Written by Dereck Joubert.
The first rhinos Beverly and I saw together certainly impressed me. It’s not surprising of course; who wouldn’t be impressed by a 4 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 twenty one with a full three or four years of bush experience behind me— well, sort of…between school and university, perhaps a hefty few weeks in total—but I’d studied rhinos from afar. Beverly feigned complete trust in me, stood behind me and held my hips, but I suspect 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.
As it happens, the rhinos blundered passed, if they could find us. The first thing to understand about rhinos is that they don’t see terribly well, except when you least want them to! White rhinos must have once been like the casual and calm Brontosaurus dinosaurs, wandering Africa and Asia in herds of huge numbers, feeding on vegetation as other “main characters” 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 around peacefully. They’re the Chocolate Labradors of the pachyderm world. I’ve never heard of anyone hating a white rhino. Black Rhinos are similar, in that they hook down acacia thorn branches instead of grass, and perhaps the rougher diet has a slight effect on them. They smash through fences, walls, cars and even trains if they come across them. They are the pitbulls of the pachyderm world!
Neither deserves what I recently saw on film from someone I know. She was a beautiful adult female white rhino, round in just the right place, 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. It used to be that poachers were more polite. They would kill a rhino and chop off the large horn and not bother with the rest. Today with a street price of $65,000 a kilogram, every last shred of rhino horn is taken, but now even the mucus sap is drained and the horn buds. 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 in size.
When the pain from the surgery—done with a machete—overwhelmed the effect of the M99 she tried to get up and run away, so they hacked at her until she submitted to the final act. 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.
So the second thing I wish everyone knew about rhinos is that they do feel pain. There is a movement afoot in South Africa to offer up a solution for the intense rhino poaching that sees a rhino being killed every 8 hours. 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 of “flooding 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 also a huge market, and Far East countries like Taiwan, Thailand and others make up over 2 billion other potential buyers. We have 18,000 rhinos left. A rhino produces a horn if shaved off, every 3 years. Rhinos today have the capacity to satisfy less than 3% of the market. If it is made legal to trade in rhino horn, many millions of people will feel it’s okay 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. I hope that people learn about rhinos is that “trade” in horn is disastrous, not a solution. “Harvesting” rhino horn requires the horns be 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 the horn down) will have serious repercussions This year marks a very interesting one. 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.
As seen in issue 4