Rhinos are known as one of the strongest animals in the world. But the future survival of these beautiful creatures is impeded by humanities thoughtless pursuit of status and affluence. The need to impress others with their wealth drives a select group of consumers to purchase rhino horn, failing to consider the environmental implications that these purchases supports and as such is fuelling an unsustainable rise in wildlife crime and poaching in South Africa.
" Senior, influential and very wealthy individuals such as businessmen, celebrities and government officials purchase rhino horns as luxury purchases, similar to that of a Gucci bag or an expensive car!"
The mysterious trend of rhino horn
Rhino horn consists of keratin, a protein found in the foundation of our own hair and nails. Rhinos are hunted illegally for their horn, which is then sold via criminal syndicates to consumers mainly within China and Vietnam. There is widespread belief embedded in the cultural and social norms in Asia that rhino horn possesses healing and spiritual properties. Traditional Asian medicine has used ground rhino horn for more than 2,000 years as a ‘cure’ to a variety of ailments, from cancer to hangovers.
Although, the demand for its use in medicine has decreased in recent years and instead demand has shifted among growing affluent communities, particularly within Vietnam, where rhino horn is considered a status symbol associated with success and is flaunted as an indicator of wealth. As demand for sales shifts from traditional medicine, rhino horn smugglers are increasing their supply to the jewellery trade. By processing horns into beads, bangles and bracelets, smugglers are able to supply Asia’s luxury goods market disguising horns as other items enables traffickers to evade detection at airports.
"Many horns are purchased via the black market where prices can range from $400,000 per kg for Asian rhino horns and $20,000 per kg for African horns. Making rhinoceros horn more valuable in weight than gold and diamonds!"
Buyers of rhino horn
Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, is the 13th most populated country in the world and is one of the world’s largest consumers of rhino horn!
The surge in demand for rhino horn is fairly recent and is believed to be due to the unprecedented increase in disposable income within upper-middle class communities. Senior, influential and very wealthy individuals such as businessmen, celebrities and government officials purchase rhino horns as luxury purchases, similar to that of a Gucci bag or an expensive car. It is often gifted within social and professional networks to establish wealth, assert ones social standing and strengthen business relationships.
Both buyers and consumers of rhino horn forge strong social networks with important individuals where it is essential to maintain good relationships and whereby the trust within the social circle allows the engagement of illegal activity. Many buyers are important individuals with contacts within the police and government, thus, illegal activity manages to stay under the radar and buyers evade any ramifications as a result of their purchases.
The amount of people buying rhino horn is expected to keep growing over the next few decades. As wealth increases within Vietnams upper-middle class, potential buyers or consumers of rhino horn will acquire the economic power to become consumers.
Why should we care?
There are five species of rhino. Two African (black and white rhinos) and three Asian (greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos). Three of the worlds five rhino species (black, Sumatran and Javan) are now classified by the IUCN red list as critically endangered. Over the past decade, nearly 10,000 rhinos have been killed by poachers in Africa. The remaining rhino populations are continuing to decimate with fewer than 30,000 individuals left, a major reduction from the 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
Many purchasers of rhino horn are oblivious of the impacts of their purchases, are uneducated about the possibility of rhino extinctions and continue to make the conscious decision to purchase it even though it's illegal.
There is little awareness of where horns come from and the brutal means at which it is supplied. Poachers have become friendly with international criminal gangs which supply them with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. Often tranquiliser guns are used to subdue the rhinos, before the horn is cut off, leaving the rhino to awaken and bleed slowly and painfully until their eventual death.
At the unsustainable rate at which rhino horns are being harvested, rhinos will unfortunately be at risk of extinction. It is not only our duty but also our global responsibility to ensure the survival of these beautiful and fierce creatures.
So what now?
One of the main suggestions for moving forward is legalising the trade. If made legal it would involve the sustainable harvesting of horn from live rhinos which can then be sold within a legal trade to international buyers. In a legal trade, rhino horns can then be microchipped and some type of permit scheme can be put in place to thwart laundering.
Although by legalising the trade, stigma associated with using rhino horn might reduce and demand could increase to dangerous levels with prices rising further. Legal trade would not be efficient enough to eliminate a parallel black market, it would still remain, but will likely reduce it.
Moreover, those with higher incomes are less concerned with legality and show preference for wild over semi-wild or farmed rhino horns, thus if the legal supply of wild rhino horns is not adequate, they will likely buy horns from illegal suppliers within the black market.
As the poaching epidemic increases throughout South Africa identifying the key rhino horn consumers and the motivations behind their consumption is imperative to changing the thought processes and cultural/social norms that have been at the forefront of rhino horn demand.
Feel free to take a look at some other articles on Mindless Mag looking at issues related to wildlife!: