Vietnam and South Africa sign MOU on poaching – now its China’s turn to show leadership

Rhino’s are worth more than gold

The recent signing of a memorandum of understanding between Vietnam and South Africa stunned the world – it revealed Vietnam’s recognition of her role in the record poaching levels of rhino in South Africa.  It is estimated that Vietnam consumes 75% of the worlds rhino horns. It is true that rhino are once again facing extinction due to poaching for the horn and it’s not just Vietnam and South Africa or even rhino that are affected by the wave of poaching and illegal trade. Many species are threatened by Asian demand including elephants, to lions, rhino, chimpanzees, gorillas, snakes, turtles, sharks, pangolins and many other species. Indeed it is surprising that Vietnam was the first country to step up and take leadership in this crisis, after all, it is well known that China is the main market for illegal wildlife trade from Africa.

Horrific suffering and immense waste

Is it too much pressure from trade, or too little resistance against poaching in rhino range states?

Last weekend 4 rhino’s were shot dead in Lewa Conservancy, and another one was killed at Oserian Wildlife Sanctuary in a devastating weekend for Kenya.  Are rhino’s being massacred due to demand in Asia or is it failed enforcement in Africa? Much time has been wasted in debates about what is driving the poaching and attempts to enforce the provisions of the Convention on International trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have been fruitless. The convention made up of member states, tip toes around and behaves as if all are helpless against the giant, China. Once a powerful convention, CITES seems rather toothless nowadays and sanctions against countries that violate the provisions of the convention are rarely used.  CITES and even some scientists even argue that the science does not prove the links between legal trade in rhino horn in Asia and illegal trade, and they push responsibility to poor African countries which they blame for enabling the illegal trade by failing to curb corruption. We agree that corruption is a problem but lets be honest, if there was no demand for rhino horn, there would be no killing of rhino’s.

Think of it as pressure vs resistance. Imagine a dam wall under the pressure of rising water levels. If there was no pressure, the dam wall would not need to be heavily reinforced. However, under increasing pressure the wall will requires greater investment to resist. It becomes an arms race. But the wall can also be breached if someone chips away even the most highly reinforced dam wall.

if a dam has cracks, water pressure will eventually destroy it

Similarly, the pressure to poach rhino’s comes from demand for rhino horn in Asia. African countries have invested heavily in enforcement, but corruption reduces the effectiveness of the antipoaching and enforcement measures. We argue that it is in fact the demand for horn has led to such an increase in price that rhino horn now rivals gold and it is this demand and price which has created the opportunity for corruption and this in turn has led to the breeding of organized crime. The water in the dam is filling up at a dizzying pace, and though dam wall has been reinforced, in most countries there are busy people drilling holes into it and in some countries, the entire wall has collapsed and rhino’s have been poached to extinction.

We are losing the arms race to keep rhino’s safe

Black rhino’s (Diceros bicornis) were declared critically endangered in the 1980’s after they had suffered catastrophic declines reducing Africa’s rhino from 65,000 in 1972 to fewer than 2,500 by 1992. Kenya was hit particularly hard, her population of 20,000 black rhino crashed to fewer than 400 between 1970 and 1990. To reverse the trends, Kenya adopted an intense rhino program to rebuild the rhino populations. The strategy included the creation of a rhino program with massive investment in security and paramilitary training for a special rhino force, intelligence, enforcement, training, monitoring, and equipment, ring fencing all remaining populations of wild rhino, individually tagging each individual, and keeping a 24/7 vigil on every single rhino. Kenya is particularly key in rhino conservation because she holds 85% of the world’s population of the eastern black rhino, (D. b. michaeli ). Kenya is also home to a larger population of southern white rhino’s which were introduced after the northern whites went extinct. Last year, Kenya imported the last remaining 4 northern White rhino. The investment paid off and over the last 20 years, Kenya’s elephant populations have grown. The situation in South Africa has been critical and to protect her rhino’s, the South African Parks have taken an extreme position of engaging the army in anti-poaching in Kruger National Park which is particularly vulnerable.

Despite the investment and reinforcement of rhino anti-poaching, record numbers of rhino’s are being poached across Africa and Asia. This year the last Javan rhino in Vietnam was been poached and the species is now extinct. The West African black rhino has also been declared extinct, the Sumatran rhino is on the verge of extinction in Indonesia. South Africa has been losing more than 2 rhino per day to poachers for the last 18 months.

Is poaching driven by ancient tradition or recent rumours?

Like ivory, rhino horn has been used traditionally for millennia in the Middle and Far East. In the Yemen, rhino horns have been used for the handles of curved daggers called “jambiya,” which are given to muslim boys at the age of 12 as a relious sign of manhood. The daggers are extremely valuable and are often studded with jewels. Imports of rhino horn were banned into Yemen in 1982. Use of rhino horn in China dates to at least the 7th century AD where it is carved into ceremonial cups, and used for buttons, belt buckles, hair pins, and paperweights.

The most significant and rising use of rhino horn however is in the traditional medicine systems of many Asian countries, including Malaysia and South Korea, Vietnam, India and China. Legend has it that rhino horn has been used as an aphrodisiac, however this is not true. It is ground up and boiled to produce a cure for fever, gout, snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession” and other disorders.

But the reason for the sudden increase in rhino horn demand in recent years is a belief that it can cure cancer. Apparently a rumor began to circulate about 6 years ago that rhino horn had cured cancer in a Vietnamese politician. The rumor quickly spread by word of mouth, mobile phone and Internet. The value of horn rose so sharply that Vietnamese rhino’s were hunted to extinction, thieves began breaking into museums to steal rhino horn and Vietnamese “hunters” flooded South Africa where they paid for legal hunts in order to get the trophies. Poaching in South Africa rose dramatically with poachers using helicopters, dart guns and chainsaws to obtain horns. Illegal horns were laundered with legal permits to enable tens of horns to leave South Africa. Police now say that the poaching and dealing of rhino horn has become an organized crime involving global criminal syndicates.

All of this because of a rumour that rhino horn cures cancer! Rhino horn is basically hair and scientists have examined the properties to determine whether it really does have medicinal properties.  Comprised mainly of keratin, they also contain some calcium and melanin. In structure and composition they are similar to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills. Scientists have found little evidence of any medicinal properties apart from in one experiment where high concentrations of rhino horn mildly reduced fever in rats.

The fact that science has proven that rhino horn has no medicinal properties against cancer has not helped rhinos. The price of rhino horn now exceeds gold, and collectors in China are now hoarding horns to increase their value as rhino numbers decline and availability of horns decreases. One rhino farmer in South Africa slaughtered his own herd to store the horns. The problem is exacerbated by the growing wealth in Asia which is driving demand and the advent of internet commerce, and presence of Asian investors in Africa makes trading in illegal products much easier than ever before.

Some economists are even suggesting that rhino horn trade should be legalized to manage and regulate the demand and supply. However, others argue that legal trade is virtually impossible to regulate, and others wonder if the primary use of horn is for medicine, and the horn has no medicinal properties what does this legal trade really achieve? Indeed one study has already shown that only trace amounts of rhino  horn are actually used in the medicines, and more than 70% of medications claiming to contain rhino horn have none at all, all instead have traces of buffalo horn and deer antler.

Vietnam has made a commitment, on it’s own it’s not enough. China must step in and take the lead for Asia

It is true that corruption in Africa is a major facilitator of illegal trade of any sort and African countries have an enormous challenge to end impunity if they are to save their spectacular heritage. However Asian countries also have a critical role to play. It is no secret that Asian economies are driving the unsustainable exploitation of African animals from great apes, to pangolins, lions, elephants, rhino’s, sharks, snakes, and many other species.  Top of the list of culprits is China who scientists claim consumes between 70 and 90% of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products from Africa.  It will take a new kind of courageous leadership in Asia to reverse the trend. Vietnam has led the way by signing an MOU with South Africa “to promote cooperation between the two countries in the field of biodiversity management, conservation and protection. Particularly aimed at curbing the scourge in rhino poaching, the MOU seeks to promote cooperation in law enforcement, compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and other relevant legislation and Conventions on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.”

Conservationists are celebrating this collaboration but it won’t mean much unless China, Thailand, The Philippines and other Asian countries adopt similar leadership positions as part of their global responsibility.

Richard Leakey and WildlifeDirect seek to end the killing of rhino’s. Support our work by making a donation now to help us raise awareness, lobby our governments, and protect rhino’s . Thank You.

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