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World Rhino Day ~ 22nd September 2012

by Michael Evans 22 Sep 2012
World Rhino Day ~ 22nd September 2012

Rhino horn; Credit: © Act for Wildlife

In many ways a rhinoceros is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, betrays its unusual appearance.

Rhinos can be very big, with the two largest of the five species weighing up to 6,000 pounds or 2.7 tonnes and standing six feet high and up to 15 feet in length. This makes them second only to elephants as the world's largest land mammals. Yet in spite of their size, over short distances they can move at speeds of up to 30 mph and can turn very sharply. You don't want to be chased by a rhino.

Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth. For over 100 years the rhino has been subject to dedicated conservation efforts, but in spite of this, since the 1970s the world's rhinoceros population has declined by over 90%.

Of the world's five species of rhino, two are found in Africa, the Black Rhino and the White Rhino, while the other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino.

The Javan, the Sumatran and the Black Rhino are all critically endangered. There are possibly only 48 Javan Rhino left, with approximately 200 Sumatran and around 4,800 Black Rhino. The Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino is considered to be vulnerable, with just under 3,000 remaining, while the Southern White Rhino is in a better position, although considered to be near threatened, with approximately 20,600.

Two subspecies are in a very grave position. There are only seven Northern White Rhino left in the world and the Vietnamese subspecies of the Javan Rhino is down to only four or five left in the wild.

The chief reason for the decline in their world population is that rhino horn is widely regarded in traditional Chinese medicine as being a 'remedy' for a whole range of ailments including pain, fever, acne, laryngitis, mumps, herpes, epilepsy and even cancer.

Rhino horn is comprised of keratin, which is the same material as hair and fingernails. The front horn of the two African species can reach up to four feet in length, while the Asian species have shorter horns that are rarely longer than two feet.

Extensive tests have revealed that claims of medicinal properties of rhino horn are completely without foundation, yet its continued use, particularly in China and Vietnam, is pushing these animals ever closer to extinction.

As is usually the case, when something is in high demand but is not legally available, international crime syndicates move in. The result is that after drugs and weapons, the illegal trade in rhino horn is now considered to be the third biggest illegal trade industry in the world.

Poaching is now endemic. According to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, in the 255 days between 1st January and 11th September 2012, 381 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa alone; more than ten every week.

On the side of the rhino is the fact that international crime also attracts international law enforcement.

A recent case in the United States followed the arrest two California residents in February 2012 as part of the multi-agency "Operation Crash". This was designed to crack down on the illegal trade of rhino horn to China and Vietnam. The criminal ring was dismantled and the two ringleaders pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, smuggling, Lacy Act violations, money-laundering and tax fraud.

In another recent case, customs officials in the Philippines were suspicious when the paperwork associated with a consignment of cashew nuts looked a bit odd. When they investigated they found six rhino horns concealed among 300 sacks of nuts.

In South Africa a Chinese national was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for illegal possession of rhino horns, elephant tusks and leopard skins.

South African law enforcers have also voiced suspicion that game farmers and reserve owners are actually killing their own rhinos and selling the horns. When the potential rewards are so high, it is easy to understand their temptation, especially since interceptions and prosecutions are really nothing more than a tip of an iceberg and there is little real chance of ever being caught.

Meanwhile the numbers of rhinos continue to decline, but in 2010 a faint ray of hope came when the first World Rhino Day was announced by WWF-South Africa. This was a great success and it came to the attention of Lisa Jane Campbell of the Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe, a game ranch and conservation enterprise.

Lisa Jane Campbell is of the firm opinion that with poachers now using such sophisticated methods, there is no realistic hope of ever stopping them and the only chance for the rhino is to change attitudes by persuading users of rhino horn that it is not a medicine and that those who are really ill would stand a far better chance of survival if they were to use tried and tested pharmaceutical products.

Feeling that a World Rhino Day was an ideal way to get this message across, Lisa Jane Campbell began to trawl the Internet for ideas and potential collaborators and she came across Rhishja Cota-Larson and her Saving Rhinos charity in California. The two women made contact and discovered that they shared a common goal.

Meanwhile Rhino Africa was working to prepare its second World Rhino Day event in Cape Town and with input from Lisa Jane and Rhishja, World Rhino Day 2011 became an international success, both online and offline.

The two women decided to continue working together and are now the joint organisers and promoters of World Rhino Day. The theme for 2012 is "Five Rhino Species For Ever" and once again the day is regarded as an opportunity to highlight the myths surrounding the medicinal properties of rhino horn and to diminish its demand as a result.

This is likely to be an uphill struggle, but concern for the rhino is growing and the third World Rhino Day seems set to be bigger than ever. There is no central fund and donors are free to contribute to the organisation or initiative of their choosing. Funding the campaign is obviously very important, but what is really needed is for plenty of people to drive the message home.


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