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Rhinos on the Run

An illegal trade threatens this iconic animal’s survival

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Rhinos on the Run

Can you imagine a world without rhinos? With poaching levels on the rise, that might be where we’re heading. And it all starts with bogus health claims about rhinoceros horns.

From children to adults, everybody loves rhinos. Unfortunately, the girthy, perky-eared herbivores are equally attractive to poachers, who grind their signature curved horns into powder and sell them as an expensive cure-all. The result? Rampant poaching that has pushed several rhino species to the cusp of extinction, a tragic situation made doubly so by this fact: rhino horn does nothing worthwhile for your health.

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Rhinos in decline

If you ever travel to the Indonesian island of Java, a lucky break might offer you a beautiful sight: a Javan rhino in the wild. But don’t hold your breath. There are only a few dozen such rhinos left alive, so your chances of seeing one are slim.

Javan rhinos are one of three rhinoceros species listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List of Endangered Species. The others are the Sumatran rhino, with a population estimated at less than 275, and the African black rhino, whose population has declined by 97.6 percent since 1960. Whereas once the continent of Africa may have boasted as many as 850,000 black rhinos, by 2010 that number had dwindled to an estimated 4,880.

The two other surviving rhino species—the greater one-horned rhino in south Asia and the southern white rhino in Africa—are slightly better off, with the former categorized as merely “vulnerable” and the latter now removed from the endangered list after a brush with extinction. Less lucky was the related northern white rhino, which is now considered extinct in the wild.

So why are rhino populations under such pressure? Habitat loss is one challenge, but the true danger is poaching.

According to a report by the IUCN and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC), another wildlife monitoring organization, poaching was responsible for an estimated 94 percent of rhinoceros deaths in Africa since 2006. With rhino horn fetching a fortune on the black market, its trade is now the business of organized criminals, and increased demand from wealthy customers in Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam, is pushing poaching numbers ever higher. If the trend line continues, more rhino species will likely go extinct.

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A not-so-magical medicine

Have you heard that rhino horn can cure a hangover? How about cancer? As absurd as such health claims are, they continue to prime the lucrative black market. And though traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is often blamed for promoting such beliefs, Melissa Carr, a certified doctor of TCM, is out to set the record straight.

“That people think of TCM when they think of rhino horn is really hard as a TCM practitioner,” says Carr. “I want to make sure people understand that it’s not useful for what people think it’s useful for. It shouldn’t be used at all.”

According to Carr, TCM practitioners used to prescribe rhino horn for minor ailments such as fever and rashes, but it goes without saying that this is no longer an accepted practice. Nobody should—or likely would—kill an endangered rhinoceros to clear up a rash. But as rhino horn has become rarer, and thus more expensive and exotic, misconceptions about its therapeutic value have become similarly outsized.

One particularly persistent misconception is that rhino horn is useful for combatting impotence. Not so, says Carr. “People think they’re going to increase virility and treat impotence using rhinoceros horn—because of the shape of the horn, is what I think—but that’s not how it’s ever been used traditionally in Chinese medicine.”

The same goes for cancer, says Carr. And yes, hangovers too.

Carr’s own theory—one corroborated by industry watchers—is that rhino horn use has become as much about status as it is about health.

“I think the rarer something becomes, the more valuable it becomes. People think, ‘If very few people have access to that, if I can get it, then that really shows my level of importance, or how much money I have, or what my status is.’”

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The rhinos of tomorrow

If some of our worst impulses—status seeking, wastefulness, and greed, to name a few—are what fuel the slaughter of wild rhinos, our best impulses are what will save them. Throughout the world, conservation groups have their shoulders to the wheel (see sidebar).

Better still, such efforts are getting results. One example: the southern white rhino. Hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, today there are more than 20,000 white rhinos in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to intensive protections. Such efforts prove that if we work hard and all contribute our part, in future rhinos might well continue to roam the wilderness—and not just children’s storybooks.

Saving the rhinos: A global effort

If rhinos are to survive, it will be organizations like the International Rhino Foundation that will save them. Founded in 1989 to halt the decline of the black rhino in Zimbabwe, the organization (then called the Black Rhino Foundation) later relaunched as the International Rhino Foundation to protect rhino species wherever they were most threatened. Today its programs range from anti-poaching patrols in Indonesia and Africa to education programs in Vietnam to reduce demand for rhino horn.

Visit rhinos.org to find out more about this great organization, as well as how you can contribute.

Never too young to conserve

Is your five-year-old showing signs of becoming the next Jane Goodall? If so, the International Rhino Foundation’s “Adopt a Rhino” program might be in order. By “adopting” one of seven critically endangered Sumatran rhinos, your child (or you) will receive an adoption certificate, a photo, and a bio of the lucky rhino, with all proceeds going to the foundation’s ongoing conservation efforts.

For more info, check out rhinos.org/adopt.

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