Is domestication a final hope for the world’s rhinos?
Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1511. Woodcut. 9 1/4 × 11 3/4 inches. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
It’s easy to get lost on the dirt roads to John Hume’s place. Located in the open savanna of South Africa’s North West Province, the private land is indicated only by wired fencing along the road. A turn onto a path leading up to Hume’s house reveals a hulking gray mass, just as the blood-red sun starts to descend across miles of roaming ground. It’s a bull rhinoceros, but he doesn’t look like anything you might find in a wildlife photo book. In place of the magnificent scimitar, the rhino bears a stunted, blunt block of gray nail atop its nose. It’s been cut to save his life and, perhaps, one day, make Hume incredibly rich.
A sturdy man with wire-frame glasses and graying hair, Hume may be the largest private rhino rancher in the world—with a herd of over 900 and growing. He wakes up before dawn and drives out to sections of his land to check on certain rhinos. He helps his hired hands throw hay and pellets—dietary supplements—into large pits where the rhinos feed. And, when the time comes, he supervises a veterinarian and his workers as they dehorn the animals.
Hume has bred and kept rhinos for the past twenty-three years, adding to the less than 25,000 black and white rhinos currently in South Africa. His goal is to breed an additional 200 over the next year. While South Africa is home to almost 75 percent of the rhinos in the continent, it also has a far higher rate of horn poaching than neighboring Botswana, where populations linger in the hundreds, or Namibia, where they linger below 2,300. Since a 2009 trade ban on rhino horn was imposed in South Africa, Hume has stockpiled all of the horns he routinely cuts from his herd. He keeps them in hopes of a potential future payoff, when the South African government lifts the ban, if it ever does. But the dehorning also helps ensure the animals’ safety. It’s a measure designed to make the rhinos less attractive to poachers, who are becoming more brazen in their attempts, straying from the relative isolation of large preserves to kill domesticated rhinos on private property.
Unlike the regal tigers of Asia, whose blood, bile, skin, genitals, and other parts are frantically sought after by wildlife traffickers, the rhino’s primary commodities are its horns, protruding defense weapons on the edge of its face (black, Sumatran, and white rhinos have two). Rubbed vigorously in the sand, they are sharpened to a point. Horns are made of keratin, the same material as human hair, deer hooves, and whale baleens are. Like fingernails, a rhino’s horn can grow back. A wholly developed horn can be worth more than $300,000, largely due to an increasing demand in Vietnam and China, where rhino horns are used in traditional medicine; while prescribed for maladies that run the gamut from hangovers to cancer, there exists no scientific proof that rhino horn can cure any illness.
“Part of the reason I made this my big rhino farm,” Hume says, “is that I realized if poaching increased, it would be easier to protect my rhinos here, because it’s open flat country.” Even after employing a private army of ex-military sharpshooters to watch over his herd, Hume and his wife, Albina, still sometimes discover evidence of poachers on their land. Each time it’s been a devastating scene: half an adult rhino’s face sliced off, or an almost fully developed fetus cut out of its mother for its nublike protohorn.
Every year of the last decade has seen an increase in the number of rhinos poached in southern Africa, where most of the world’s remaining rhinos live: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the part of Mozambique that lies south of the Zambezi River. Officials estimate that there are approximately 18,000 southern white rhinos left in the wild, and a few thousand in private ranches. Another rhino subspecies, the northern white rhino, has dwindled to just five individuals. The decimation has reached such a point that even the most viable conservation efforts—protected reserves, relocation programs, awareness campaigns—are unable to keep pace with the number of kills. In 2014, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, over 1,200 rhinos were poached in that country alone, and 386 people were arrested on rhino-poaching-related charges. Due to a lack of enforcement and a corrupt court system, though, few ever spent more than a couple of months behind bars. While attempts at prosecution continue, nonprofits have boosted their campaigns both across sub-Saharan Africa and in Vietnam—the world’s largest consumer of rhino horn.
Domestication and humane dehorning, unromantic as they might sound, could be the key to the continued survival of the species.
But there is a growing effort to resuscitate the rhino population, of which Hume is a part, that doesn’t involve throwing thousands of impoverished poachers in jail or using the plight of the animal to tug on heartstrings. Domestication and humane dehorning, unromantic as they might sound, could be the key to the continued survival of the species.
Near the southeastern border of Botswana, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, wildlife veterinarian Erik Verreynne peers through the scope of his rifle, huffs, and then rummages through a tackle box of parts. He is preparing his tranquilizer gun for another day of tracking, sedating, and tagging rhinos at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary near the small town of Serowe. Finding what he needs, he levels the scope, takes another look, and hits a small piece of cardboard at the bottom of a tent pole about fifteen feet away. We’re sitting in a bush camp and it’s late afternoon. Verreynne talks while he works, sitting haphazardly in a camping chair near a four-person tent. He has brought his family along for this particular job, including his eleven-year-old son Fritz, who peeks out of the tent sporadically to see what his dad is up to. Later, Fritz will point out gemsbok, kudu, enormous ostriches, and several other birds on our afternoon drive around the sanctuary’s salt flats, known locally as “pans.” Verreynne is an old-guard conservationist trying to stop an epidemic, on the ground, with a few well-worn tools.
For Verreynne, most workdays play out like any another safari. But lately, sanctuaries in southern Africa have been asking him to protect their rhinos from poaching by temporarily paralyzing the animals long enough to notch their ears and place satellite trackers under their skin. This way, their movements across the dusty pans and outlying grassland can be monitored. The Khama Rhino Sanctuary has such a small rhino population—only thirty-four animals, four black and thirty white—that every ear notch serves as a crucial marker; the loss of even one rhino would represent a devastating blow to the gene pool of that population. Today Verreynne is hoping to tag at least one rhino, probably a more docile white one. Because the animals are wary of humans, inherently territorial, and prefer the cover of shade and mud pools, this will require unending patience and unwavering precision.
Verreynne understands that his efforts will not be enough to increase population numbers. He’s employed to keep what few rhinos are left in natural preserves alive. “If we had the same kind of slaughter [in Botswana] as in South Africa, we wouldn’t have any left,” he says. Notching ears is a quick way to identify an individual rhino and, because data on sightings is collected, keep tabs on which animals haven’t been recently seen, so a search party can be sent out. To raise awareness and funds to pay its rangers, Khama also allows camping at certain locations and regularly puts on educational programs for kids. Officials at the sanctuary understand that a multipronged approach, one that includes tourism and learning, is needed if the rhinos are to continue to exist.
How rhinos came to be threatened with extinction—the western black rhino has been wiped out entirely—is a chapter in history that includes the end of colonialism and the installation of shaky democracies or US-backed warlords in many African countries. The emerging wealth of Southeast Asia, the massive quantity of arms funneled into Africa over the last three decades, rampant habitat destruction, and the exploitation of poor rural communities have also contributed, together, to the rhino’s downfall. As a result of cheap bullets and no shortage of guns for hire, a protracted rhino-poaching epidemic swept Africa in the late 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that left populations struggling to maintain genetic diversity. When the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) went into effect in 1975, rhinos were one of the first animals added to the list, and by 1977 the treaty prohibited the trade in both black and white rhinos.
The demand for rhino horn during the 1970s was largely fueled by Japan, where it was used to manufacture medicines sold in pharmacies, and by Yemeni tribesmen, who made from it traditional curved daggers called jambiya. In 1982, however, religious leaders in Yemen declared the killing of rhinos to be against the will of God, and the Ministry of Economy and Trade issued a decree banning imports. By the mid-’80s both countries signed the CITES treaty and found alternatives to rhino horn. But irreparable damage had already been done: black rhino populations had plummeted from 65,000 to 2,300 in less than thirty years.
In the ’90s, South Korea and Taiwan became the largest consumers, using the horns in traditional medicines and thereby wiping out most of Zimbabwe’s rhinos. Under threats of sanctions from the United States, the two countries ultimately stopped imports and excised rhino-horn remedies from medical literature. These efforts, coupled with the heavy surveillance of surviving white and black rhino populations, made possible a modest comeback during the mid-’90s. Nevertheless, the massive loss changed how conservationists and opportunists viewed the lumbering pachyderm—as a rare animal, now, whose future relies solely on the whims of the human beings interested in it.
As Verreynne continues to ready his rifle, curious southern yellow-billed hornbills perch in the barren trees and on the rearview mirror of his massive Land Cruiser nearby. We’ve been in the camp for a couple of days, and haven’t yet seen a rhino. Verreynne isn’t worried, though; he says that the best times to track are in the early morning or as the sun sets. After he fires a first practice shot, he grabs a tranquilizer dart from the tackle box. Attached to one end is a bright pink feather, looking almost like a circus prop, but Verreynne assures me that, if shot correctly into the neck, it’s effective enough to take down a two-ton animal. Called M99, and a thousand times more potent than morphine, the drug is coveted by wildlife vets as well as big game farmers, who like to have it on hand for when a rhino needs to undergo treatment for an illness or have its horn trimmed. Ironically, it has also become a trafficked product in its own right. M99 is sold on the black market as a potent opiate. The government now strictly enforces regulations regarding the agent, making it difficult for Verreynne to acquire the amount needed to tranquilize more than a few rhinos at a time. “It’s bureaucracy that’s going to kill our rhinos,” Verreynne says as he steps into his Land Cruiser, rifle in hand.
From the thirteenth floor of a recently constructed building in the sprawling capital of Hanoi, Vietnam, a country of emergent wealth, the faint honking of thousands of motorbikes below sounds like static on a low-fi radio. It’s a daily reminder to those working in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s office that the bustling metropolis is ground zero for Vietnam’s rapid development. Duong Viet Hong, a slight, cheerful young mother, is in charge of developing WCS strategies for protecting African rhinos. On a winter afternoon, as we drink tea at a conference table surrounded by posters of elephants, tigers, and rhinos, Hong explains that the international nonprofit is currently working in Vietnam, the country with the highest rate of horn consumption, to prosecute sellers and buyers of rhino horn. Sellers, she says, often align with multinational criminal syndicates that trade in drugs, arms, and humans, as well as wildlife products. “In the short term what is going to stop them is law enforcement,” Hong says. “And [the laws] need to be enforced immediately. Rhinos can’t wait that long.”
In the four years Hong has been with WCS, rhinos have been the most difficult species to help. The current climate of apathy surrounding the prosecution of traffickers in Vietnam is one of the largest hurdles. Hong says prosecutors are only now starting to understand how to build cases, after a few victories over elephant ivory traffickers, and are still learning how to work with police while dodging corruption.
On top of this, in 2009 rumors circulated about a high-ranking Vietnamese government official who, it is said, was miraculously cured of cancer by consuming rhino horn, an old-world panacea. The demand for rhino horn powder rose sharply, which led to an increase in poaching throughout southern Africa. And it hasn’t stopped. Since 2009 the Vietnamese government has turned a blind eye to the trafficking of endangered animal products, partly because traffickers have paid off officials at various levels of the government and court system. After word got around that rhino horn had the ability to remedy cancer, it became a top commodity on the black market, moving deeper into the underground economy, where the price soared.
Rhino horn began to be used in Asia sometime between 200 BC and 200 AD. The Chinese carved it into beautiful cups and bowls during the Ming and Ching dynasties, and ground it into a powder that was thought to reduce fever and treat other ailments. In 1993, China removed rhino horn from its medical textbooks and made it illegal to consume. But demand for it in the country hasn’t waned, it’s changed. China now uses horn for jewelry, libation cups, and other nouveau-riche markers of status. By contrast, Vietnamese consumers (most of whom are not medical practitioners) hold tight to a belief in the rhino horn’s power to cure a variety of illnesses and the idea that the rhino’s strength can be transferred to the patient.
“If a rhino horn consumer was caught, and prosecuted, and publicly embarrassed because of enforcement, who knows what the impact of that would be.”
After purchasing a piece of horn from a trusted seller, a Vietnamese buyer will use a special bowl—made of malleable ceramic, painted in a sea-foam-green color, and adorned with a drawing of a rhino—to grind the fragment into a powder, which is then mixed with tea or water and drunk. Due to international scrutiny of the black market for the product, actual buying and selling is now largely conducted through family networks instead of the more conspicuous storefront exchanges. Lax enforcement—when it comes to both trade and consumption—is also to blame for the increase in horn consumption. While it is currently illegal to buy or sell rhino horn in Vietnam, it is legal to own it, when it is a trophy used only for display, adding to the difficulty in successfully prosecuting anyone.
Says Naomi Doak, the Vietnamese director of the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce, or TRAFFIC, the international wildlife-monitoring agency: “As far as consumers go, there is more emotional benefit for them to consume than not to consume.” In other words, the placebo effect trumps the fear of prosecution. “However,” Doak continues, “if a rhino horn consumer was caught, and prosecuted, and publicly embarrassed because of enforcement, who knows what the impact of that would be.”
Despite certain persistent problems, enforcement is improving. WCS and other groups are working to educate prosecutors on the trade, and how to punish accordingly. Corruption is still an issue, Doak says, but courts in Vietnam are finally beginning to prosecute rhino horn traders, including two Vietnamese men who were detained in January 2013 for smuggling horns weighing more than twenty-seven kilograms into Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.
Back in the conference room at WCS, Hong gets a call from her son’s elementary school. He has a fever and needs to be picked up. As we ride down in the elevator of the high-rise together, she mentions that mothers usually give their children rhino horn to help relieve fever. “It may work,” she says, “but it also gives them a stomachache.” She pauses. “Many people believe it’s better, purer, than pharmaceuticals.”
Surrounded by an expanse of tawny plains, the Limpopo River is a café‐au-lait-colored gash that marks part of the border between South Africa and Botswana. Near it, the terrain is a potential off-roader’s paradise, but it doesn’t see much action. On the Botswana side of the river lies a wilderness and game reserve called Lipadi, the current staging area for summer interns of the South African nonprofit Stop Rhino Poaching.
“First it’s going to be rhino, then the elephant, then the lion, then the polar bear,” says intern Natalie Lapidis, from Connecticut. “If we don’t stop it now we are going to be left with nothing.” All in their late teens to mid-twenties, Lapidis and the other interns are quick to acknowledge the inefficiency of past campaigns against rhino poaching, but are steadfast in their resolve. Some of the interns think that current rhino conservation efforts involve too much human-animal interaction. They also think that trafficking could be decreased if people in China and Vietnam were better informed.
The nonprofit takes a hard stance against profiting from the rhino horn trade—in countries where it’s legal and in those where it’s illegal—and that includes the stockpiling of horns. Stop Rhino Poaching and others implore farmers like Hume to stop collecting. Hume, in turn, detests the nonprofits. He believes the organizations are profiteers in their own right, constantly seeking funding without actually accomplishing anything. And he’s not alone. “I don’t know why it’s taking conservationists so long to realize that just talking about animals is not enough,” says Doak. Verreynne, the wildlife vet, tells me: “There are more nonprofits trying to save the rhino in Africa than there are rhinos in Botswana.”
The current avenues for conservation started modestly in the 1980s. Nonprofits raised money for increased ranger monitoring and, when possible, translocation, the path of least resistance. By translocation, a rhino, or a group of animals, is moved, sometimes by helicopter, from South Africa and Zimbabwe to “safe havens”—typically other countries, such as Zambia, Kenya, and Botswana, where anti-poaching efforts have been more successful. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter how much money is poured into moving the animals or patrols outfitted with night-vision goggles, the best satellite trackers, and dogs. More often than not, especially in large, open ranges and national parks, a determined poacher succeeds.
It’s a vast web: increased demand for horn led to more poachers, which led to more nonprofits on the ground in Africa, and more dynamic conservation measures. But those humans who are most affected by horn dealings have little say in it all. The end of colonialism and white rule left many black Africans without job opportunities, menial or otherwise. In South Africa and Namibia, they got the vote, but the descendants of white settlers kept the land, and the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products was, and still is, deeply exploitative. It’s an underlying tension that exists today: the rhino ranchers and most of the environmentalists working to save the rhino are wealthy and white, while the hired poachers, for the most part, are poor and black. Desperate poverty drives many in southern Africa to find good hunting spots in private reserves or national parks, pull their triggers, and even hack off the horns and faces of rhinos with anything from dull blades to battery-operated chainsaws, for a payday of up to $30,000. According to the World Bank, the average per capita income of a South African household in 2013 was $7,190. With rhinos roaming around in open reserves and clearly visible in large ranches throughout southern Africa, it’s tempting to try and solve your family’s persistent financial problems in a single night’s work.
If trade is reopened, poaching by impoverished South Africans may decrease, but it will also allow a wealthy few—the white ranchers—to cash in.
South Africa, the country with the most rhinos in the world—many of them living in the expansive, transnational Kruger National Park—has its own ambiguous history when it comes to the rhino horn trade. Foreigners are legally permitted to hunt a certain number of rhinos each year, mount the heads, and ship them home as personal trophies, which in effect is a large loophole for poachers. Although international trade in horn was banned in 1975, South Africa continued to allow internal trade. In 2009, a national moratorium on the rhino horn trade became law in the country. Up until the year before the ban, poaching figures were low—fewer than thirty rhinos per year. Since then, poaching numbers have increased dramatically. In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were poached.
The stockpiling of horn by private rhino farmers, along with the South African government’s own accumulation, means that thousands of these precious points could potentially go to market if a legal trade were reopened. In July 2013 the South African government backed the legalization of a well-regulated international trade, monitored by CITES. It’s currently awaiting a vote by CITES in 2016. Proponents argue that an open trade would flood the market and deflate the bubble—the street value of horn currently stands at $100,000 a kilogram, more than that of cocaine—driving down the incentive to poach. But while reopening trade may decrease poaching by impoverished South Africans, it will also allow a wealthy few—the white ranchers—to cash in without necessarily changing the dire situation of the rhinos. An average horn weighs approximately two to three kilograms—a $300,000 hunk of nail.
Poaching is far less common in Namibia than in the rest of southern Africa, but the demand for horn has increased there, too. In response, Jacob Muller, a rhino farmer in Outjo, has upped the number of patrols his seventeen-year-old son does over their land by gyrocopter. Muller, who is white, maintains his own herd of more than fifty animals and concerns himself with selling off the bulls—at least ten a year—to help earn a living for his family. (His other business, in slot machines, pays the bills and provides feed for the rhinos much of the time, he says.) Most of the rhinos he sells go to private lodges looking for safari attractions for tourists.
Muller does not dehorn his rhinos despite the risk involved in keeping their points intact—“They look so majestic with the horn,” he says—which puts him in the minority of an already small number of ranchers. But like the rest, he believes strongly in domestication, even though it comes with a hefty price tag. Raising rhinos privately, he maintains, reduces pressure on the national parks. And he believes he has the full backing of his community, white and black. Rhinos, he points out, are seen as a symbol of African pride and strength.
While unsettling to some environmentalists, timed feedings, dehornings, and live sales of privately owned rhinos are, in certain ways, their own kind of conservation. Just as nonprofit conservation efforts started, slowly, in the 1980s, small-scale rhino ranching began to take off around the same time, with white landowners keeping modest herds, along with other African beasts, on large swaths of country. Ranching rhinos is essentially the privatization of a scarce natural resource, like oil or gold. But unlike other rare commodities, a rhino’s horn grows back, and over a lifetime rhinos can produce four or five giant horns worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, making the animals far more valuable if they survive to ripe old age.
Now, due to the upsurge in poaching, especially in the last half-decade, many small-time ranchers are selling off their stocks to big breeders, of which Hume is one. On his farm the nearly 1,000 animals group together as in a high-school cafeteria scene. Most bulls stay in one area, a dry and sloping hill with various fences to guard against macho scuffles, while the females and adolescents huddle together before meals on open plain land. The few black rhinos Hume keeps hide by sparse trees near a large water well.
We approach one of Hume’s largest bulls, Goliath, who looks up from grazing to stare us down.
Hume, who made a nice living running taxis and managing hotels before he became a rancher, thinks he knows who is poaching his animals. “Peasant farmers and Mozambicans,” he says, driving a large pickup into his rhino lands. He holds a beer in one hand and the steering wheel in another. The sun is setting, and a faint breeze carries a hint of manure. We periodically stop near groups of white rhinos. They groan and grudgingly move out of the way, leaving space just enough for the pickup to slip through. The young ones stay close to their mothers, terrified of being more than a few feet from the source of their food. We approach one of Hume’s largest bulls, Goliath, who looks up from grazing to stare us down. Massive and kingly, he chews slowly but never breaks his gaze. Even though he was raised on the farm, he hasn’t lost the instinct to charge if something is amiss. Goliath rules here, at least for the time being, and even Hume shows deference by turning the engine off and keeping still.
The rancher sees himself as a kind of crusader, fighting against the ineffectiveness of the current nonprofit model, a South African government intent on suppressing the free market he desires, and the poachers increasingly infringing on his property. That property is vast; there is simply too much space to enclose behind electric fencing, which would help keep intruders out. “If I were to die tomorrow my children would sell all this,” the 71-year-old says, gesturing at the land. Hume spends thousands of dollars a month to have all of it patrolled by a half-dozen ex-military men. When, regardless, a rhino is poached anyway, David Malan, who has been a wildlife investigator out of Klerksdorp, South Africa, for over fifteen years, is called to the scene. Malan won’t say with any conviction that ranching is the best current path to conservation, but he acknowledges that rhinos exist in the numbers they do today because of Hume and others like him. He also understands that poaching an animal is far easier and cheaper than ranching, as the nonprofits often point out. It’s difficult to imagine that black marketers would put a stop to their illegal activities to start going to auctions.
Malan, the primary investigator into poached animals in South Africa, says that prosecutions in the country have gone up, but it’s still difficult to pin down individuals, especially those working for syndicates. Some of the men—and they are mostly men—who shoot rhinos are poor members of nearby communities. They face the stiffest penalties, including prison sentences of up to twenty years, while those at the highest levels of the organization are rarely ever charged. In many ways the state of the rhino in South Africa is emblematic of a government that is inept at creating wealth equality, enforcing laws, and bringing those responsible to trial.
Within a three-day period in January 2014, rangers at Kruger National Park killed seven suspected poachers, confiscating four hunting rifles, ammunition, camping equipment, and a pair of horns. But too often rangers arrive too late, finding only bullet cartridges, bloody carcasses, and trash. “Just the whole way they kill them is atrocious,” Malan says one day, driving back to Hume’s ranch. “Most of them don’t even have proper hunting rifles. They shoot it to stop it, then slice their shins to bleed them to death.”
Hume’s dedication to breeding the animals grows stronger every time one of his rhinos is put to death. But he admits he wouldn’t be spending enormous sums on their protection and survival if he didn’t think his investment would eventually pay off. The rancher acknowledges that he has much to gain from a legalized trade. Before the 2009 ban he sold about eighty-four kilograms of rhino horn a year. Millions of dollars’ worth of harvested horn from his animals sits in banks across South Africa—he will not get into details about precise locations or amounts. At the same time, though, he speaks of the benefits of a legal horn trade in terms of species survival. “With legalized trade will come increased incentives for rhino-breeding operations,” he says. “We have a vast amount of land available throughout rhino range states. The day we reach a point where demand outstrips supply will be the day that the rhino will be doomed anyway. With the status quo and current poaching levels, that day is approaching very fast.”
Private owners shell out for rhino protection as part of the larger enterprise of selling stock and horn, binding their own interests together with preservation goals. This is why Hume’s rhinos are rarely killed relative to those that inhabit parks and reserves. And it’s what’s keeping large populations of genetically diverse rhinos alive. While Hume waits for the South African trade ban to lift, in anticipation of his big payday, he watches for poachers and passes time among his herd. At the end of some afternoons, he will drive for miles out onto his property, far from the shantytowns that line the road leading to the farm, park his truck among a group of rhinos, and just sit. “If we cannot find innovative ways to integrate humans and wildlife,” he says, “we will fail the wildlife.”
Carly Nairn reported this story with support from an Investigative Reporting Program scholarship from UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. She lives and writes in San Francisco, California.
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