African Rhinos and the Poaching Epidemic

Written by Max Michalec, ESLLC 2016-2017

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Keratin, the fibrous protein that provides the structure of: fingernails, hair, hoofs, feathers, horn, and many other animal structures.  Our fingernail clippings have no value yet rhino horn is worth over $60,000 per kilogram; that is almost $20,000 more per kilo than gold.  This past year I had the opportunity to come face to face with one of the largest threats facing endangered animals today, the poaching of rhinos for their horn.

While on the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa I had the chance to participate in efforts to monitor and protect the endangered white rhino and the critically endangered black rhino.  I was glad that I could do something to help these magnificent creatures but the fact remains that poaching is on the increase with no easy answers to the problem.  In the first part of the 1900’s there were over 500,000 rhinos in Africa and now there are just 29,000 in the wild today.  In 2015 1,175 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone.  As you can see in the graph below published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2016) poaching is exponentially increasing and it is starting to spread to neighboring countries as well.

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The poaching problem can by in large be attributed to increasing demand for rhino horn from Asia, particularly Vietnam and China where it is used in traditional medicine, as an aphrodisiac, and as a status symbol of ones wealth.  Rhino horn is extremely valuable because of its scarcity and high demand in Asian markets.  The increasing value of rhino horn has led to the involvement of international crime syndicates who are supplying locals with equipment and the recourses necessary to poach.

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There is no simple solution to the poaching problem that is plaguing Africa.  In South Africa poaching is the only way that many people from townships and rural communities can provide for their families and with a lack of opportunities for them to improve their socio-economic class for many the money that poaching generates is too irresistible to turn down.  And then there is the problem of demand from Asia where rhino horn has been used for over 2000 years as a traditional medicine.  How do you convince a culture that the practices they have followed for generations upon generations are detrimental to the world and have no true health benefits?

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Efforts are being made though to save the rhino before it is too late.  Many reserves in South Africa have an armed anti-poaching unit to be a proactive and reactive force to poaching on their reserve.  In order to know where to deploy their anti-poaching units many reserves also actively monitor the location of rhinos.  On the international level there are efforts being made to reduce demand for rhino horn and to shut down the illegal poaching market.  There is also an increase in environmental education that is being provided to students across rural South Africa, teaching kids the benefit of wildlife and how to protect them.  Our job is to protect rhinos long enough that this next generation of environmental stewards will grow up seeing rhinos in the wild, not just hearing stories of these unique pachyderms.

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