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Rhinos are being wiped out for the sake of fairytales

Technological fixes won’t help them – the answer is to target human stupidity

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

The idea of dyeing a rhino’s horn pink is not absurd. It’s everything else about the 21st-century rhino-human interface that’s ridiculous. The pink-horn notion is a serious proposal and it’s as sane as the whole thing gets. There are plenty of other wacky notions out there. One is to drill a hole in a rhino’s horn and fill it with poison; the idea of the dye is to mark the horn as a poisoned one. Cutting the damn things off has also been tried. There are experiments that involve a horn-cam placed on a living rhino.

If you’re involved with rhino conservation, you’re waist-deep in brochures for drones. That’s the trendiest idea on the table: long-range surveillance without the need to step outside. Well, that’s the theory. There’s also work involving satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis and GPS, and there is an enthusiastic group of people who want to develop and sell synthetic rhino horn. There are advanced plans for powder that’s ‘biologically identical’ to rhino horn, and others for a pretend horn that is ‘genetically similar’. There have been attempts to culture rhino horn from rhino DNA.

So there’s a great deal of science, a great deal of human ingenuity and all kinds of thrilling 21st-century thinking involved here — and it’s all lined up against the might of the fairies. For the rhino trade is based on exploded and pathetic ideas that are blood-brothers to flat-earthery, evolution-denial, Biblical literalism, pixies, ectoplasm and all the other bits of bottom-wiping nonsense we’re supposed to set aside before puberty.

But it’s a fact that all five species of rhino are charging pell-mell towards extinction because of an idea that’s proven bollocks. It’s also a fact that some great minds and serious money are lining up in the attempt to stop it. And here’s the cream of the jest: they’re losing. South Africa provides the most reliable and the most regularly quoted stats. In 2007 they lost 13 rhinos to illegal poaching. Last year they lost 1,215. Those figures are reflected elsewhere in Africa: it’s an increase of 9,000 per cent. At this rate we’ll be out of rhinos in about 20 years.

Most sharp declines and extinctions happen because the species in question finds itself in conflict with humans. Habitat destruction, the effects of intensive agriculture, increasing human population, demands for space: that’s an old story. But in Africa at least there’s still plenty of room for rhinos, and plenty of financial reasons for keeping them there: income from wildlife tourism is important in many African countries. But rhinos are constantly being killed because people believe in fairies.


Rhino horn is traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat fevers and disorders of the blood. Never as an aphrodisiac: that’s a western fantasy. Fact: it doesn’t do anything. Not even harm. A rhino’s horn is made from keratin, like your fingernails. Next time you have a blood disorder, chew your fingernails.

Rhino-poaching for the Chinese medicine trade has been going on for years. The black rhino went nationally extinct in Zambia in the 1980s, though there’s now an excellent reintroduction programme. The trade in African rhinos has been increasing, not least because there are now many Chinese people working in Africa. Supply lines have been radically shortened, while the increasing prosperity in China put rhino horn within many more people’s range.

But now there is a further problem and it’s Vietnam. The place has gone nuts. Suddenly the country is full of wealthy middle-aged men and many of them require rhino horn to convince themselves that they’ve arrived. They use rhino horn to treat cancer; it’s also used to treat the after-effects of a night out. You can spend vast sums of money on a banquet and even more on your hangover: and the whole process shows just how far you’ve come in life. All this has led to the demented spike in rhino-poaching. This has been followed by complex and sometimes curious efforts to stop it — or at least cash in before they’ve all gone.

Much of it — at least on the fringes — is about a silver-bullet solution. So far that’s been elusive. For example, the pink dye isn’t permanent because it doesn’t permeate the horn; which is perhaps as well, because a pink horn affects the rhinos’ ability to hide from poachers. Poisoning horns doesn’t work for the same reason: the poison doesn’t get into the fibre of the horn itself, it stays in the drilled hole. Besides, the whole scheme is flawed by the irritating fact that the people who do the poaching are criminals. They’re not too worried about the health of the end-user or any other ethical problem of their business. Rhinos with poisoned horns have been poached.

The problem with synthetics is that the market is already awash with fake rhino horn, mostly powdered antelope horn, and this only drives up the desirability and price of the real thing. There is also a problem for the sellers: since neither real nor fake rhino horn does you any good, how do you market the stuff? And besides, we’re dealing with magic here. A rhino has to be sacrificed or there’s no point.

Drones aren’t the complete answer either, because they have limited range and can only be controlled in line of sight, and besides, their use is banned in some African countries. If there’s an answer, it’s probably not a bit of technology. It’s in political will in both the supply countries and the end-user countries. Africa needs scouts on the ground in increased numbers, with access to efficient modern transport — helicopters are best — for proactive and reactive operations. There have been great advances in intelligence gathering: getting ahead of the poachers.

The other step is in demand reduction. The excellent group Education for Nature-Vietnam is working hard on this. In one example they put out a public service broadcast in which the chanteuse Hong Nhung puts the case for rhinos beside a butchered animal in the African bush. In another, the comedian Chí Trung performs a sketch as a white-suited fat-cat showing off his rhino horn — only to be rejected by the girls he’s trying to impress.

So yes, it’s people, not technology, doing the best job right now. And the ideas keep coming. So long as people are working on the problem then there’s a possibility that some kind of solution can be found.

The business is a kind of lethal silliness. Graham Chapman interrupted Monty Python sketches when they got too silly: it’s high time he took the rhino trade in hand as well, for there are few things sillier on this earth than for a nice animal to become extinct over a hangover cure that doesn’t even work.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sports writer of the Times and is a patron of Save the Rhino. Among his many books are Planet Zoo: 100 Animals We Can’t Afford to Lose and Ten Million Aliens.

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Show comments
  • Africa is just waking up to FLIR’s too early to rule
    out drones…early days yet!

  • JSC

    If ever there were terms naturally deserving of scare quotes “Chinese medicine” is one of the forerunners. Until we can stop this lucrative quackery we’ll never stop the poachers. Here’s an idea that might help though, get some Rhino horn (legally obviously) an run it through a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which will tell you the chemical composition of the horn. Although mostly keratin, horn will also contain tens of thousands of other chemicals. Sort those chemicals according according to toxicity, e.g. “32 of the chemicals are known carcinogens, 15 are known neurotoxins, 4 are toxic heavy metals etc” and use this information as propaganda to dissuade the gullible hypochondriacs who buy this stuff. It’s true many of these chemicals will be in trace amounts and many below clinically toxic levels, but they will be there.

  • lisa joy miller

    like the chromatography idea !

  • Why the throwaway insults against Bible Christians and Darwin dissenters in an otherwise very good article?

    There is plenty of sound evidence and argument against molecules to man evolution, don’t compare Darwin dissent with the idea of rhino horn as medicine. The latter is readily disproved by empirical testing, while the idea of self creating life (breaking the law of biogenesis, life only comes from life) and bacteria morphing into people through genetic mutation (given the observed destructive effects of mutations) is based on speculation, multiple unseen entities and a philosophical commitment to materialism. What other idea in science requires legal protection from questioning?

    Creation Ministries International has hundreds of scientific articles on its web site exploding the many myths of evolution. But anyway, if evolution is true, why worry about extinctions? If Darwin was right about the continual evolution of ‘endless forms most beautiful’ then there’ll be some new species along in no time at all!

    • jeremy Morfey

      “No time at all” in evolutionary terms is about a million years. Most of us haven’t got that long to live, although I’m getting there by taking my vitamins and learning to meditate. If only I could get hold of some rhino horn…

      In that time, humanity itself may render itself extinct. If the evolutionary descendants of jellyfish take over the world, what value will they place on the ancient artefacts of human civilisation? Will they even care enough about them to blow them to smithereens? Will they even speak English, as all good interstellar aliens can?

    • Mattwales

      Well if Creation Ministries International said it then I’m sold. Do you get a free Rhino horn as a Cancer cure when you sign up?

    • Callipygian

      Good points, even if I don’t agree with it all and am not religious.

  • greencoat

    It’s not ‘human stupidity’ – it’s sheer wickedness.

    • Callipygian

      Human stupidity when it reaches a certain level makes a qualitative turn into wickedness, agreed.

  • ADW

    This is because the one part of the world that should know better – the West – will sacrifice truth for multiculturalism at every point. Basic science tells you all that is said about the rhino horn is utter tripe. But that runs counter to the idea that all cultures are equal and must be protected. So the supine idiots in the west balk at speaking out. Just like they do when its corruption, sexual abuse, FGM, Charlie Hebdo or anything else.

    • John Bindon

      This is nonsense. The wicked and highly depressing killing of rhinos and multi-culturalism have nothing to do with each other, and it is asinine to bring it up. Rhinos are killed because their horns have immense value – nothing else, and I have never seen a single article defending the killling from a cultural point of view by anyone in the West. The Chinese have – stupidly – seen rhino horns as a means to cure ills for thousands of years; way before anyone had ever heard of the irritating phrase, “multi-culturalism”.

      • ADW

        Rhino killing is based on idiotic beliefs. SUpernatural beliefs, that people think have a real-world application. Just like pseudo-science.

        Anyone with their head screwed on the right way would rubbish this. Of course these beliefs pre-date multiculturalism, but we in the west are so stymied by the belief system that has multiculturalism at its core, we balk at saying ‘your beliefs are utter crap’.

        • John Bindon

          These beliefs ARE utter crap. Im not balking at it, you’re not balking at it and neither is Simon Barnes; but this is an article about killing rhinos, not multi-culturalism; God knows there are enough of them in the Spectator to keep most people happy who don’t like it. I see no point whatsoever in bringing it up here.

          • fundamentallyflawed

            Well when 1 white guy killed 1 lion the internet was up in arms. Legislation was tabled almost overnight to try to prevent hunting trophies being returned to Europe.

            The systematic destruction of an entire species for the Asian markets…….

            Can’t annoy the Chinese after all – they are rich

          • Callipygian

            Right: and it’s even difficult to transport an existing piano with actual ivories, never mind buy one. I think the commenter ADW is right.

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          • Gilbert White

            The most successful campaign for Rhino protection for a short while was the shoot to kill one in the Luanga Valley. ADW here proves his case about MC. Most of the white people would like to see animals in Africa rather than these ugly diseased African babies. Malaria and Sleeping Sickness were always the heroes of African Conservation. Billionaires like Gates, disagree of course. Remember the Vulture/baby iconic image of several years back? The vulture was reduced to eating the babies excrement not the baby but the aidists thought this would be good propaganda. People like Barnes believe there is some magic bullet like a spam meat advert to make thinks hunky dory. Barnes makes a very comfortable living off this. Prince Harry jaded by clubbing seems to get a kick out of getting in the way of the professionals in the African Bush.

  • stuartMilan

    not “human” stupidity. but traditional Chinese stupidity

  • Chris de Boer

    well, Can anything protect the humans from rapacious human stupidity?So, the answer has to be NO!!

  • Roger Hudson

    The answer is to get Yankee dentists and their mates to hunt down the most dangerous animal in Africa , ‘a poacher with a Kalashnikov’. Real sport.

  • Malcolm Knott

    Mit der dummheit kampfen die Gotter selbst vergebens. (Against stupidity the Gods themselves labour in vain.)

  • To end #poaching you have to change mindset. Until then we have to prevent poaching to avoid environmental disaster of our time.

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