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The war for rhino horns has nearly wiped out entire population of black rhino. Wildlife crime—in this case, the black-market trafficking of rhino horn—continues to plague the species and threaten its recovery. In one year’s time, poachers in South Africa managed to kill over 1200 rhinos. This is their story:

In Africa’s wildlife preserves, rhinoceroses are being slain for their horns which have become more valuable than gold. Today, horns can sell for up to $76,000 a kilogram and the stakes for poachers to deliver horns to the market is higher than ever. Though it is possible to remove a rhinoceros’ horn without fatality, the poacher’s pursuit most commonly ends in the rhino’s death. According to reports from CBS news, over 1,200 rhinos were slaughtered in 2016 to meet the mounting demands of the black market.

Black Rhino. Source: Creative Commons Zero

The trade of rhino horns is driven primarily by Vietnam and China, where horns are perceived to cure cancer, enhance virility and prevent hangovers. However, no evidence has ever verified that rhino horn has any healing power at all.  In fact, a rhino’s horn is composed primarily of keratin, the same substance found in your nails and the hair on your head.  Some have argued that based on composition, a remedy made from the hair and nail clippings could have the same “healing properties” as the horn of a rhino. The hype over the remedial influences of horns has gotten so out of control that at least three rhinos are killed every day in South Africa. This ongoing poaching crisis calls for efforts to save rhinos to move at an increasing rate.

Less than 2,300 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) remain in the wild, making them one of Africa’s most endangered species. During the height of their population, black rhinos numbered in the hundreds of thousands of animals roaming throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 20th century, European settlements and unregulated hunting reduced the population dramatically. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers declined by an overwhelming 98%, to less than 2,500. Like Africa’s white rhino, whose populations total somewhere around 20,000- black rhinos have between two and three horns that line the bridge of their face. Unlike the white rhino— which uses its square jaw to feed on grass, the shape of the black rhino’s rounded jaw allows them to feed on fruits from trees as well as grasses.

Black Rhino. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

As the unfounded belief in the healing properties of rhino horn continues to swell, rhino populations are increasingly jeopardized.  At the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa, veterinarians, pilots, and game capture specialists are working to save the rhino by cutting off their horns before the poachers can get to them. This seemingly unconventional method removes the bounty from the rhino’s head by taking what the poachers want most before they have a chance to snatch it.  To remove the horns, specialist track the animals in an aircraft, shoot them with a tranquilizer dart, blindfold them, and saw through the thick layers of their horns. Veterinarians performing the procedures insist that the animals are well sedated and cannot feel the removal, likening it to the clipping of a toenail.  The 3,000 pound mammals are then airlifted to secret locations in Botswana where they are monitored and protected by a team of environmental defenders.  Over time, the rhino’s horns will grow back, but skeptics are left wondering whether removing the horn does more damage than good. For dehorning to be effective, it must be coupled with extensive anti-poaching security and monitoring efforts. Yet since dehorning began, poachers have continued to target the rhino and have been known to kill over the small stumps that remain.  It seems that as long as there is a demand for rhino horn, the poachers will find a way to fill it.

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