Monday 14 March 2016


I was on about rhinoceroses the other day because I'd heard about a nice academic exercise which had shown how best to allocate resources for their conservation.  In passing I mentioned that the Northern White Rhino Ceratotherium simum cottoni had been reduced to a couple of handfuls of adults in the wild and may, even as you read this, have slipped off the edge into oblivion.  It won't take a huge leap of imagination to twig why rhinos are much more 'at risk', than say elephant Elephas maximus or kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros.  It's the horn, silly!  Sure sure, elephant ivory has a certain cachet and a hefty price but it's nothing compared to the $100 per gram for rhino horn. Three years ago, for example, masked raiders descended on the National Museum of Ireland and made off with four stuffed rhino heads valued at €500,000.

In The East, powdered rhino horn has long been associated / prescribed for fevers and liver complains. And of course there is the, largely apocryphal, idea that rhino horn was / is a potent aphrodisiac: horn, knob, penis - geddit?  Apparently, however, in 2008 a rumour blew up in Vietnam that rhino horn had cured a famous politician of cancer.  Everyone knew someone with 'cancer' and demand for the miracle product soared and the price followed demand upwards to dizzying heights. If a chap in a grass hut in Africa could get his hands on an AK47 and a clip of ammo he could dream of securing $600,000 worth of mystic keratin [rhino-horn; hair; toenail: the same] that would fit handily in a rucksack. Follow the money dictated that poaching would go sky-high.

In countries where the discrepancy in wealth and power is very high, putting the army in to fight the poachers only adds another well-armed item in the food-chain taking a cut. Cute technological solutions, dreamed up in dogoodnik Ivy League laboratories (like removing the horn under sterile conditions and replacing it with a 3D-printed prosthesis) don't work in darkest Africa. The poaching is not done at lunchtime, they use infra-red heat sensitive night googles to hunt their prey at blackest midnight.  Even if the poachers can even see that there is no real horn on the mass hidden in that bush, they waste the beast anyway so as not to waste time on succeeding hunts.

Candace Scott, advocate of genetics-for-targeted-conservation, is supportive of the idea of breeding rhinos for their horn on farms.  It's a long term strategy because rhino pregnancies are 2 years (!) and infant dependency a further 3 years . . . but rhino horn grows continuously, so it's a potential business model that is functionally equivalent to raising dairy-cows or angora goats.  The World Wildlife Fund WWF goes bonkers when they hear this: it is condoning a trade that is illegal, and condoning a medical and ethical practice that is disgusting discredited. They tell Scott and the rhino farmers that they must give it up and row in behind the education, legislation and effective policing that WWF advocates. "educate a billion Chinese?" that's a lot of markers and white-boards. Education (and water-filters) worked a treat against Dracunculus medinensis the Guinea worm, because everyone agreed that nobody wanted Guinea-worms. But should we want to educate a billion East Asians to accept our assessment of the issues? Is that not cultural imperialism? Do we know what's good for everybody, everywhere? If there is market for rhino-horn why not supply it in a tsunami that will drop the price so low that poaching is no longer economically viable? It works for T-shirts.

Whatever the grandstanding and questionable ethical positions, it looks like too little too late for most of the existing species of rhinoceros. The leather tanks will soon be terminally obsolete. Dang! They have an important part to play in the ecosystem: ticks, dung-beetles, hosts of nematodes and bacteria depend on their browsings and grazings and leavings for their own survival.  The world will be a poorer place when they are gone. Too bad that a number of already wealthy Triad bosses, and army generals with aspirations for a coup d'état, are going to fill up their Swiss bank accounts as the rhinos go down to a stutter of automatic rifle fire.  May their penises wither!

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