Defending the Rhino

As demand for rhino horn soars, police and conservationists in South Africa pit technology against increasingly sophisticated poachers

Infamously fierce, rhinoceroses, pictured is a black rhino in Kenya, are victims of rumors that have driven the price of their horn to hundreds of dollars an ounce. (NHPA / Photoshot)
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But suddenly the price of rhino horn was so high that the hunting fees became just a minor cost of doing business. Tourists from Asian nations with no history of trophy hunting began showing up for multiple hunts. And wildlife professionals began to cross the line from hunting rhinos to poaching them.

Investigators from Traffic, a group that monitors international wildlife trade, traced the sudden spike in demand to a tantalizing rumor: Rhino horn had miraculously cured a VIP in Vietnam of terminal liver cancer. In traditional Asian medicine, rhino horn is credited with relatively humble benefits such as relieving fever and lowering blood pressure—claims that medical experts have debunked. (Contrary to popular belief, rhino horn has not been regarded as an aphrodisiac.) But fighting a phantom cure proved almost impossible. “If it was a real person, we could find out what happened and maybe demystify it,” said Tom Milliken of Traffic. South Africa lost 333 rhinos last year, up from 13 in 2007. Officials estimate that 400 could be killed by the end of this year.

Scientists count three rhino species in Asia and two in Africa, white and black. (The Asian species are even more rare than the African.) Black rhinos were knocked down by the poaching crisis of the 1990s to fewer than 2,500 animals, but the population has rebuilt itself to about 4,800.

White rhinos once occurred in pockets down the length of Africa, from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope. But because of relentless hunting and colonial land-clearing, there were no more than a few hundred individuals left in southern Africa by the end of the 19th century, and the last known breeding population was in KwaZulu-Natal Province on South Africa’s eastern coast. In 1895, colonial conservationists set aside a large tract specifically for the remaining rhinos—Africa’s first protected conservation area—now known as Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

The 370-square-mile park is beautiful country, said to have been a favorite hunting ground for Shaka, the 19th-century Zulu warrior king. Broad river valleys divide the rolling highlands, and dense green scarp forests darken distant slopes.

My guide in the park was Jed Bird, a 27-year-old rhino capture officer with an easygoing manner. Almost before we started early one morning, he stopped his pickup truck to check out some droppings at the side of the road. “There was a black rhino here,” he said. “Obviously a bull. You can see the vigorous scraping of the feet. Spreads the dung. Not too long ago.” He imitated a rhino’s stiff-legged kicking. “It pushes up the scent. So other animals will either follow or avoid him. They have such poor eyesight, you wonder how they find each other. This is their calling card.”

You might also wonder why they bother. The orneriness of rhinos is so proverbial that the word for a group of them is not a “herd” but a “crash.” “The first time I saw one I was a 4-year-old in this park. We were in a boat, and it charged the boat,” said Bird. “That’s how aggressive they can be.” Bird now makes his living keeping tabs on the park’s black rhinos and sometimes works by helicopter to catch them for relocation to other protected areas. “They’ll charge helicopters,” he added. “They’ll be running and then after a while, they’ll say, ‘Bugger this,’ and they’ll turn around and run toward you. You can see them actually lift off their front feet as they try to have a go at the helicopter.”

But this fierceness can be misleading. Up the road a little later, Bird pointed out some white rhinos a half-mile off, and a few black rhinos resting nearby, placid as cows in a Constable painting of the British countryside. “I’ve seen black and white rhino lying together in a wallow almost bum-to-bum,” he said. “A wallow’s like a public facility. They sort of tolerate one another.”

After a moment, he added, “The wind is good.” That is, it was blowing our scent away from them. “So we’ll get out and walk.” From behind the seat, he brought out a .375 rifle, the minimum caliber required by the park for people wandering near big unpredictable animals, and we set off into the head-high acacia.

The peculiar appeal of rhinos is that they seem to have lumbered straight out of the Age of Dinosaurs. They are massive creatures, second only to elephants among modern land animals, with folds of thick flesh that look like protective plating. A white rhino can stand six feet at the shoulders and weigh 6,000 pounds or more, with a horn up to six feet in length, and a slightly shorter one just behind. (“Rhinoceros” means “nose horn.”) Its eyes are dim little poppy seeds low on the sides of its great skull. But the big feathered ears are acutely sensitive, as are its vast snuffling nasal passages. The black rhino is smaller than the white, weighing up to about 3,000 pounds, but it’s more quarrelsome.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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