Here’s a deal: the next time you’re feeling ill — be it a headache, a cold, or even full-blown cancer — just chew on your fingernails, grind them into powder, mix it with water, drink it, and you will be fine in no time — or all your money back. How much money? How about a quarter of a million rand per kilogram.
Here’s a deal: the next time you’re feeling ill — be it a headache, a cold, or even full-blown cancer — just chew on your fingernails, grind them into powder, mix it with water, drink it, and you will be fine in no time — or all your money back. How much money? How about a quarter of a million rand per kilogram. Is that something you might be interested in?
You might think this is rather silly but keratin, the same protein that makes up rhinoceros horns, is what our hair and fingernails are composed of. Yet a rhino is killed every day for its horn, which is used to “cure” a wide array of ailments in China and Vietnam.
With black market rhino horns worth more than its weight in gold or cocaine, the poaching of this critically endangered species is no longer just a conservation issue, but a criminal concern.
That was the message delivered by South African National Parks spokesperson Wanda Mkutshulwa. She highlighted the “highly orchestrated and choreographed” nature of the crime syndicates operating behind the rhino poaching scene, many of whom are equipped with helicopters, GPS and thermal imaging systems, assault rifles and medical tranquillisers.
It is therefore no surprise that despite heightened awareness and security (park rangers now receive paramilitary training), rhino poaching is still on the rise. Last year 448 were killed, compared with 333 in 2010. Oh, and it was “just” 13 in 2007.
Recently the Department of Environmental Affairs has commissioned an investigation into the legalisation of rhino horn trade. The department's spokesperson, Albie Modise, announced that both market research and authentic scientific backing are key. Modise said that the proceeds raised from selling the horns would be used to fund further conservation efforts and furthermore, they won't be sold for “medicinal purposes”.
Currently the export of horns is strictly regulated and only allowed as hunting trophies.
Proponents of legalisation claim that this will allow rhinos to be de-horned without endangering their lives and decrease the demand for illegal rhino horns. Meanwhile those against legalising the trade, including the WWF, argue that the practice would not be dissimilar to de-horning the rhinos, as we will still lose what we tried to protect.
Additionally, since they will not be sold for medicinal purposes, the black market will still thrive even after trade is legalised.
A number of other measures have been tested to try and slow down rhino poaching. Horns have been sampled for DNA and planted with microchips to allow tracking on the black market, but to no avail.
Pre-emptively de-horning the rhinos has also been tested, but was described as counter intuitive and a lose-lose situation.
Lastly, a scheme to deter poaching by poisoning the horns backfired as one rhino died during the process. This plan would in any case only punish the end-users who have no knowledge of the poisoning and are rarely as guilty as the poachers.
So where does this leave us? More importantly, where does it leave the rhinos?
* This piece was submitted as part of the economics journalism course taken by third-year Rhodes University students.