone, Chinese media reported 16 rhinos arriving in China from South Africa within a six-month period. The live rhino imports are presumably under CITES research provisions, so of course, it all looks good on paper.
Mongabay: How much hope do you have for the Sumatran rhino?
Rhishja Larson: I am optimistic that the Sumatran rhinos can recover, although the numbers are declining rapidly. While this species was initially decimated due to demand for their horns, these rhinos are now faced with deforestation and habitat fragmentation. Keep in mind that the white rhino and the greater one-horned rhino both recovered from populations smaller than 200, thanks to dedicated conservation efforts.
Mongabay: How about the Javan?
Rhishja Larson: I am hopeful for the future of Javan rhinos. It is unforgivable that this species is left with just 48 individuals, but it’s not too late. Javan rhinos are breeding in Indonesia! Camera traps have recorded calves, the Javan rhino habitat is being expanded, and the International Rhino Foundation has kept the population strictly protected.
Mongabay: In your opinion, what needs to happen to save the world’s rhinos?
A stockpile of rhino horns and animals skins to be burnt by the government of Kenya. Photo: © Philippe Oberle / WWF.
Rhishja Larson: In my opinion, we absolutely must move away from the perception of rhino horn as a commodity to be hoarded and traded. Last year, India announced bold plans to destroy its rhino horn stockpiles. That would be a welcome step and ideally, other countries would follow the example. As I mentioned earlier, we need to publicize the fact that the notion of rhino horn as a medicine is a myth. And by “we”, I mean all of us: NGOs, zoos, traditional media, social media, and the public. I think this needs to be a sustained effort, utilizing every communication channel available, for example, websites, printed materials, educational events, social media. Any mention of rhinos should be paired with a reminder that rhino horn has been rigorously analyzed and has no medicinal value. It is perhaps equally important to emphasize the organized crime aspect of rhino horn trafficking, and tackle the unpleasant topics. The cultural argument doesn’t hold up here; using helicopters to kill rhinos in South Africa is not about preserving tradition in China or anywhere else. Today’s rhino crisis does not represent the cultural interests of the many—it is driven by the commercial interests of a few.
In addition to sustained public awareness efforts, there has to be a higher conviction rate for rhino horn crimes. In many of the cases in South Africa, making bail just seems to serve as a license fee for doing business in illegal rhino horn. Governments can take action: legal trade loopholes can be audited and closed, and existing wildlife trade laws can be enforced to the fullest.
For example, most people wouldn’t think of the UK when it comes to illegal rhino horn trade. But it turned out that antique rhino horn was being purchased legally in the UK by buyers from the Far East, who were exporting the horn for the purpose of manufacturing medicines. Now the restrictions have been tightened and it is illegal to sell mounted antique rhino horn in the UK.
Mongabay: What can people do to help?
Rhishja Larson: People can help by busting the rhino horn myth and disrupting the illegal rhino horn trade. One quick example is to share information using social media, which is already happening. Bloggers, traditional journalists, NGOs, and other media outlets can publish articles—online and in print—that bring attention to the organized crime aspect of the rhino crisis, and of course, point out that rhino horn is not a remedy. I think everyone needs to get on the same page and issue a consistent message about the rhino crisis. There are entities of all shapes and sizes out there—from established NGOs to informal Facebook groups—that are trying to help rhinos, and these efforts could be even more effective with a unified core message. Of course, people can provide financial support to organizations such as the US-based International Rhino Foundation and the global wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.
The world’s five species of rhinos in photos:
A camera trap captures a Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) in the wild. The Javan rhino is the world’s most endangered. Less than 60 survive in a single location in Java. A subspecies may survive in Vietnam, but if so only a few individuals. Photo by: World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
This is a Bornean rhino, a subspecies of the Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis). There are an estimated less than 250 Sumatran rhinos left on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
A black rhino (Diceros bicornis) in a sanctuary. Fifty years ago around 100,000 roamed Africa. Just over 4,000 survive today (a 96% decline from the 1960s) and the species is considered Critically Endangered. Its primary threat is poaching. Photo by: Rob Roy.
The Indian rhinoceros, otherwise known as the greater-one horned rhino, survives in India and Nepal. This photo is from Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Listed as Vulnerable, the Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) has a population around 2,500. Its primary threat is poaching. Photo courtesy of Rhishja Larson.
The world most abundant rhino was once the least. The white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) fell to just around 100 individuals (and was thought extinct until these were found), but today numbers 17,500, making this species among the world’s most upbeat conservation stories. Unfortunately, this species is heavily poached. It is listed as Near Threatened. Photo by: Ikiwaner.
(04/27/2011) Good news for rhinos is rare recently, but a new census shows that Nepal’s one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) population has increased by 23% since 2008 even in the face of poaching. In total 534 rhinos survive in Nepal, a rise of 99 individuals from 3 years ago.
(04/11/2011) Using genetic data and re-assessing physical evidence, scientists write that they have uncovered a new species of rhino, long considered by biologists as merely a subspecies. Researchers write in an open access PLoS ONE paper published last year that evidence has shown the northern white rhino is in fact a distinct species from the more commonly known—and far more common—southern white rhino. If the scientific community accepts the paper’s argument it could impact northern white rhino conservation, as the species would overnight become the world’s most endangered rhino species with likely less than ten surviving.
(02/28/2011) There may only be 40 left in the world, but intimate footage of Javan rhino mothers and calves have been captured by video-camera trap in Ujung Kulon National Park, the last stand of one of the world’s most threatened mammals. Captured by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Indonesia’s Park Authority, the videos prove the Javan rhinos are, in fact, breeding. “The videos are great news for Javan rhinos,” said Dr. Eric Dinerstein chief scientist at WWF, adding that “there are no Javan rhinos in captivity—if we lose the population in the wild, we’ve lost them all.”
(02/13/2011) As a rhino poaching epidemic continues throughout Africa and Asia, the price of rhino horn has matched cocaine, according to the UK’s Daily Mirror. The price of illegal powdered rhino horn—obtained by killing wild rhinos and sawing off their horns—has hit £31,000 per kilo or nearly $50,000 per kilo. The price has already topped that of gold.
(01/19/2011) Three hundred and thirty-three rhinos were killed in South Africa last year, the highest number yet. Ten of the rhino were black rhinos, which are listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the rest were white rhinos, listed as Near Threatened. In total South Africa has over 20,000 rhinos.
(11/18/2010) The Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) has partnered with the Forestry Department of Sabah in northern Borneo to launch a long-term reforestation project to aid Malaysia’s threatened species with particular emphasis on the Bornean rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), one of the world’s most imperiled big mammals. The reforestation project will be occurring in and adjacent to Tabin Wildlife Reserve, which is surrounded on all sides by oil palm plantations.
(11/10/2010) The illegal trade in rhino horn doesn’t just end in the deaths of thousands of rhinos. Humans, too, often lose their lives in the trade. Both those poaching rhinos and those protecting them, such as park rangers, have been killed in gun battles. But the trade ruins lives in many ways: yesterday, Tommy Fourie, 51, who allegedly sold 36 rhino hunters to a game farmer, shot himself with a hunting rifle in South Africa.
(10/07/2010) A traditional Chinese medicine businessman has been sentenced to 12 years in prison for attempting to smuggler rhino horn from Vietnam to China, according to Saving Rhinos which has been following the case on ChinaCourt.org.
(09/29/2010) Arief Rubianto, the head of an anti-poaching squad on the Indonesian island of Sumatra best describes his daily life in this way: “like mission impossible”. Don’t believe me? Rubianto has fought with illegal loggers, exchanged gunfire with poachers, survived four days without food in the jungle, and even gone undercover—posing as a buyer of illegal wildlife products—to infiltrate a poaching operation. While many conservationists work from offices—sometimes thousands of miles away from the area they are striving to protect—Rubianto works on the ground (in the jungle, in flood rains, on rock faces, on unpredictable seas, and at all hours of the day), often risking his own life to save the incredibly unique and highly imperiled wildlife of Sumatra.
(07/28/2010) Given the epidemic of rhino poaching across Africa and Asia, which has placed four out of five species in jeopardy of extinction, one fed-up game manager wants to take the fight beyond the poachers to the consumer. Ed Hern, owner of the Lion and Rhino Park near Johannesburg, told South Africa’s The Times that he has begun working with a veterinarian on injecting poison into a rhino’s horn to consumers. He told The Times that people who consumed poisoned rhino horn “would get very sick or die”.
(07/02/2010) Despite a number of scientific studies showing that rhino horn has no curative properties, supermodel, entrepreneur, and recent host of Britain’s Next Top Model, Elle Macpherson, says she ingests powdered rhino horn because: ‘[it] works for me’. In an interview with The Sunday Times via Twitter, Elle Macpherson says the illegal substance tastes like ‘crushed bone and fungus’.
(06/14/2010) A forest guard (i.e. ranger) in Orang National Park paid the ultimate price for protecting wildlife last week. Hassan Ali was found with two bullets in his stomach after being kidnapped by four men allegedly connected to poaching operations targetting the park.
(06/13/2010) With less than 40 individuals left in the world, the Bornean rhino is a small step away from extinction. Yet conservationists and government officials in the Malaysian state of Sabah are not letting this subspecies of the Sumatran rhino go without a fight. Implementing a daring last-ditch plan to save the animal, officials are working to capture a wild female to mate with a fertile male named Tam, who was rescued after wandering injured into a palm oil plantation two years ago.
(05/11/2010) Poachers have killed a Javan rhino in Vietnam for its horn according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). With only an estimated 60 individuals left the Javan rhino is the world’s rarest and classified by the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. The rhino was found dead from a gunshot wound and its horn cut off in Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam.
(03/02/2010) The rare Indian rhinoceros is not safe from poachers even in national parks. In Nepal’s world renowned Royal Chitwan National Park, twenty-four Indian rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) have been poached since the last census was taken in 2008. The most recent one was killed last Thursday. Approximately 372 Indian rhinos survive in the park, and the population is in decline.
(12/01/2009) Nothing can really prepare a person for coming face-to-face with what may be the last of a species. I had known for a week that I would be fortunate enough to meet Tam. I’d heard stories of his gentle demeanor, discussed his current situation with experts, and read everything I could find about this surprising individual. But still, walking up to the pen where Tam stood contentedly pulling leaves from the hands of a local ranger, hearing him snort and whistle, watching as he rattled the bars with his blunted horn, I felt like I was walking into a place I wasn’t meant to be. As though I was treading on his, Tam’s space: entering into a cool deep forest where mud wallows and shadows still linger. This was Tam’s world; or at least it should be.