The first rhinos my wife Beverly and I saw certainly impressed me. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a four-ton prehistoric animal coming at you, snorting and blowing snot like a dragon with red dust rising up from its feet like the very beast of the Apocalypse?
I think I was 21 with a few years of bush experience, and had studied rhinos from afar when I finally saw one up close. Beverly feigned complete trust in me, stood behind me and held my hips. (Though perhaps it was less trust than the fact that there was not a single tree thicker than my thumb to hide behind?)
Nonetheless, I was determined to protect her, and dropped to one knee, ignoring the thorn that immediately made me regret the gesture and said we should be as quiet as possible.
Thankfully, the rhinos blundered past, missing us by a few paces, but clearly irritated enough by our scent to want to crush us into the red dust if they could find us. And that was the first thing I learned about rhinos:
They don’t see very well.
White rhinos must have once been like the calm Brontosaurus dinosaurs, wandering Africa and Asia in herds, feeding on vegetation as other big animals chased each other and slaughtered their prey, largely leaving these lumbering giants alone. There were probably millions of them, because they do absolutely no harm at all to anyone, man or beast. They tug out clumps of grass to eat, don’t go near crops or livestock and just wander peacefully.
White rhinos are the "chocolate labradors" of the pachyderm world. No one hates a white rhino. No one.
Black rhinos are little more rambunctious; they hook down acacia thorn branches instead of grass, and perhaps the rougher diet has a slight effect on them. They smash through fences and walls and cars (even trains!) if they come across them. Black rhinos are the pitbulls of the pachyderm world!
They feel pain.
No creature deserves what I recently saw on film.
She was a beautiful adult female white rhino, round in just the right places, with delicate folds of grey fat and flesh — not unattractive in rhino terms — except for one blemish: her face had been hacked off. She stepped out into the road, confused and afraid and in levels of pain I cannot even imagine.
Poachers had darted her with a drug called M99, just enough to put her down, but not enough to dull any pain, and then hacked off her horns.
Poachers used to be a little more polite. They'd kill a rhino and chop off the large horn and not bother with the rest.
Today, with a street price of $65,000 per kilogram, every last shred of rhino horn is taken; even the mucus sap is drained and the horn buds are removed. A newborn baby is no longer left to try to suckle its poached mother; it, too, is chopped up for its three-month old horn (no larger than a shot glass).
When the pain from the surgery, done with a machete, overwhelmed the effect of the M99, the rhino tried to get up and run away, so they hacked at her until she submitted to the final act. But then, they left. Hours later, she walked out onto the road, a bloody mutilated mess.
Poachers do this now because the risk of detection is increasing, so gunshots need to be kept to a minimum. If they drug the target animal and it walks away later, only to collapse and be found by anti-poaching teams, the poachers' tracks are at the original site and much harder to follow.
I hope that people learn that "trade" in horn is disastrous, not a solution.
There is a move afoot in South Africa to offer up a solution for the intense rhino poaching that sees a rhino being killed every 8 hours each day.
With over 60% of rhinos in private hands (on farms and in breeding locations), those owners want the right to harvest and sell rhino horn and, according to their logic, "flood the market."
Many of these farmers are actually businessmen, so it’s astounding to me that they have such a weak grasp of the use of a calculator. There are now 1.3 billion Chinese people, and the rhino horn market doesn’t stop there. Vietnam is a huge market and Taiwan, Thailand and other far Eastern countries make up over 2 billion potential consumers of rhino horn.
We have 18,000 rhinos left. A rhino produces a horn if shaved off, every three years.
In other words: rhinos today have the capacity to satisfy less than 3% of the market.
If, however, it is made legal to trade in rhino horn, millions of people will feel it’s OK to buy rhino horn, and the market will leap in size. For businessmen to feed this market (and sell their wares), they will market and manage the prices, for best-achieved value. As the price goes up, as any farmer would pray for, the risk/reward ratio for poachers will quickly make it more and more viable to poach rhinos, and the curve to extinction will quickly increase.
“Harvesting” rhino horn means that horns are sawn off.
Each time that happens, they are darted (put at risk) and moved. I don’t believe that rhinos have evolved over 10 million years to have a horn that they don’t need. So the after-effects of dehorning a rhino (or shaving down the horn) will have serious repercussions.
We are killing rhinos faster than they can breed.
This year marks a very interesting one. In time, 2014 will be known as the year when rhinos reached a tipping point, where the rhinos we have are breeding at a rate lower than the kill rate of poaching. We will officially go into a rhino deficit this year.
Consider a donation to the Great Plains Foundation Rhinos without Borders campaign.
Photo Credit: Beverly Joubert