Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Medical myth is dooming the rhino to extinction

  • @mjpmccarthy

Can nobody stop it? Can no major political leader or other public figure realise what is happening and have the guts or find a moment to speak out about the horrific, heartless, headlong slaughter of the world's rhinos which is now running out of control?

Yes of course, most people naturally have concerns at the moment which preclude worrying about the welfare of wildlife. But the rhino carnage now going on is different; in its scale, it is something quite new. Driven by an urban myth in Asia – that a Vietnamese politician had his liver cancer cured by powered rhino horn – the price of horn has shot up to about $38,000 per kilo, more than the price of cocaine, and approaching the price of gold. These lumberingly gentle, charismatic animals might as well be walking around with a solid gold nose, and as a result are being butchered as never before.

Last week I wrote about the fact that Vietnam's own rhino, a subspecies of the Javan rhinoceros only discovered in 1988, had been wiped out by poachers for the traditional Asian medicine trade in a mere two decades, and suggested that this should make us think hard about ourselves as a species and our killer tendencies.

On the very day I wrote this, the world wildlife watchdog, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, announced that a further rhino subspecies, the western black rhino from West Africa, had also been driven extinct, while a third, the northern white rhino, last seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, had "probably" been driven over the edge. In addition to that, the IUCN said, the Javan rhinoceros itself is teetering on the brink, probably down to about 40 individuals, in a single park in Indonesia.

In South Africa, a poaching war is in full swing now in supposed sanctuaries like the Kruger National Park; by the end of August, nearly 300 animals had been killed for their horn in South Africa this year alone and the final total will be much higher, probably more than 400 (between 2000 and 2007 it averaged 12). Even in Britain we are feeling the effects: several museums have been broken into and have had antique trophy rhino heads stolen for the horn.

Now comes even more disturbing news: a report from the Humane Society International, complete with sickening photographs, reveals that the latest trend is for poachers to use silent tranquiliser dart guns, rather than rifles, as the risk of detection by wildlife protection officials is less. So while the animals are still alive, the HSI report says, the poachers "use machetes and chainsaws to hack off their horns, leaving the animals to regain consciousness with hideous deep face wounds, massive blood loss and unimaginable pain".

The executive director of HSI, Mark Jones, himself a vet, says: "The rhinos who die whilst still anaesthetised are the lucky ones."

And all this for a myth. All this for the fable, long accepted in traditional Asian medicine, that rhino horn has curative properties. In fact, rhino horn is largely composed of keratin, the substance of which our fingernails and hair are made, and has no medicinal properties whatsoever. But the burgeoning Asian middle classes – those for whom traditional medicine is a way of life – have now gone from an ancient belief that the horn cures fevers, to believing that horn cures cancer, and are bidding the price up to spectacular and disastrous levels.

To its credit, the British Government three months ago began an initial protest about the situation, and at a committee meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) put forward a request – on behalf of the whole European Union – for Asian nations to mount awareness-raising campaigns, pointing out rhino horn's non-existent medicinal virtues. There is a sensitivity about seeming to interfere in the internal affairs of countries like China and Vietnam, but Richard Benyon, the UK Wildlife minister, said: "The world community cannot sit back and just watch these species disappear."

Yet disappearing they are. Of the five main rhinoceros species, all except one – the population of white rhinos in South Africa – are now threatened with extinction. It is happening before our eyes. These marvellous relicts of the age of megafauna, of the time of the mammoth and sabre-toothed tiger and other remarkable beasts which died out at the close of the last ice age, are coming to the end of their time on Earth, simply through naked human greed.