Hello! I’m Samantha Stocks.

I’m a writer based in Bristol, UK.

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Old traditions threaten the future of rhinos

Kruger National Park – one of South Africa’s most popular tourist destinations and safari hot spot – is known for its staggering beauty and rich biodiversity. Sadly, it also has a dark side.

Rhino poaching in Kruger National Park has been rife in recent years, and concerns are rising. The park is home to a substantial number of the rhino population on the continent: nearly 90 percent Africa’s 23,000 rhino population live in South Africa. The country has between 9,000 to 12,000 white rhinos, and between 580 and 650 black rhinos. In recent years, rhino poaching has seen a shocking increase, with 83 rhinos killed in 2008, and 122 rhinos killed by poaching in 2009. A staggering 333 rhinos were killed in 2010 resulting in the highest number of rhino poaching ever experienced in South Africa. So far this year, a total of five rhinos have been killed in the country.

On 12th January five rhino poachers were shot dead in South Africa, and seven others arrested in an attempt to quell the poaching surge. Three were killed in the park, and a further two were shot near the Mozambique border. It is important to note, state Kruger News, that as well as being home to the majority of rhinos in the country, a large proportion of the park borders Mozambique, making the park more desirable to poachers as they are able to escape into the neighbouring country.

Trade in rhino horn is banned under CITES. However, the demand for rhino horn has made its trade a very lucrative business on the black market for international organised crime syndicates, with each horn fetching up to thousands of dollars. It is so lucrative, in fact, that they have been able to utilise very advanced technologies such as helicopters, tranquilisers, and night-vision equipment to aid in their poaching.

African rhino coordinator, Joseph Okori, holds ‘well-organised syndicates’ who now use these high-tech devices responsible for the sharp increase in rhino poaching in Africa. “This is not normal poaching,” he says.

Demand for rhino horn has been largely driven by markets in the Far East (China and Vietnam in particular) in their desire for use of the horn in traditional medicines.

In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn is believed to cure a wide variety of ailments. According to Li Shih-chen’s 1597 materia medica Pen Ts’ao ao Kang Mu and quoted in a National Geographic blog post, rhino horn was prescribed for nearly everything: “To cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits and nightmares. Continuous administration lightens the body and makes on very robust. For typhoid, headache and feverish colds. For carbuncles and boils full of pus. For intermittent fevers with delirium. To expel fear and anxiety, to calm the liver and clear the vision. It is a sedative to the viscera, a tonic, antipyretic. It dissolves phlegm. It is an antidote to the evil miasma of hill streams. For infantile convulsions and dysentery. Ashed and taken with water to treat violent vomiting, food poisoning, and overdosage of poisonous drugs. For arthritis, melancholia, loss of the voice.”

A belief has emerged in Vietnam that the horn can be used to cure cancer.

In fact, rhino horn has no medicinal value whatsoever. According to a 1983 study at Hoffmann-La-Roche, and an additional study in 2008 by the Zoological Society of London, results conclusively revealed that rhino horn contains no medical properties.

There are measures in place to combat rhino poaching, including enlisting the help of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), who have sophisticated surveillance equipment, and work done by WWF with their African Rhino Pogramme, which provides technical and financial support to 12 rhino conservation projects across Africa. WWF also work with governments, NGOs, and local communities, and work to ensure that local communities benefit from rhino conservation schemes via wildlife tourism, in an attempt to reduce the incentive to poach.

However, poaching will always continue as long as there is a demand for rhino horn. The only way to truly put an end to the poaching is to pull the problem out at the routes: by eliminating the demand for the horn, and with many Asian societies so steeped in old traditions and belief systems, it will be no easy feat.

The solution lies in education: by sharing the knowledge of clinically tested and approved modern medicines in literature throughout Asia, and by informing medical students in Asia the dangers of hanging on to traditional Chinese medicines and its hand in the destruction of many species throughout the world. The unfounded traditions and beliefs of many traditional Chinese medicines that have been passed down from generation to generation over hundreds of years no longer have a place in the world.

For further reading, rhinoconservation.org provides an insightful article on the subject of rhino horn demand and trafficking.