Science: Armed with a rifle and a licence to cull: Martin Booth has a radical plan aimed at protecting endangered species and their habitats while benefiting communities

A rhinoceros's horn is its status symbol in a complex animal society, as well as a defensive weapon and a handy digging-cum-hooking tool.

Sadly, the horns are sometimes seen to have other uses. When powdered and taken as a weak 'tea' - which tastes like chewed fingernails - some Chinese consider them a potent medicine for treating bronchial illness. For some well-to-do Yemenis they are fashion accessories: it is chic to own a dagger with a rhino-horn handle. For these reasons, the African rhino has been driven to the brink of extinction.

Poachers usually shoot the animals with a small-calibre rifle. As the bullet cannot penetrate the dense skull or body mass to hit a vital organ for a 'clean' kill, the poachers aim at the hip or spine, crippling the hindquarters. When the animal falls, perhaps after staggering for hours in excruciating pain, its horn is axed off, often while the owner is alive, but paralysed. Poachers without guns use steel nooses that cut into the flesh. The animal dies slowly through loss of blood, septicaemia or thirst. To come upon the abomination of a poached creature is to be thoroughly revolted.

This has been going on for 20 years: rhino numbers have declined from hundreds of thousands to less than 10,000 in a generation. Now the world's largest black rhino population in an unfenced area, in the Masai Mara of Kenya, is less than 70 animals. Poaching continues today on a reduced scale, but only because there are so few left.

No amount of protection by game rangers, imprisonment or even execution deters the poachers, who are often skilled bushmen driven not by bloodlust but the need to earn a living in a poverty-stricken continent. The poacher is paid approximately pounds 30 for a good horn; the final customer can pay 200 times that. Thus the rhino is being undersold and the poacher defrauded: in other words, the resource is being squandered.

Yet there is an untried solution that might save not only the rhino, but also the whole bush environment and all its inhabitants, from the elephant down to the elephant shrew.

For centuries men have lived off the bush, harvesting its bounty. Before the coming of the Europeans, with their alien concepts of land ownership and agriculture, the indigenous population of the African bush lived by hunting, in harmony with their surroundings. Today, they have been alienated from their environment by the imposition of Western ideas and the corruption these have wrought.

What is required is a managed system whereby wildlife is given a value that may be realised by those who have a vested interest in it, namely the natives. This can be done through controlled use of the bush and what it can offer.

Like many ecosystems, the African bush is rich with renewable resources. Properly husbanded, nurtured and guarded, the bush can provide food and income. The knowledge exists to allow the scientifically controlled use of this natural wealth on a sustainable basis, yet the will to let this happen is absent, despite the dictates of world conservation strategies. The rhino, perhaps more than any other major species, is suffering as a result of this reluctance to face realities.

The rhino is a conservation 'flagship' animal. Like the whale and the elephant, it has a high profile because of its size and the cruelty of the abuse it suffers. The wildlife charities exploit the creature's emotional value, preferring to preserve dwindling stocks for their fund-raising capabilities rather than to use them wisely to halt their imminent destruction.

Whereas a poached animal realises pounds 30, one that has been legally shot can be worth pounds 50,000 or more. The horns, the bones, the hide and the meat all have a market as medicine, leather or food. An animal's life can be sold for a huge sum to 'sport' hunters. This income, properly used by wildlife departments, fairly shared with local people, is enough to increase conservation investment substantially and discourage poaching, which becomes an anti-social activity. The rhino thus becomes a provider of income.

Utilisation in this way would have to be controlled. The hunter would not have a right to the carcass or its wealth: he would pay only for the dubious privilege of tracking and killing. In other words, the hunter would be charged to cull.

Hunting rhinos will probably never be a reality. Poaching has reduced numbers to a dangerous low: every living rhino is too precious. Yet in theory, rhino utilisation should be the aim and, in the meantime, the controlled use of other bush animals could be introduced to reduce the pressure on the rhino, other threatened species and their habitats.

However, game utilisation will probably not happen because the wildlife charities, as bent on their own survival as that of their charges, dare not advertise or condone it, and it is they who largely call the tune.

The advantages of killing animals is played down because it has a negative emotional impact and does not raise money. Even necessary killing is conveniently ignored: charities never mention how they eradicate entire hyena populations to protect rhino calves from their main predator.

Priorities must be reassessed: the bullet, as well as being fired, must also be bitten.

The bush has to pay for itself in fiscal as well as environmental terms. This means controlled trading, protecting but using the bush as a farmer does his fields and livestock: it does not mean, as many fear, the degradation of game reserves into hunting provinces, for 80 per cent of African wildlife lives outside protected areas.

Conservation has been an abysmal failure. Depleted rhino numbers prove the point. Despite the charities' vast donations and publicity drives, wildlife is still dwindling, wild places are still vanishing under flames and ploughs. What is needed is a radical, immediate solution, one that lies in the re-establishment of the bush not just as an aesthetic attraction, but also as a bio-diverse resource from which wealth may be drawn without damage.

The long-term ideal might be a legitimate rhino-horn trade from 'farmed' animals that live and breed in a wild state and are humanely killed under a scientific programme, with the earnings put into the hands of local peasants to improve their lot.

At present, because of the ill-conceived concepts and blinkered thinking of conservation charities, this is likely to remain an unattainable dream.

(Photograph omitted)