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An Epidemic of Rhino Poaching
Written by David Jolly New York Times   
Wednesday, 17 August 2011 00:00

17 August 2011. By David Jolly New York Times

As if a rhino’s life wasn’t already hard enough.

A belief in some East Asian countries that medicines made from the endangered beast’s horn can cure cancer is putting growing pressure on fragile Asian and African rhinoceros populations.

Traditionally, rhino horn was used in Chinese medicine to treat fevers, gout, convulsions, rheumatism and other maladies (although, contrary to popular belief, not as an aphrodisiac).

It’s easy to imagine that someone suffering from terminal disease and already predisposed to believe in the efficacy of traditional medicine might be willing to pay any price for a supposed cure. That belief has made China and Vietnam major importers of illegal rhino horns, wildlife officials and conservation organizations say.

With that in mind, Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, took advantage of a meeting this week of global wildlife trade officials to issue a statement.



‘‘Some individuals and organizations with little understanding of the essence and modern development of T.C.M. misinterpret and exaggerate the medicinal properties of rhino horns,’’ she said. ‘‘There is no evidence that rhino horn is an effective cure for cancer and this is not documented in T.C.M. nor is it approved by the clinical research in traditional Chinese medicine.’’

In light of the animal’s endangered status, ‘‘rhino horn is no longer approved for use by the traditional Chinese medicine profession,’’ Ms. Huang declared.

She is hoping to lend weight to deliberations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or Cites (pronounced SIGH-tees). The standing committee of this United Nations organization is currently meeting in Geneva to discuss rhino poaching, elephant conservation and measures to protect tigers and other big cats, sturgeon, and mahogany and other timber species, as well as the sourcing of reptile skins used in the leather industry.

There is no doubt that rhino poaching is on the rise. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Mozambique, Nepal, South Africa and Zimbabwe ‘‘are all suffering from poaching,’’ Cites said in a release.

The illegal trade that appears to be driving the poaching ‘‘includes fraudulent applications for Cites documents, abuse of legal trophy hunting and the use of couriers smuggling horns from southern Africa to Far East Asia,’’ the organization added.

South Africa, which has more rhinos than any other African country, is thought to be the source of most of the illegal horns. In 2010, 333 rhinos were killed, nearly triple the 2009 toll, and the 2011 figures look to be as bad or worse. Poachers affiliated with organized criminal gangs sometimes hunt by helicopter with automatic weapons.

Still, it is not clear what leverage Cites can bring to bear. The trade in the horns of all rhinoceroses except the white African species is illegal under the Cites convention, but demand remains strong, bolstered, it appears, by growing wealth in East and Southeast Asia.

There are reports of rhinos’ being ‘‘farmed’’ in China for their horns, possibly to get around the trade ban. And in Vietnam, according to Traffic, an organization that monitors trade in wildlife, it appears that ‘‘many horn consumers are, in fact, government officials.’’

The horns are also used for making dagger handles in some Middle Eastern countries, although it appears that Yemen is no longer the force in that niche market that it once was.

The demand is well illustrated by a recent spate of thefts of rhinoceros horns from museums all over Europe. Last month thieves broke into the Ipswich Museum in Essex, England, stealing the horn from a 100-year-old stuffed rhino.

‘‘They wrenched the horn off Rosie,’’ Max Stocker of the Ipswich Council told Reuters. ‘‘It probably only took them five minutes to take it and leave. They knew exactly what they wanted, and nothing was else was taken.’’

Such thefts have become common at antique shops, auction houses, art galleries and zoos all over Europe, Reuters quoted the European police agency Europol as saying, with reports of horn-snatchings or attempted snatchings also coming from various towns in Germany, Italy and Belgium. The horns can be worth as much as 200,000 euros, or $290,000, Europol said.

The organization identified ‘‘an Irish and ethnically Irish organized criminal group, who are known to use intimidation and violence to achieve their ends,’’ as prime suspects.

So with everything on the line in Geneva this week for rhinos and elephants, it was perhaps surprising that Cites officials did something that suggested that they had something to hide: they retreated behind closed doors to discuss the ivory trade.

After a motion by Kuwait on behalf of Asian countries and over the objection of Britain and Kenya, nongovernmental organizations were booted out of the discussion.

‘‘Given that the major consumer markets for illegal ivory, rhino horn and tiger products are located in Asia, particularly in China, Vietnam and Thailand, one can only assume that this motion was an attempt to evade proper accountability,’’ said Joseph Okori, W.W.F.’s African rhino coordinator, said in a statement. ‘‘If it becomes common practice for non-compliant countries to evade public scrutiny, Cites will cease to be relevant.’’

 

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