The following was written by a friend of mine from South Africa. She is a brilliant lady who truly loves her country’s wildlife. Thank you Lara.

Rhinos — priceless or worthless?

In many ways, a rhino is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, betrays its unusual appearance.
So if you had a sudden urge to put a horn on your head, not use your knees and chew on some leaves, you may be catching the spirit of World Rhino Day.

It was celebrated in Zimbabwe at the weekend and all over the world with art shows, auctions, walk-a-thons and lectures with the theme of Five Rhino Species Forever.

The effort was to raise awareness for the threats posed to the rhinoceroses hunted for their horns believed to have medicinal properties.

Rhinos can be very big, with the two largest of the five species weighing up to 2,7 tonnes and standing six feet high and up to 15 feet in length.

This makes them second only to elephants as the world’s largest land mammals. Yet in spite of their size, over short distances they can move at speeds of up to 48km per hour and can turn very sharply. You don’t want to be chased by a rhino.

Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth. For over 100 years, the rhino has been subject to dedicated conservation efforts, but in spite of this, since the 1970s the world’s rhinoceros population has declined by over 90%.

Agreeably poor performances by African countries could be threatening the survival of wild rhinos, tigers and elephants.

Yet conservationists might not bother rescuing other species such as a giant soft-shell turtle or a pygmy three-toed sloth because these animals don’t provide any clear benefits to humans. As Zimbabwe commemorated Rhino Day, I wondered how we should decide which endangered animal species to focus on saving?

First, the usual culprits – habitat destruction, pollution, hunting, and climate change.

There’s another problem: unlike cuddly or “charismatic” endangered animals like tigers, the African painted dog, pangolin – or even the appetite-suppressing hoodia cactus, which has obvious medicinal uses – these endangered species are dangling precariously close to extinction because of the simple fact that they don’t offer humans any clear benefits. In many cases, people don’t care enough about these species to intervene.

So are these species worth devoting limited resources to saving?

The donor community and conservation movements are increasingly leaning towards a “what can nature do for us?” approach, where species and wild habitats are valued and prioritised according to the services they provide for people. Well, saving every single species is an “enormous undertaking”.

Yet it’s often better to save “umbrella species like tigers, elephants, and rhinos” in order to protect the habitats they share with other endangered creatures.

Scientists fear that these plants and animals are at the greatest risk of extinction because, quite simply, they don’t offer any obvious or immediate benefit to humans.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, two are found in Africa in particular Zimbabwe or southern Africa – the Black rhino and the White rhino, while the other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) rhino, the Sumatran rhino and the Javan rhino. The Javan, the Sumatran and the Black rhino are all critically endangered.

There are possibly only 48 Javan rhino left, with approximately 200 Sumatran and around 4 800 Black rhino.

The Greater One-Horned (Indian) rhino is considered to be vulnerable, with just under 3 000 remaining, while the Southern White rhino is in a better position, although considered to be near threatened, with approximately 20 600.

Two sub-species are in a very grave position. There are only seven Northern White rhino left in the world and the Vietnamese sub-species of the Javan rhino is down to only four or five left in the wild.

The chief reason for the decline in their world population is that rhino horn is widely regarded in traditional Chinese medicine as being a “remedy” for a whole range of ailments including pain, fever, acne, laryngitis, mumps, herpes, epilepsy and even cancer.

Rhino horn is comprised of keratin, which is the same material as hair and fingernails.

The front horn of the two African species can reach up to four feet in length, while the Asian species have shorter horns that are rarely longer than two feet.

But extensive tests have shown that claims of medicinal properties of rhino horn are completely without foundation, yet its continued use, particularly in China and Vietnam, is pushing these animals ever closer to extinction.

As is usually the case, when something is in high demand but is not legally available, international crime syndicates move in. The result is that after drugs and weapons, the illegal trade in rhino horn is now considered to be the third biggest illegal trade industry in the world.

Poaching is now endemic. For instance, in the 255 days between January 1 and September 11, 2012, 381 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa alone – over 10 every week.

The scenario is saddening in Zimbabwe and elsewhere as well.

On the side of the rhino is the fact that international crime also attracts international law enforcement. South African law enforcers have also voiced suspicion that game farmers and reserve owners are actually killing their own rhinos and selling the horns.

When the potential rewards are so high, it is easy to understand the temptation, especially since interceptions and prosecutions are really nothing more than a tip of an iceberg and there is little real chance of ever being caught.

Given the escalation of elephant poaching in Zimbabwe and most of Africa and the increased levels of organised crime involved in the trade, it is clear that the situation is now critical.

Wildlife crime not only poses a threat to animals, but is a risk to people, territorial integrity, stability and rule of law. Regional co-operation is needed to counter the flows of illegal ivory and arms spilling across borders.

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