The Illegal Rhino Horn Trade: A Classic Case of Supply and Demand

The Illegal Rhino Horn Trade: A Classic Case of Supply and Demand

Spanning more than a century, the long and brutal killing of rhinos has escalated to a level well beyond critical in the last decade. Last year is a prime example, with 1 028 rhinos killed in South Africa alone – speeding up this iconic species’ demise. The staggering rate of about three rhinos killed every day is mainly attributed to a rising demand for rhino horn from Asia, with a sky-high market value of up to R1.2 million/kg. As a nation that views our rich wildlife as one of our most unique and irreplaceable assets, this can be difficult, as South Africans, to wrap our heads around. That’s why this post will explore the demand for this rare and expensive commodity, and what we can do to hinder wildlife crime.

A brief history of the value of rhino horn in Asian markets

Widely cherished for its aesthetic beauty and commonly used as a medium for carvings and handles, the value of rhino horn has been recognised since ancient times. In 1597, a medical paper written by Chinese naturalist Li Shih-Chen before his death was published, citing rhino horn as a cure-all for virtually any ailment – everything from warding off evil spirits to treating fevers, convulsions and arthritis. Despite no scientific evidence to back up these claims, rhino horn was used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine as a “heat-clearing” drug, combined with herbs and other medicinal ingredients.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all manufactured rhino-horn branded products that were sold over the counter in many pharmacies. Because of the treatments’ popularity, coupled with easy public access, these regions became major consumers of rhino horn during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Around the same time, the demand for rhino horn was also rising drastically in Yemen, for its use in the handles of traditional local daggers, called “jambiya”.

These combined market forces saw black rhino populations diminish by an astounding 97.6% from 1960 to 1995. After this initial devastation, the rhino horn trade in these four regions gradually decreased due to an international outcry over the rhino crisis – the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) played a pivotal role in getting these countries to implement rhino horn trade bans. Poaching numbers decreased significantly between 1990 and 2005.

However, this hiatus was short-lived because of a new rise in demand for rhino horn from both China and Vietnam. China started off as a minor consumer of rhino horn but has become one of the key players in its illegal trade due to inconsistent state control over privately-run businesses, allowing for loopholes in the system. Adding fuel to the fire, Vietnam is now the world’s largest recipient of both legal and illegal rhino horn from South Africa because it holds immense value in locals’ eyes as a status symbol, a post-indulgence detoxifier, a recreational party drug, and a miraculous cure for terminally-ill cancer patients. It seems that rhino horn no longer holds as much value for its use in traditional, Eastern medicine, but rather as a lifestyle enhancer and marketing scheme ploy.

A lack of evidence to back up medicinal claims

Studies have shown that a rhino horn’s composition is largely determined by that particular rhino’s diet, so each horn is unique in structural chemistry. This said, most of an average rhino horn consists of keratin, the same component found in human hair and nails, bird beaks and mammal hooves. The Journal of Anatomy identified only one form of keratin as having medicinal benefits – keratin K23, which is linked to the treatment of pancreatic cancer. However, it is only found in the cytoskeleton of the human pancreas and not in rhino horn. Countless medical studies have been conducted and the supposed link that turns rhino horn keratin into medicine has yet to be discovered.

A new black-market battleground and what that means for the world’s remaining rhinos

Without more awareness and education campaigns to dispel the misconceptions and myths around rhino horn’s alleged healing properties, its illegal trade will continue to run rampant. And at the current rate of decimation, African rhinos aren’t likely to survive the next 20 years.

Conservation groups are urged to focus on rhino horn’s proven lack of cancer-curing properties in their consumer awareness campaigns in Africa, Vietnam and China. Governments are also encouraged to tackle wildlife crime head-on with out-of-the-box policy responses that incorporate community-run initiatives. In addition, heavier penalties and stricter prison sentences should be enforced in these regions. Currently, in South Africa, the average prison sentence for poachers is just 4.3 years. However, strengthening our own laws and enforcement is not enough to eradicate poaching. We need added cooperation and dedication to the cause from Vietnam, China and the rest of Asia to ensure African rhinos are not wiped out as their Asian relatives have essentially been.

We, as humans, have an ethical duty to protect the planet’s animals. With a species as ancient as the rhino, saving it from extinction can be considered preserving our heritage as well. Our humane and nurturing instinct to fight for a cause bigger than ourselves needs to outweigh our selfish, unreasonable demand for rhino horn and what it can supposedly do for us.