£430,000 on the face of nature

A cure for cancer, an aphrodisiac, an antioxidant cleanser. The rhinocerous horn has been renown in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, although evidence for its actual medicinal properties is, in fact, nil. Despite this, the value of the horn is extortionate, reportedly worth as much as $250,000 in Vietnam; inevitably this has been the result of the illegal poaching of hundreds of rhino from African National Parks.

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Thankfully, smugglers don’t have to go to Africa to deal with the nitty-gritty of rhino-horn poaching. Instead, individuals may visit their local museum or zoo and steal the horns that are kept on display, instead. Yesterday night, three men raided Ireland’s Sword museum, tying up the security guard and entering the store room. The thieves stole four heads from storage – removed from public display to prevent thefts like these. The heads were species of endangered black rhino and virtually extinct white rhino, each with 2 horns; together, the lot is approximately worth £430,000 on the black market (more than it’s weight in gold – or cocaine).

In 1993, China signed the CITES treaty for the removal of rhinoceros horn from pharmacological medicine, although illegal sale of the horn in the black market is still rife. Brian Walsh, columnist for TIME magazine online, comments that the illegal trade in wildlife somewhat resembles the international drugs trade, and that enforcement laws are required to actively stop the trade. 

Theoretically, decreasing the demand for rhino horn should curb demand. Consumers searching for rhino horn cures tend to come in the shape of wealthy, aged urbanites, purchasing specimens not only for personal use, but also as gifts for politicians and other wealthy elites. Worsening with the developing economies of China and South East Asia, the combination of wealth with the desire for some of biodiversity’s most unusual assets, seems deadly.

How else can we stop it? Many anti-poaching schemes have been discussed, some implemented. Such schemes have included the purposeful removal of rhino horns from individuals within the National Parks, and increasing the number of armed park rangers searching for poachers. More recently, the poisoning rhino horns with pesticides and permanent pink dye has been carried out; a cocktail which would cause severe discomfort for the consumer, and allow airport scanners to detect the dye to stop illegal trade. TRAFFIC, the illegal trade monitoring network, commented that this scheme would simple displace poaching intensity to other areas.

The UK is adopting a DNA database of rhino horns, conducted by the National Wildlife Crime Unit. The log of genetic information of all rhino horns in the country will provide a stable base of individual profiles. This follows an increase in rhino horn thefts from museums and zoos in recent years.

CITES has also proposed lifting the trade ban, which supposedly encourages illegal poaching, and introducing a legal market for rhino horns. The organisation would run the legal market, selling only to registered buyers, and the profits of which would be used to prevent illegal poaching. Controversial, the vote for the lift on the ban would require 2/3 majority of the member states to vote in at the 2016 convention in South Africa.