Rampant poaching in Africa is a cause of major concern to wildlife organizations. Many rhinos are killed every year mainly for Asian markets. In Vietnam, rhino horn is believed to be miraculous, able to heal cancer.
If the killing of rhinos continues to increase, African wild rhinos could disappear within a few years. The best protected rhinos live in Kenya. Four of them, known as northern white rhinos, are the last of their kind. Each one of them has four bodyguards to guarantee its survival. But most of the other 25,000 rhinos in Africa do not enjoy such protection. The trade in rhino hornis illegal. However it is flourishing, most of the horn coming from South Africa, where most rhinos live. Hunters are willing to pay up to 20,000 euros ($26,000) to shoot a rhino and take the trophy home.
Rhino poaching on the rise
Rhino poaching has increased tenfold in the last five years, says the nature and animal protection organization World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Speaking to DW, WWF spokeswoman Sylvia Ratzlaff said she is happy with the statement given by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) at its conference which ended on 14.03.2013. The conference singled out Vietnam as the main importing country and Mozambique as a major transit country for rhino trafficking. "This is the first time that countries were named at CITES," said Ratzlaff.
The two countries now have a few months time to address the problem constructively. Mozambique is poor but CITES' regulations are also valid there, Ratzlaff stressed. To learn how to fight against poachers effectively, the country can seek advice from environmental and conservation organizations. "In the case of Vietnam, lack of political will seems to be the major problem," the WWF spokeswoman told DW. Even Vietnamese embassy staff were involved in the illegal horn trade. Vietnam is now under pressure. By January 2014, Vietnam as well as Mozambique have to prove that they are able to fight against horn trafficking from southern Africa, or else sanctions will be imposed.
Superstition hikes the price
In addition to stricter controls, the WWF and other animal welfare organizations are implementing awareness campaigns. In Vietnam there is a belief that the powder from the horn of the rhinoceros can help against fever, prevent a hangover or even cure cancer. These claims however, are dismissed by scientists, Ratzlaff says. The horn consists of the same material as fingernails and hair. Nevertheless, Vietnamese are willing to pay more than 40,000 euros per kilogram, more than the the price of gold.
Thousands of wild rhinos have been killed and their horns trafficked to Asia
South African biologist Duan Biggs says awareness campaigns and banning illegal trade control will not help to solve the problem. Shortly before the CITES conference, Biggs, together with three other scientists, wrote in the journal "Science", calling for the legalization of the horn trade. "We have a buffer of a very healthy population of rhinos to work with," Biggs said an interview with DW. He is convinced legalization is the right course to take. If that doesn't work, it can always be stopped again. "If we wait longer and the current situation continues, we will lose the opportunity to try an alternative strategy."
Legal breeding instead of illegal slaughter
Since horn grows like fingernails, rhinos should be bred specifically for the horn trade. The horn could be cut off when the animal is under anesthetic. That way the animal doesn't suffer pain. This is done to a quarter of the animals living in South African private game reserves, where dead animals' horns are not allowed to be sold. If these horns are legally harvested and put on on the market, prices and poaching would decrease, argues Biggs.
The WWF and many other organizations vehemently opposed the legalization theory. Sylvia Ratzlaff thinks that a boom in demand and even worse poaching could result if horns are on the market in large quantities and at cheaper prices. "This is just a change from the elite-trend to mass-trend. I think we will be lighting a fire that will be difficult to extinguish," said Ratzlaff.