People Are Snorting Rhino Horn to Prove They're Cool—and That Might Spell the End for the Species

Poachers are killing the animals in record numbers to meet demand by Vietnam's wealthy.

(Photo: Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Jan 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A record 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2014. The sharp increase from the 1,004 rhinos killed in 2013 and 668 in 2012 is a worrying sign of an accelerating crisis that could push rhinos to the edge of extinction.

Activists say surging demand for rhino horn in Vietnam is driving the killing—the keratin article has become the latest “bling” for urban Vietnamese men who are looking for ways to display their new wealth.

“As we would have a sports car or a pool outside our house, these businessmen have a rhino horn on the hearth to show how successful they are,” said Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International. “Or they grind it up and mix it with rice wine to share with dinner guests, or even snort it. It’s like, ‘I’m so wealthy I can grind up the rhino horn I can afford to buy.’ ”

Many poachers cross from Mozambique into South Africa’s Kruger National Park to kill rhinos. South African wildlife rangers cannot legally pursue them back over the border. These poachers typically sell the rhino horns to middlemen, who then deliver them to international criminal gangs that trade in wildlife products.

Rhino poaching in South Africa has increased steadily in the past seven years, as Vietnamese demand for their horns has surged.

Image: WWF

The number of rhinos illegally killed last year added up to 5 percent of South Africa’s combined black and white rhino population of about 25,500. Since rhinos reproduce at roughly the same rate and poaching is rising from year to year, this means poaching could outpace the number of newborn rhinos this year.

“They breed slowly and steadily as long as you protect them,” Dean said. But if poaching continues to grow at the current rate, “you are looking at a situation where rhinos could be effectively extinct in the wild by 2026,” she said.

To kill the demand that fuels poaching, wildlife activist groups including Save the Rhino and World Wildlife Fund last year launched a public awareness campaign called “The Strength of Chi.” The goal is to convince Vietnamese men that instead of buying rhino horn to prove their strength, success, and power, they can instead find those qualities within themselves.

Dean said the campaign could take at least five years to be effective, based on how long it took for similar efforts in Yemen and East Asia to stem the rhino horn demand that drove poaching at the end of the last century. “There are no quick-fix solutions,” she said. “It took 20 years to solve the last poaching crisis.”

One major focus for her group is funding on-the-ground conservation efforts in South Africa. “We are very happy and willing to pay for ordinary, everyday costs that field programs have to cover: salaries, rations, uniforms, vehicles and gas, and basic equipment,” she said. Donations from the public, as well as grants from government and private donors, pay for these and other projects.

Dean said rhino lovers should stay informed and educated about poaching. “If you see something suspicious for sale, report it,” she said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service actively investigates illegal trade in rhino horn and has made major arrests in the past few years thanks in part to tips from the general public, she said.

“I just want to emphasize that people shouldn’t give up hope. It is going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “But I firmly believe that the rhinos can be saved.”