Rhinos Are Real – And Little Ones Are Really Cute

“Rhinos are just big babies. They are afraid of everything – they even cry like babies. But what stands out about rhinos is the very strong bond between a rhino cow and her calf.” This is the way Dr William Fowlds, wildlife vet, described rhinos in a recent talk to members and guests of Whale Coast Conservation.

In his work of rehabilitating wounded and traumatised rhinos, Dr Fowlds has seen many very scared and horribly abused rhinos and heard their cries. This reality of the suffering of the animals is so far removed from the end-users of rhino horn, who fuel the poaching of our rhinos, that they do not know and do not care how the product is obtained. Dr Fowlds’ mission is to bring the horrors of poaching to the attention of those who flaunt their wealth by purchasing rhino horn. By making the connection between the use of rhino horn (and indeed any animal parts) and the vivid reality of the animals slaughtered or tortured for these products, he hopes to change public opinion and the mind-sets of the people who use animal parts, especially rhino horn. His mission is to raise awareness that rhinos are very real animals.

Let us look at some facts about the Rhinocerus (“nose horn”).

As a species they are uniquely old and uniquely vulnerable. It is believed that the Rhinoceros has been walking this Earth for more than 14.2 million years. It is even thought that there was a woolly rhinoceros about a million years ago during the ice age, which was hunted to extinction by early humans along with the woolly mammoth.

In South Africa we have two species, the black and the white rhino. They are, in fact, both grey. It is thought that the name “white” is a corruption of the Dutch work “wijd” meaning ‘wide’ because this rhino has a wide, flat mouth, best suited for grazing on grass. The black rhino (so-called because isn’t ‘white’) has a long upper lip for foraging on leaves and bushes. These differences have evolved over millions of years to take advantage of the different eco-systems they inhabit.

Both types of rhino have poor eye-sight, but very good hearing and smell. Because they don’t see very well, they are nervous and will tend to either run away from people or charge if they perceive danger, especially if they are protecting a calf. A rhino cow is programmed to be extremely protective of her calf which stays with her for up to three years.

A white rhino cow only becomes sexually mature at about 8 years of age. Once she has mated, she carries the calf for up to 18 months and then only gives birth to one calf at a time. In the three years that she cares for the calf she doesn’t mate again, so she will only have another calf after about 4 years. This means that rhinos breed rather slowly, so every rhino death is a threat to the continued existence of the species.

During the 19th century all over Africa animals, including rhinos, were hunted mercilessly. In the early 1900s only a few white rhinos remained in the wild, confined to the Umfolosi Nature reserve in KZN.

The recovery of the white rhino population from somewhere between 20 and 50 individuals in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1900s to the current global population of over 20,000 animals (93% of the current world population) is one of the great conservation success stories and perhaps partly explains the deep emotional attachment and pride that many South Africans feel for their rhinos.

One of the acknowledged reasons for South Africa’s past rhino conservation success has been the strong alliance between private and public sector players. Indeed, approximately 20-25% of rhinos in South Africa are now privately owned. A significant incentive for private ownership of rhinos has been the potential for income generation via trophy hunting. Sport hunting of white rhino started in 1968 at a time there were only 1,800 animals and has continued with an average of approximately 50 animals hunted per year ever since. Traditionally, white rhino trophy hunts have been sold primarily to international hunting clients from the United States and Europe for roughly £20,000 (R280,000) each.

Up until the end of 2007, white rhino numbers had been increasing by around 9.5% a year, and by around 6% per year for black rhinos, thanks to persistent conservation efforts.

However, the most disturbing trend has been the horrific increase in poaching of rhinos in South Africa in recent years.

Since 2008, rhino poaching in South Africa has skyrocketed year on year, culminating in a total of 448 rhinos killed in 2011, 668 in 2012 and an average of two per day in 2013. The face of rhino poaching has also changed, with trusted wildlife industry professionals unfortunately joining the ranks of the more traditional poaching syndicates. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the rhino poaching crisis is coming under control, as rhino deaths continue apace despite the government responses to combat poaching, including the deployment of army personnel along the border between the Kruger National Park and Mozambique and harsher prison sentences for convicted poachers.

All five of the world’s diverse species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of human appetite for their distinctive horns. Over the centuries, rhino horns have been carved into dagger handles and ceremonial cups, as well as buttons, belt buckles, hair pins, and paperweights. Far more pervasive, however, is its use in the traditional medicine systems of many Asian countries, from Malaysia and South Korea to India and China, to “cure” a variety of ailments.

Ask the person next to you what he or she thinks rhino horn might be used for in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Chances are they’ll tell you it is used as an aphrodisiac. It is not. In certain Asian countries, ground rhino horn is used to cure almost everything but impotence and sexual inadequacy.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” Recently, the rumour has been started (probably by dealers in the horn) that it is a cure for cancer, which has enormously increased its desirability.

Scientists have attempted to dispel some of the mystery and fiction surrounding the use of rhino horn. Indeed, it is not clear that rhino horn serves any medicinal purpose whatsoever, but it is a testimony to the power of tradition that millions of people believe that it does.

Unlike the horns of most animals, which have a bony core covered by a relatively thin layer of keratin, rhino horns are keratin all the way through — although the precise chemical composition of the keratin will vary depending on a rhino’s diet and geographic location.

Rhino horns are not, as once believed, made simply from a clump of compressed or modified hair. Recent studies using computerized tomography (CT) scans, have shown that the horns are, in fact, similar in structure to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills. The studies also revealed that the centres of the horns have dense mineral deposits of calcium and melanin — a finding that may explain the curve and sharp tip of the horns. The calcium would strengthen the horn while the melanin would protect the core from being degraded by ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As the softer outer portion is worn away over time by the sun and typical rhino activities (bashing horns with other animals, or rubbing it on the ground), the inner core is sharpened into a point (much like a wooden pencil).

Taiwanese self-made millionaires are notorious for their conspicuous consumption of rare and exotic wildlife, and the Chinese traditional adage that animals exist primarily for exploitation is nowhere more pronounced than on Taiwan. Most of the rhino horn for sale there comes from South Africa. The demand for Asian horn in particular is increasing and wealthy Taiwanese, aware that prices will rise even higher as rhinoceros numbers decline, are buying it as an investment.

There is huge debate over whether the sale of rhino horn should be legalised. One argument is that making stockpiled rhino horn available on the open market will reduce the price and satisfy the demand, thereby decreasing the need to poach the animals. The counter argument is that the economic reality of supply and demand predicts that if the price of a commodity is reduced, more consumers will be able to afford it, buy it more frequently and in larger quantities and push up demand. Therefore legalising rhino horn is more likely to increase the demand for it and drive up the poaching pressure. The jury is still out on which way to go.

Whale Coast Rhino Project (WCRP)

The Whale Coast Rhino Project is a partnership between Whale Coast Conservation and Rivendell Estate to raise awareness of the increased poaching of rhinos in the wild – now running at two per day – and to raise funds for programmes that try to redress this sad situation.

Schools participating in Whale Coast Conservation’s Eco-Schools programme have taken up the challenge of making a difference in rhino conservation.

Rangers and anti-poaching units are at war against very well equipped and ruthless poaching networks.  These rangers put their lives at risk and make many sacrifices to protect the rhino on behalf of the South African nation.   Through the Eco-Schools programme our learners create awareness of the issues that threaten the survival of the rhino and they raise funds to aid the national efforts to fight rhino poaching.

Funds raise by the Whale Coast Rhino Project will go to some of the many organisations involved in initiatives to protect the rhino.  The Endangered Wildlife Trust explains that there is a need to train anti-poaching units, law enforcement agencies, and sniffer dogs for use by customs at all border posts, harbours and airports. Offering workshops on environmental laws with prosecutors, magisterial and judicial bodies will also make a difference. DNA profiling is currently being done in order to trace the origins of all confiscated rhino horn with a view to gaining successful convictions of poachers, carriers and smugglers.

The need was recognised by the WCRP to communicate and engage with the end users of the rhino horn and persuade them to work with the South African nation to save the rhino.  It was decided that an effective channel of communication would be through the international Eco-Schools Programme. Let South African learners talk to Asian learners about the problem. As a result a short video was commissioned in which learners from local schools speak passionately about their rhinos and invite Asian schools to help them to safeguard rhinos by disseminating knowledge and discouraging the consumption of rhino horn. You are invited to view this touching video on http://youtu.be/RqYklmvni24.

Funds raising initiatives continue. Rivendell Estate donates a portion of Mitzi Blue Africa chocolate sales to the Rhino Project, facilitates patron donations via the tie a ribbon on Wetsi initiative, and sells bead-by-bead’ packages.

You can support the Rhino Project by purchasing ‘bead-by-bead’ bracelets at the following outlets: the Rivendell Bistro, Beanery, Eatery, Natural Earth in Eastcliff, Vet Shop Hermanus @ Pick ‘n Pay, Vet Shop Station @ Checkers Centre, and Hollywood in Hermanus.

Why we are so concerned about the future existence of the Rhinoceros? Does it really serve any purpose in nature and why should we care? Isn’t it time this pre-historic relic followed its inevitable path to extinction?

Firstly, rhinos are part of an eco-system and we really don’t know what the long-term effects on the ecology would be if they are permanently removed from their habitat. Do we really know what ecological role they have played over 14 million years?

Secondly, they have an intrinsic value in that they are rhinos – amazingly unique species, created over millions of years of evolution (God?). What right have we as Homo sapiens to wipe them off the face of the earth?

Thirdly, in South Africa, they are part of our heritage. Not only do they have enormous economic value in Big 5 tourism, but they have been our unique conservation success. We have both economic and emotional investment in our rhinos.

Rhinos as we know them have been around for millions of years, and it is heartbreaking to realise that the world’s rhinos are being eliminated from existence in the name of medications that almost certainly don’t work.

For more information on the Whale Coast Rhino Project email Whale Coast Conservation’s Eco-Learning Manager, Sheraine van Wyk, at sheraine.vanwyk@ocf.org.za or call us on 028 316 2527.


Much of the information in this article was sourced from www.savetherhino.org .

1Anina Lee Whale Coast Conservation

April 2013