Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Will Your Grandchildren Ever See a Rhinoceros?

A stuffy Brit from Wolverhampton waved his arms furiously as he stood on a bridge over a dry stream bed.  He was pointing to the south at a large dark gray object grazing on grasses near the edge of the stream bed.  I parked next to him and asked what he had found.  Excitedly he said, “There’s a bloody wildebeest!! It’s the first one I’ve seen in my life!”  Having already seen thousands of blue wildebeest in the last several days I thought that this had to be the man’s first day in Kruger.  If it wasn’t then he had been driving around with his eyes closed because blue wildebeest generally dotted the savanna like flocks of sheep on a South Dakota prairie. 

Even without binoculars I could tell that this large gray animal whose skin appeared to be painted on in patches was not a wildebeest.  It was something far rarer.  I went through the motions and then put down my binoculars saying, “Sir, I am a trained wildlife biologist and I want you to know that this is not a wildebeest, blue, black or any other kind.  My first clue that it was not any kind of wildebeest was that wildebeest do not have two large horns that point skyward from the end of their nose,” I said.  Then I added, “Your first wildebeest isn’t a wildebeest, it’s my first rhinoceros.”

Embarrassed by his mistake this man put his binoculars to his eyes again, peered through them for several seconds and then said rather sheepishly, “Bloody hell!  It’s a rhino!  You did very well for a Yank.”

In December 2007 there were an estimated 17,480 southern white rhino in the wild. South Africa is the stronghold for this subspecies conserving ninety three percent of all the white rhinos remaining.  There are smaller reintroduced populations in the historical range of the species in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, while a small population survives in Mozambique. Populations have also been introduced outside of the former range of the species to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. 

Ignorance leads the list of reasons why the rhinoceroses of the world are in immediate danger of extinction.  There is a misinformed belief that has existed for hundreds of years that the horns of a rhino possess elixir like qualities that can cure hangovers and general malaise. This belief is especially true in China and Vietnam where trade in rhino horns is almost rampant. 

If the myth about the health benefits of rhino horn weren’t bad enough there is also the misguided belief that rhino horn works as an aphrodisiac.  This information is used from

The power of many aphrodisiacs relies upon a medieval philosophy known as the "Doctrine of Signatures." People believed that God designated his purpose for things by their appearance; for example, if an herb was meant to treat the liver, then it would resemble a liver. For that reason, many of the aphrodisiacs on our list resemble genitalia, often phalluses.

While the horns of several animals, including those of the unicorn, have been touted as aphrodisiacs over the centuries, perhaps the most famous myth is that rhino horn is used for its aphrodisiacal properties. This myth has persisted in Western cultures despite significant educational efforts made by the World Wildlife Federation and other organizations.

In fact, rhino horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat fever, high blood pressure, and other illnesses, but it is not used as an aphrodisiac. Rhino horn from Asian and Africa, used for these medicinal purposes, commands thousands of dollars per pound, and demand for the product has led to the death of hundreds of rhinos each year until most Asian countries banned the sale and use of rhino horn.

I vividly remember a night in Hong Kong when I sought out an apothecary to obtain something to help me combat a cold I had contracted.  When I asked for help I expected the person behind the counter to offer me Excedrin or maybe Benadryl to help my runny nose.  Instead she took me into a cavernous room where row after row after row of shelves held almost endless combinations of wild animal parts each, I was assured, would cure me of whatever ailed me.  The store clerk offered me what turned out to be dried deer anus and told me it was a traditional cure for a cold. “It work very well on your code.”  I told her I wanted something else.  She then reached over and picked up a container of rhino horn.  It sold for about $450 an ounce.

I asked what it was and she told me “It rhino horn.” 

“Rhino horn is good for curing my cold,” I asked.

“No, no, no, rhino horn not for code.  Rhino horn give you hard on that last week,” she said excitedly.  “It better than Viagra and keep you hard longer too.”  Walking through the throngs of humanity that make up China I realized that the last thing China needs is men running around with out of control erections.  I declined the rhino horn and asked for some aspirin instead.

If that was not bad enough, there is also a misguided belief among Arabs especially in Yemen that the horn of a rhinoceros is one of the best products that can be used to for the handle of a specific kind of dagger called a janbiya.   The price of a janbiya is in most cases determined by its handle. The saifani handle is known to be the most famous and is found on the daggers of wealthier citizens. The saifani handle is made of rhinoceros horn. Different versions of saifani handles can be distinguished by their color. Most other janbiya handles are made of different types of horns or wood. Apart from the material used for the handle, the design and detail on the handle describe its value and the status of its owner.  The saifani janbiya is often worn by dignitaries among them the Hashimites (an Arab tribe that claims a direct bloodline to the prophet Mohammed), the judges, famous merchants and businessmen.  The saifani janbiya of sheikh Al-Shaif, which goes back to Imam Yahia Hameed Aldeen, recently sold for $1,000,000 US.

My first night out of Kruger Park I stayed in Komatipoort where I read the local newspaper over dinner. There on the third page was an almost full page story about how just two days before forces of the South African military, the South African Police force, the South African National Parks agency and the South African wildlife authority had tracked down and killed one of three poachers who were stalking a lone white-lipped rhinoceros in a dry stream bed not far south of the Satara Rest Camp.  When the poachers were surprised they opened fire on the good guys who returned fire killing one of them as the two others sped away in a Land Rover.  Other details were sketchy at press time but the leader of the local South African military post assured readers that the other two poachers will be tracked down.  “When we find them they will be dead.” Justice in South Africa for even attempting to kill rhinoceroses is swift and often fatal.  It needs to be before there are none left.

Will my grandchildren or yours ever see a rhinoceros in the wild?  My guess is that if I had any grandchildren and if they wanted to see a rhinoceros anywhere but stuffed in a museum, they need to see it yesterday.  With more than one billion horny Chinese thinking they can get a perpetual erection from rhino horn, and with the Hashimites in Yemen willing to spend $1,000,000 on a knife with a rhino horn handle the animal has little if any chance of surviving.  Now I understood why I saw only one rhinoceros.  I was extremely fortunate to even see it.


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  60. Christ, don't you hate all those assholes above me? I've only ever seen a rhino in a zoo, though I've long admired them myself. There's still time to save the rhino, since the current number of wild white rhinos is still high enough to preserve genetic diversity. Of course, then the problem becomes how to prevent the harvesting of the horn in the first place... Ack. Maybe education is the way to go?

    Anyway, nice article. Got me thinking.

  61. How can our coming generation see this beautiful animal Rhinos? The population of the rhinos is decreasing rapidly because of the trading of his horns.

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