Rhinoceros horns worth an estimated $5 million on the black market were seized this week in Thailand after being discovered inside of luggage at Bangkok International airport’s customs. Authorities say this confiscation of twenty-one horns, which came from Ethiopia, was the largest in years. The import violation occurred amidst the increasingly aggressive tactics of poachers, who are motivated by the growing wealth and demand in Asian markets.
Trade in rhino horns has increased drastically since 2012, in part due to internet commerce and the ease of international travel. The recent killing of Vince, a white rhinoceros at France’s Thoiry Zoo, put the international spotlight back on the crisis. Vince was killed after poachers broke through a gate and two locked doors to enter his cage and shoot him. They then sawed off his horns. It was the first time poachers have broken into a zoo to acquire a rhino horn, which can fetch up to $100,000 per kilo in China and Vietnam.
So why is the rhino horn in demand? Some say that they are viewed in China as “excellent investments” when used within pieces of art. Middle class and wealthy Chinese looking to diversify may choose to purchase a rare, expensive cup carved from rhino horn as a means to sidestep inflation. Others use rhino horn for medicinal purposes. Rhino horn ground into power and consumed after mixing with water is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is thought to cure fever, rheumatism, gout, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, food poisoning and “devil possession.”
The number one consumer of rhino horn is Vietnam, where it has become popular as a treatment for multiple ailments, including cancer and hangovers. It’s also considered a status symbol in Vietnam, a country whose last rhino was killed by poachers in 2010. The growing Vietnamese elite buys rhino horn because of its rarity and value within social networks. They give the horns as gifts or display it at home with the underlying belief that the horn ensures the family’s well-being. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC reports that rhino horn consumers feel a disconnect from the death of the animal for its horn and do not see themselves as a catalyst for the current poaching crisis.
Rhino horns’ medicinal properties are imagined, however, as they are composed mostly of keratin, the same material as our fingernails. The horns also grow continuously like fingernails.
The government of South Africa is currently drafting regulations to legalize the rhino horn trade, including the legal export of the horns to other countries. Some rhino owners and breeders hope that by legalizing the trade, the horns will drop in price, as will the number of poachers willing to go to great lengths for the product. Breeders in South Africa, the country with most of the world’s remaining rhino population, employ veterinarians to humanely dehorn the rhinos as to discourage poaching. South African breeders sold the horns for a profit domestically until it became illegal in 2009. International trading of rhino horns has been banned globally since 1977. There are currently large stocks of removed horns in South Africa, which would flood the market if trade was legalized.
Others, such as the International Rhino Foundation, say that legalizing the rhino horn trade lends credibility to the idea that rhino horns have medicinal properties and would cause the demand within Asian markets to escalate. They believe that since the market dynamics are unclear, legalizing rhino trade would only exacerbate the poaching crisis, citing rampant elephant poaching and the sale of excess elephant ivory in 2008 as an example.
Until a solution is reached, European zoos are taking extra precautions. A zoo in the Czech Republic announced this week that they will proactively dehorn their herd of rare rhinos. The Dvur Dralove Zoo will put the adult rhinos under anesthesia and remove most of their horns to help ensure the continuance of their breeding program – the only successful northern white rhino captive breeding program in the world. A Belgian zoo near Brussels has announced that they will do the same to protect their rhinos and security personnel from poachers.