WASHINGTON D.C., WINDHOEK, JOHANNESBURG–– Who covets rhino horn most, Vietnamese nouveau riché who believe powdered rhino horn can cure them of cancer, or U.S. trophy hunters willing to pay almost any price to hob nob with the elite of Safari Club International?
Who is really to blame for driving up the price of rhino horn to the point that rhinos are in jeopardy of being poached into extinction?
Trophy hunters argue that the high sums they pay to shoot rhinos fund rhino conservation, including rearing thousands of rhinos to trophy size in captivity before they are released into fenced habitat to be shot.
But the hunting money has raised the “floor price” for rhino horn so high that Vietnamese criminal syndicates exploiting the desperation of cancer-stricken Vietnamese wealthy are able to out-gun, out-helicopter, and out-bribe the hunter-funded rhino protection forces, in an arms race that rhinos can only lose, no matter which human faction wins.
Trophy rhino horn imports
Long known and keenly debated among conservationists, the economics and politics of rhino hunting and poaching surfaced before the U.S. public after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on November 6, 2014 published notice that it had received import permit applications from two U.S. hunters who propose to kill critically endangered black rhinos in Namibia, then bring the trophies home.
Trophy hunting consultant and TV personality Corey Knowlton won a Namibian permit to kill a black rhino by paying $350,000 for it at a Dallas Safari Club auction in January 2014. The other applicant, Michael Luzich, is “a certified member of NRA’s ‘golden ring of freedom’ which requires a minimum donation of $1 million,” said Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, who with International Fund for Animal Welfare North American regional director Jeffrey Flocken has been rallying opposition to the import permit applications.
Explained Flocken in a recent alert to activists, “With only 1,800 remaining in Namibia out of a worldwide population of about 5,000, black rhinos are currently endangered and protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. As such, an import permit must be issued to bring the trophy into the country. A permit is issued if the trophy is taken as part of a ‘well-managed conservation program that enhances the long-term survival of the species.’ The Dallas Safari Club claims the money will be used to manage the rhino population and to help the Namibian government thwart poaching efforts. However, reports have indicated that the club is threatening to withdraw its donation to the country if the U.S. denies an import permit.
“Kill it to save it is not only cruel, it’s not conservation,” Flocken added. “Allowing these import permits will reinforce the idea that killing an endangered species is acceptable,” if for a high enough price.
“If black rhinos and other dwindling species are to have a future,” Flocken finished, “people must be encouraged to value the animals for their inherent worth alive, not their price tag when dead.”
Public opinion: U.S. & Vietnam
IFAW public opinion research suggests that about 89% of the U.S. public opposes hunting rhinos for sport, and 77% object to hunting clubs raffling off the opportunity to kill endangered species.But a more meaningful poll, as regards the future of rhinos, was a recent Nielsen survey conducted in Vietnam, funded by the Humane Society International division of HSUS, which has for three years conducted educational campaigns against rhino horn use.
Following up previous research, the Nielson survey found that Vietnamese demand for rhino horn “has declined, just within the last year, by a startling 38.1 percent,” summarized Pacelle.
The Nielsen research discovered “a drop of 25.4% over a year in the number of Vietnamese who believe that rhino horn has medicinal properties,” Pacelle continued. “In the city of Hanoi, where most of the public information campaigns have been concentrated, there was a 77% decrease in the percentage of people who buy or use rhino horn.”
Only 2.6% of Vietnamese people still use rhino horn, the Nielsen survey found.
“I’m a Little Rhino”
Undertaken in partnership with the Vietnamese Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species Management Authority, the HIS campaign included “Working with the Hanoi Women’s Association to educate its 800,000 members,” Pacelle said. “Workshops were held at six universities in Hanoi, and were attended by 800 students and faculty. A national contest was held for students to design a rhino horn demand reduction campaign. The winner received funding to conduct the campaign in September 2014.”
In addition, Pacelle said, “HSI designed a 16-page book, I am a Little Rhino, with colorful drawings and Vietnamese text, distributed to approximately 40,000 children in Hanoi.” Authored by Teresa Telecky, the book was illustrated by Adam Peyman.
HIS also advertised against use of rhino horn on billboards “in Hanoi and at the airport, and on the sides of city buses,” Pacelle mentioned.
Hunters & traffickers in collusion
Meanwhile evidence emerged that at least some U.S. trophy hunters have been killing rhinos in apparently unawares collusion with Vietnamese traffickers.
Federally indicted in mid-October 2014, South African brothers Dawie and Janneman Groenewald “traveled around the United States, attending hunting conventions and gun shows and selling big game hunts on their 10,000-acre ranch in Musina, South Africa,” recounted Taylor Hill for TakePart.com. “The brothers own and operate Out of Africa Adventurous Safaris, which also conducts hunts on private hunting grounds in other African countries. Big game hunters looking for a chance to kill rhinos legally were paying $3,000 to $15,000 for the trips, according to the indictment. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the Groenewalds told American hunters that they were targeting ‘problem’ or ‘nuisance’ rhinos, so they couldn’t take the horn back as a trophy. The brothers then allegedly sold the horns on the black market.”
At least 11 rhinos were killed, according to the 18-count indictment. But the Gronenewalds will have to be extradited from South Africa before they can actually be brought to justice before U.S. courts.
South Africa seeks to sell rhino horn
Just 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2007, before Vietnamese demand for rhino horn stimulated investment in poaching to match and exceed hunter investment, but South Africa lost 1,004 rhinos to poachers in 2013, and in early November 2014 had lost another 900.
“The majority have been in the Mpumalanga section of Kruger National Park, with nearly 600 poached,” Sipho Kings of the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian reported on October 28, 2014. “With few options left and a growing illegal trade, the [South African] environment department is planning to ask for permission to sell rhino horn. The department has argued that this would stop demand for illegal horn by ‘flooding’ the black market.”
Said environment minister Edna Molewa, “Reality is that we have done all in our power and doing the same thing every day isn’t working.”
Continued Kings, “Opponents say putting more rhino horn on the market will grow demand instead, something which happened each time elephant ivory was sold legally.”
Misuse of funds
Further, Kings detailed, the proceeds from selling elephant ivory was not all used as it was supposed to have been.
“In 2008,” Kings explained, “CITES gave permission for a one-time sale of ivory by South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. South Africa sold 47,000 kilograms of ivory, at $157 a kilogram, to China and Japan. The CITES permission came under the condition that the money be ring-fenced and plowed back into conservation. In Mpumalanga the money was meant to be placed in the Problem Animal Fund. It did not end up there,” a hint that the possible proceeds from legal sales of rhino horn might not be properly used and accounted for either.
Namibia authorizes dehorning
Namibia, having far fewer rhinos than South Africa, has also had far less rhino poaching. Environment minister Uahekua Herunga told media in October 2014 that only 10 Namibian rhinos were known to have been poached in the first decade of the 21st century––but 14 had already been poached in 2014, causing Herunga to authorize dehorning rhinos in “high-risk areas, including Kunene and Omusati regions on the border with Angola,” reported The Namibian, of Windhoek.
Explained The Namibian, “The de-horning process includes anesthetizing the rhino and the removal of the horn with a chainsaw or hacksaw. Depending on re-growth rates, the rhino will have to be captured and put under anesthesia again to repeat the procedure at regular intervals. Research has shown that while de-horning rhinos removes approximately 90% to 93% of horn mass, the remaining horn presents sufficient motivation for poachers to kill a rhino and remove the horn nub.”
“According to Save the Rhino International,” a British-based pro-hunting organization politically aligned with Safari Club International, “rhinos de-horned in Zimbabwe appeared to have a 29,1% higher chance of surviving than horned animals,” The Namibian summarized. “Save the Rhino International cautions that de-horning ‘must be coupled with extensive anti-poaching security and monitoring efforts. With an absence of security, rhinos may continue to be poached regardless of whether they have been de-horned.’”
Not mentioned was that selling the horn from dehorning operations has at times been exposed––in several different nations––as a lucrative side business for corrupt individuals within the agencies involved. Protecting stockpiles of legally removed rhino horn has proved to be perhaps just as difficult as protecting rhinos themselves.
While authorizing foreign trophy hunters including Knowlton and Luzich to shoot rhinos, the Namibian government has also given a high profile to the trial of Chinese citizens Li Zhibing, Li Xiaoliang, and Pu Xuexin for allegedly trying to smuggle 14 rhino horns and a leopard skin out of the country in March 2014. The number of horns purportedly found in their possession at the Hosea Kutako International Airport coincides with the total number of rhinos acknowledged by Herunga to have been poached in 2014. The suspects allegedly were booked to fly to Hong Kong via Johannesburg.
“Magistrate Johannes Shuuveni gave December 12, 2014 as the final remand date for further investigations in the matter,” reported the New Era of Windhoek on October 28, 2012.
Hunter shot last cow rhino
Meanwhile, reported The Namibian, the Namibia Professional Hunting Association re-publicized the 2011 resignation of hunting guide Peter Thormählen, “after Thormälen’s company, Thormälen & Cochran Safaris Namibia, sued the minister of environment and tourism as a result of the shooting of the rhino cow by an American client of the company. The case was settled out of court” in October 2014.
Thormälen & Cochran Safaris Namibia has asked the court “to pay it $3.2 million [Nambibian dollars] so that it could refund its American client, sandwich take-away chain owner Jimmy John Liautaud, and cover
the expenses of the hunt Thormälen had arranged for Liautaud,” The Namibian explained. “Thormälen & Cochran Safaris Namibia bought the right to hunt one black rhino bull from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for close to $1.3 million [Namibian dollars]. However, Liautaud instead shot a black rhino cow in Mangetti National Park––the only female black rhino in the park.”
Liautaud claimed he shot the rhino cow after she charged a hunting party including, according to The Nambibian, “two game wardens from the ministry, Thormälen, and a big game professional
hunter,” all of whom believed they had been tracking a rhino bull.
Rhinos in Kenya
Also desperately fighting rhino poaching, to protect some of the smallest rhino populations left in those African nations that have any, the Kenya Wildlife Service claimed several small victories in October 2014 when suspected poachers under pursuit by rangers abandoned two rhino carcasses at the privately owned Solio Ranch in the Rift Valley, before managing to remove their horns. A few days later an alleged poacher was shot in act of scaling the ranch’s electric fence.
Elation at preventing the poachers from escaping with the rhinos’ horns, however, was offset by the loss of the rhinos themselves––and by knowing that the poaching pressure on the Solio rhino herd was probably undiminished.
“Two colleagues thought to be armed with a rifle escaped on foot,” reported Wambugu Kanyi of the Nairobi Star.
The incidents scarcely alleviated nationally felt disappointment at the death of a 34-year-old northern white rhino named Suni at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, less than 10 months after he was released in hopes he would mate with one of the conservancy’s two female northern white rhinos. The conservancy also has 61 black rhinos.
Born at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic in June 1980, Suni was among four northern white rhinos who were flown to Ol Pejata in December 2009, after they had failed to breed. The relocation to Kenya was part of a last ditch attempt to save northern white rhinos from extinction. Only seven northern white rhinos are believed to survive anywhere, including only one other male, Sudan, who came to Ol Pejata with Suni.
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