Endangered Species Handbook

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Traditional Medicine Trade: Rhinoceros

     All five species of rhinoceros are highly endangered, and within the past decade, illegal trade has pushed them to the brink of extinction.  These ponderous, primitive mammals have survived on earth for millions of years.  During the Pleistocene period, more than 10,000 years ago, species of rhinoceros now extinct lived in what is now Europe and North America.  Today, three species occur in Asia, from India east to Sumatra, and two in Africa south of the Sahara.  The White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) of Africa is the largest of the rhinos, with males weighing up to 8,000 pounds (Nowak 1999). 
     Within the past 25 years, at least 60,000 of the world's rhinoceros have been illegally slaughtered for the Asian trade (Ricciuti 1993).  Their numbers have been reduced by more than 90 percent since 1970, and today the combined total of the five species does not exceed 12,000 animals (Kelso 1995).  Their horns, which grow vertically atop their heads, have been their undoing.  In great demand in the Traditional Medicine trade, and as carved ornaments on dagger handles in the Mideast, these animals have been pursued by poachers into national parks and even zoos.  Some rhinos in Africa are guarded 24 hours a day against poachers.  In Asia, they are disappearing even more quickly than in Africa because there are too few rangers to protect them, and the price of their horn is higher than for African rhino horn.
     Rhinoceros horn is not actual bony tissue, but compressed, fibrous keratin, the material of hair and nails (Nowak 1999).  It is ground into powder that has been a traditional medicine for hundreds of years in China and southeast Asia, used for various purposes, such as treating fevers.  Asian rhinos vary in terms of horn size, two species having only one horn and the other two-horned species have horns that are often mere knobby bumps.  African rhinos have two horns, in general longer than the Asian species, the front far longer than the rear horn, with a record length of 4.8 feet (Stuart and Stuart 1996).
     With the invention of powerful guns in the 19th century that could penetrate rhinoceros’ thick hides, they began a long decline.  At first, the hunting was primarily for trophies, but also for their horns.  Heavy hunting in India by maharajahs and Europeans in the 19th century, and elsewhere in Asia for sport, devastated rhino populations.  By the beginning of the 20th century, all three Asian rhinoceros species were near extinction (Nowak 1999).  India, followed by many Asian countries, extended protection to the remaining populations and established national parks and reserves in the first decades of the 20th century.  
     The Great Indian Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) was once found throughout the Indian subcontinent, including Nepal and Pakistan east to Bangladesh and Assam (Nowak 1991).  As early as 1600, hunting caused these rhinos to begin disappearing from northwestern India and Pakistan, and they continued to decline over the next three centuries (Nowak 1991).  By the first decade of the 20th century, they were nearly extinct.  In Kaziranga, only 12 Great Indian Rhinos remained; and in Nepal, perhaps another 50.  The Indian government banned hunting and bounties and established reserves (Nowak 1999).  Rhino numbers rose until the 1980s and 1990s when poaching decimated them again.  Nepal now has an estimated 460 of these rhinos, protected by nearly 1,000 armed troops and rangers, while Kaziranga National Park in eastern India has about 1,200.  With scattered numbers elsewhere, the species totals about 2,000, with 134 in captivity (Nowak 1999).
     Even in parks, poaching occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.  Gangs in Kaziranga National Park, the stronghold of this species, cut high tension lines, letting them drop to a height of 2 to 3 feet above rhino paths, electrocuting the hapless animals when they encountered the wires (Speart 1994).  Between 1979 and 1989, 500 Indian Rhinos were poached, and this continued in the 1990s, with 48 killed in 1992, and 46 in 1993 (Speart 1994). Since 1992, 123 Indian Rhinos have been poached in Kaziranga, and the species has been completely exterminated in Laokhawa Wildlife Sanctuary where, 13 years ago, 5 percent of its population survived (Currey 1996).  In 1993, a Bhutanese princess attempted to smuggle 22 Indian rhino horns into Taiwan to raise cash for a bottling company she owns.  Her factory is located near Manas National Park, northern India, where it is thought the rhinos were poached (Speart 1994).  The horn was intercepted and confiscated, and legal actions were taken against the princess.  An investigation into the smuggling of rhino horn and other wildlife products in the Himalayas found that poachers are exploiting civil conflicts in nations in the region, and they trade rhino horn and other endangered species items in exchange for drugs or Chinese arms which are used to supply the Burmese military (Currey 1996).
     The Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) is the most primitive and smallest of all the rhinoceros.  This rhino is only 4 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs 2,200 pounds, compared with the 6-foot-tall, 8,000-pound African White Rhino (Line 1997).  Although they have two horns, the upper one is usually a mere bump, and the lower one closest to the muzzle is less than a foot long, far smaller than horns of other rhinos.  Sumatran Rhino calves are born with a long, dense coat of hair that becomes sparse and bristly as the animals age.  The hairs scrape off from abrasion as these bulky animals move through forest undergrowth; captive animals are often very hairy (Line 1997).   Different genetically and physically from other Asian rhinos (Rabinowitz 1994), Sumatran Rhinos have three populations, one of which, the Bornean, has been isolated from the others for many thousands of years, and is considered a separate subspecies.  Only about 70 Bornean rhinos survive in Sabah province at the northern tip of the island (Line 1997).  The majority are in Peninsular Malaysia, where there are between 85 and 126, and on Sumatra, with an estimated 233 to 241.  Thailand has only an estimated 10 rhinos (Nowak 1999).  Thus, the total population is only about 400 to 541 animals.  Some zoologists believe that a few may survive in Myanmar as well (Rabinowitz 1994).  The habitat of the Sumatran Rhino is a prehistoric setting of swampy tropical forests with dense vegetation and hilly country near water. 
     Originally, Sumatran Rhinos ranged from eastern India's Assam province and southeastern Bangladesh to the Malay Peninsula, and possibly Vietnam, south to Sumatra and Borneo (Nowak 1999).  Centuries of hunting for their horns for the Traditional Medicine trade eliminated these rhinos in one country and region after another.  Surviving Sumatran Rhinos inhabit only remote forests, primarily in national parks, and their populations are scattered.  Because of the difficulty of studying them in the wild, their behavior and ecology remain a mystery.  A few are now being radio-tracked by biologists, and in the future, more will be uncovered about these unique animals.  The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and the Asian Rhino Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union have proposed projects to save the species from extinction.  Poaching is a major threat throughout its range, with local peoples entering reserves and national parks because the horn is so valuable that it represents many years' income. 
     The Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is the most endangered of the rhinos, with a population which may total only about 58 to 72 animals (Line 1997).  The majority of their population, about 50 to 60 animals, live in Udjung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java, and an additional eight to 12 live in Vietnam (Nowak 1999).  Almost as tall as the Greater Indian Rhinoceros, but less massive at 3,300 to 4,400 pounds, the Javan Rhino has a single short horn, and females often lack a horn or have only a small bump (Nowak 1999).  This animal once occurred from eastern India to Vietnam and south to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and western Java in three distinct subspecies (Nowak 1999).  Habitat loss and persistent killing drove them out of almost all their original range, and one subspecies of eastern India, Bangladesh, Assam and Burma is extinct (Nowak 1999).  Poaching continues, and in November 1988, a Javan Rhino was killed 130 kilometers northeast of Saigon, Vietnam (Nowak 1991).  There are no Javan Rhinoceros in captivity, and this species has been called the most endangered mammal in the world (Nowak 1999).
      Asian rhino horn sells for $27,000 per pound, and most pharmacies in Taiwan and other parts of Asia sell this horn (Rabinowitz 1994; Line 1997).  So far, captive-breeding programs have failed, and 21 Sumatran Rhinos have died during capture or in captivity, leaving only 18 in zoos in the United States, United Kingdom, Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and India (Line 1997).  A major controversy has arisen about further captures.  A Sumatran Rhino Trust was set up in 1985 to coordinate conservation of wild rhinos and those in zoos, but after eight years, during which time $3 million was spent, it was disbanded in 1993.  The program had been undermined by politics, greed and corruption, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (Rabinowitz 1994).
      During the 19th century, African rhinos were heavily hunted for sport, as well as for their hides and horns, which were shipped to Asian markets.  In recent times, the Black Rhonoceros (Diceros bicornis) ranged from Subsaharan Chad and Sudan south to the tip of the continent (Nowak 1999).  By 1900, it had been eliminated from West Africa, but its populations below the Sahara may have totaled 100,000 (Cunningham and Berger 1997).  Both the White and Black Rhinoceros occupy different habitats in Africa, based on their diet.  The White Rhinoceros is a grazer, cropping grasses at ground level with its square lips, while the Black Rhinoceros is a browser, feeding on brush and low tree branches with its almost prehensile lips.  Both are steel gray, despite their common names.  During the first decades of the century, East African colonial governments persecuted rhinos on the grounds that their presence was incompatible with human settlement (Nowak 1999).  When Asian rhinos became scarce, sport and market hunters turned to the African species and named them as one of the “big five” game animals of Africa, attracting hunters from around the world.  Market hunting for Traditional Medicine became an increasingly important factor in reducing African rhinos in the 1970s and 1980s.  China and other countries in East Asia grew wealthy, and customers were able to pay high prices for rhino horn.  Of all rhinoceros, the Black Rhinoceros declined the most dramatically in the 20th century.  From 100,000 in 1900, its population fell to 15,000 in 1980, to only about 2,400 at present (Nowak 1999).  Even in national parks where they were heavily protected, these rhinos were gunned down by gangs using machine guns, or strafed and allowed to die slowly of their wounds.  Many orphan Black Rhinos were cared for by centers in Zimbabwe and Kenya, but most were killed by predators or died from other causes.  At Daphne Sheldrick’s animal orphanage in Kenya, tiny rhinos are tended around the clock, and play chase games with one another or with baby elephants.  Contrary to the image that big game hunters disseminated about rhinos being fierce, dangerous animals likely to charge people to gore them to death, they are gentle and near-sighted and lack binocular vision.  They are often unable to make out animals or vehicles approaching them and will charge only when they feel threatened or, in the case of females, if their calf is being stalked by predators.
     The White Rhinoceros is only somewhat more numerous than the Black, totaling 7,533 in 1996, with the majority in South Africa.  It, too, has been eliminated in most of its original range, and killed on sight in and out of national parks.  
     While some species of rhinoceros have bred in captivity, others, like the Sumatran, have not, and many animals have died while being captured or after short periods in captivity.  A few herds of Black Rhinos have been established in semi-wild conditions in Texas and Australia, although for several of these, the purpose may be less to preserve them than to raise  animals for trophy hunters to pay high sums to kill.  Several captive herds of Black Rhinoceros in Zimbabwe are at extreme risk of being slaughtered as a result of political chaos in which government land seizures for distribution to black farmers and uncontrolled snaring and hunting of wildlife has already killed many rhinos (Roberts 2001).
     In Asia, rhino horn sells for an average of $15,000 per kilogram, with higher prices paid for horn of Asian species.  By 1996, black market values ranged from $46,000 to $150,000 per horn.  The penis sells for $600 or more and is used as an aphrodisiac.  The skin is also valuable, worth at least $7,000 per animal, for use in Traditional Medicine (IUCN 1994).  Another threat that has caused the deaths of thousands of rhinos is their use in dagger handles in North Yemen.  The rhino horn is carved into intricate designs for these daggers, which sell for $300 to $13,000 each (Fitzgerald 1989).  From 1982 to 1984, about 3,700 pounds of horn entered North Yemen every year (Fitzgerald 1989).  Taiwan's 22 million people use about 700 pounds of horn a year, or 80 rhinos.  
     Prior to the major killing spree that began in the early 1980s, CITES members voted to list one rhino species after another on Appendix I, banning commercial trade in their horns and bodies, whether for Traditional Medicine or trophies.  By February 1977, the entire family Rhinocerotidae had been listed.  Conservationists believed that this would stop the slaughter.  Thousands of rhinos remained in national parks in Asia and Africa, and national legislation in many countries of origin banned hunting.  Tragically, illegal trade nullified all legal prohibitions except in South Africa, where White Rhinos were effectively protected, and increased during the 1980s.  For the rest of the world's rhinos, an all-out slaughter occurred.  Organized gangs of poachers, some armed with machine guns, eluded the less well-armed rangers.  They entered African national parks and strafed the helpless rhinos, cutting off their horns and leaving their maimed bodies to rot in the sun.  In Asia, these enormous animals made easy targets for poachers, and many were poisoned, snared or fell into spiked pit traps.
     One smuggling ring was broken up in 1993 by undercover work by Steve Galster, Executive Director of the Global Survival Network, and Rebecca Chen, a Taiwanese colleague.  The two tracked shipments of rhino horn from Mozambique to Taiwan to Hong Kong, and finally to China, where they found a warehouse in Wuchuan housing the horns of more than 500 dead rhinos, a supply worth $13 million (Linden and Yar 1995).  They fabricated a reason to see the horn and produced a videotape that jailed guilty parties and called international attention to the smuggling (Linden and Yar 1995). 
     The United States banned all wildlife products from Taiwan in 1993 when it was revealed that open sale of Tiger parts and rhino horn was occurring.  This embargo was lifted in less than a year when Taiwan showed evidence of controlling its illegal wildlife trade.  Taiwan's new Wildlife Conservation Law brought about a registration of all privately held rhino products in late 1994; a total of more than 457 kilograms of whole rhino horns, taken from 153 animals, horn pieces and powder was registered (TRAFFIC 1995).  These items are identified and photographed along with Tiger products but, unfortunately, allowed to remain in private hands. 
     In the past, confiscated rhino horns in Africa have been destroyed to keep them from entering commerce.  A CITES resolution in 1994 changed this recommended procedure.  Significantly, it urges Party countries with rhino horn to identify, mark, register and secure these stocks (Kelso 1995).  This overturns the recommendation made in 1987 for these stocks to be destroyed, which was repealed. The current Resolution (Conf. 9.14) notes that Parties view destruction as being "no longer appropriate" because it may cause prices to escalate and lead to new poaching for rhino horn to replace the destroyed stock (Kelso 1995).  Since stocks of seized rhino horn kept by various countries are, by definition, not available in any way to traders unless they are stolen or somehow given out, this appears to be the first step toward releasing these stocks for trade, and to allow trade in horns sawed off living rhinoceros.
     Many conservationists believe that traders have built up private stockpiles of rhino horn for possible future sales (Ricciuti 1993), and some government stocks, such as China's, are considerable.  An estimated 1.1 million pounds of horn from slaughtered rhinos are thought to be stockpiled in Taiwan and China.  Other parts of the 1994 CITES Resolution were more laudable:  it urged stricter domestic legislation to reduce illegal trade, and the education of Traditional Medicine sellers and users to eliminate consumption (Kelso 1995).  South Africa had attempted at the 1994 CITES meeting to remove the South African population of the Southern White Rhinoceros from Appendix I, which bans commercial trade, and downlist it to Appendix II to open up trade.  This proposal was not accepted, but CITES Parties voted to allow sale of live animals and trophy hunts until the following meeting.  The government of South Africa reproposed downlisting to Appendix II at the 1997 CITES Conference, again unsuccessfully, offering to submit annual quotas to CITES for approval and to use stockpiled horn and horn from natural mortalities, calculated at 230 per year.  This would be augmented by horn obtained from dehorning of animals in the private sector (Hughes and Brooks 1996).  Zimbabwe hopes to legalize trade in rhino horns, with state farms where herds of rhinos would have their horns cut off to supply the Chinese medicinal trade (Keller 1994).  Both Zimbabwe and South Africa have enormous stockpiles of rhino horn obtained from poachers and dehorning programs that would be worth millions if the ban on international trade was lifted (Keller 1994).
     Legalizing trade in rhino horn would prove disastrous for the species, just as the trade in ivory nearly caused the extinction of both species of elephants.  The horns of Southern White Rhinos are not distinguishable from other rhino horn, except perhaps through forensic methods not available to import and export personnel.  Even the live animals are difficult to distinguish by race (Hughes and Brooks 1997).  The market for this horn far exceeds the supply and would not be appeased by the few hundred horns that enter trade each year from South Africa.  Poaching would accelerate, and horns from illegally killed animals would not be distinguishable from those that had been stockpiled.  This would further endanger the remaining wild populations of rhinos around the world, since their horns might be represented as legally obtained.  In view of the enormous revenues that South Africa accrues from tourism--$6 billion in 1995 by its own accounting (Hughes and Brooks 1997)--the funds from sale of rhino horn can only be considered of minor importance.  Efforts should be made to funnel ecotourism funds to rhino conservation, since that is one of the arguments being used to justify reopening the trade.
     Dehorning of rhinos with the declared objective of making the animals unattractive to poachers has been carried out in Zimbabwe and Namibia.  They are darted with tranquilizer guns, and the horn is sawed off the unconscious animal.  The horn grows back in about one year, and the process must be repeated.  Preliminary evidence in countries conducting dehorning indicates that rhinos continue to be poached, apparently just for the stump or, perhaps, because the poachers were unable to see whether the animal had its horn (Keller 1994).  Even more importantly, females that have been dehorned have, without exception, lost their calves to predators (Speart 1994).  Rhinos use their horns in territorial displays, mating, and defense and, it has now been established, to defend their calves from hyenas, Lions and other predators. Moreover, this procedure is expensive and involves trauma and possible death to rhinos.
     Zimbabwe, a country that prides itself on its "sustained yield" approach to wildlife, has an entirely different approach to protecting rhinos than East Africa and most other African nations.  The government launched “Operation Stronghold” in 1984 to prevent poaching, with highly armed rangers trained to kill poachers, and a goal of preserving its once large rhino populations.  Once a stronghold for the Black Rhinoceros, with a population of at least 1,400, the country's rhinos declined to 400 by 1992, and to 300 by 1994 (Speart 1994).  Only 200 White Rhinos remain in Zimbabwe, and their numbers are also in decline (Stuart and Stuart 1996).  Anti-poaching efforts failed to stop the killing of 954 rhinos between 1984 and 1991; during that period 145 poachers and four conservation officers were shot (Stuart and Stuart 1996).
     The market in rhino horn has been extremely difficult to control, since the horn can be reduced to a powder that is easily smuggled, sold surreptitiously, or in some countries openly, in a vast network of apothecary shops in Asia and Chinatowns throughout the world.  With fewer than 12,000 rhinos remaining alive and a potential market of millions of Asians, the future of these ancient animals is bleak.  Throughout the millions of years that rhinoceros have existed, their armored hide and horns have helped them defend themselves against a wide variety of predators, but against a legion of new weapons and cold-blooded greed, they may not survive much longer.

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