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A species on the brink

Samantha Weinberg on the northern white rhino

Samantha Weinberg | October 24th 2014

Last week there were seven northern white rhinos left in the wild. Now there are six. On Saturday, a 24-year-old male called Suni was found dead at Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya. As yet, no-one knows the cause, but to the community of conservationists trying to protect the world’s dwindling rhino population, the death is particularly depressing. There is now just one male northern white left for females to breed with.

I first visited Ol Pejeta ten years ago, when our family was living for three months in a small village called Ngare Ndare on the other side of Mount Kenya. Most evenings we would drive across a drying riverbed and through the gates of the Borana game reserve, where we could walk up to the giant boulder that inspired Pride Rock in "The Lion King" and watch families of giraffes swaying across the plains. On weekends, we'd venture a little further to Lewa to see crashes of southern white rhinos (named originally for their distinctive lower lip) browsing the bleached grass, and the more secretive black rhino hiding in the thorny bush. But the best moment came during a weekend at Ol Pejeta. Our guide ushered us out of our aged Land Rover and, touching his finger to his lips and walking with exaggerated care, he led us single-file into the bush. There, fast asleep in a small clearing, we found Morani, an old blind black rhino. The rangers let my children, then five and three, go right up to him to stroke the soft skin behind his ear.

Five years later, four northern whites—stockier in the leg than the southern whites, and with hairier ears—were moved to Ol Pejeta from European zoos. Suni was among them. The whisper-thin hope was that they might breed better here than in captivity. Their numbers were already desperately low. “The decline of the northern white rhino,” says Cathy Dean, the director of Save the Rhino International (a charity of which I’m a trustee), “is a sad, sorry history of political conflict in their former range states—Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We were involved with efforts to protect the last wild population in Garamba National Park in DRC for over a decade, but had to withdraw our financial support in 2006, when the population was reduced to the last four individuals (now presumed extinct) by armed factions of the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

That was during the previous wave of rhino-horn poaching, largely driven by Chinese medicine men and the demand for ivory handles for the daggers traditionally given as coming-of-age presents in Yemen. Then, after a brief recovery—demand for horns dropped after intense education campaigns in Yemen and China—poaching once again turned from the occasional murder into a massacre. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed in South Africa, home to the majority of the remaining wild rhinos. Last year, it was 1004 and the rate is rising: as of last week, 868 rhinos had been poached in 2014, mostly in the national game reserves, which are too big to police effectively. The poachers—some using sophisticated heat-seeking equipment—break in, locate a rhino, and either dart it or shoot it with an AK47. They then hack off its horn and escape, often over the porous border to Mozambique, where the traffickers are waiting to spirit the horns to the Far East. Many of the slaughtered rhinos are mothers, unwilling to leave their calves. Karen Trendler, who runs a rhino orphanage in South Africa, is called out almost weekly to rescue young rhinos found beside the bloody corpses.

There are several reasons for the renewed demand: rhino horn has become fashionable among Vietnamese yuppies, who grate it on their cocktails before dinner, then use it as a hangover cure the next morning. It's also sold as a cure for cancer. Rhino horn is made of keratin, like our hair and nails—so eating it is about as effective against cancer as nibbling your fingers. Nevertheless, on the black market it currently sells for $65,000 per kilo. Gold, today, was trading at less than $40,000 per kilo. Charities and NGOs have started to direct as much of their funds into education in Vietnam as into protection in southern Africa, India and Java, where the remaining rhinos live. Although the poaching figures continue to climb, there are signs that the campaigns are beginning to work: in a recent poll in Vietnam, 2.6% of respondents said they would continue to buy rhino horn, down from 4.2% a year ago. That’s still far too many.

If we went back to Lewa or Ol Pejeta today, it would be a different experience from a decade ago. Both have had poaching incidents this year; both have armed guards protecting the beleaguered rhinos. (In Botswana, where each rhino has a close-protection squad, the government has instituted a shoot-to-kill policy against poachers.) We can only hope that attitudes will change—and in time.

Save the Rhino International is holding a gala dinner in London on November 7th. Tickets are available at www.savetherhino.org

 

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