Michael McCarthy: A medical myth threatens the rhino


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Can nobody stop it? Can no major political leader find a moment to speak out about the horrific, heartless, headlong slaughter of the world's rhinos which is now running out of control?

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 (£24,000) 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.

The world wildlife watchdog, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has announced that the western black rhino from West Africa, had been driven extinct, while 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 rhino 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 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 probably be more than 400.

Now comes even more disturbing news: a report from the Humane Society International, complete with sickening photographs, reveals that poachers now 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 HIS 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".

And all this for a myth. All this for the fable, long accepted in traditional Asian medicine, that rhino horn has curative properties.

To its credit, the British Government three months ago began a protest about the situation, and at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species put forward a request for Asian nations to raise awareness, pointing out rhino horn's non-existent medical virtues. 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 rhino 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 relics 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.