Saving the African Rhinoceros? Is Poison an Option?

3 Jun





Two weeks ago my son Micah sent me an email and this link urging me to listen to the following story Vietnam’s Appetite for Rhino Horn Drives Poaching in Africa ( May 13, 2013 ) about the danger to the rhinoceros as a species in East and Southern Africa written by Frank Langfitt for NPR News, 2013. I have included the link here for these of you who wish to read the original article or listen to the audio version. It is an excellent summary that discusses three options for eliminating the threat to rhinos living in East and South Africa and explains why  international poachers take the severe risks they do to kill these animals and “dehorn” them.

I must admit I knew very little about the African White or Black rhinoceros when Charles, my guide and driver, suggested at the end of a long safari on the Mara in 2005 that my students and I go meet one. So I said yes without really thinking it through but insisted that I would only let my students near the rhino after I determined that it was not an immediate threat to them. Now when on Safari anything and everything can be a threat in some way so it becomes a matter of the degree of the peril. So I left the car ready to evaluate this particular level of danger in greeting a White rhinoceros. Charles and I are old friends and he is a highly respected safari guide in his own right so when he assured me that I would live past this meeting I trusted his judgment and summoned up the courage to walk towards the ranger on duty at the reserve and introduce myself to him.  This was the first time I had visited a rhinoceros reserve while in East Africa and I would go on to visit two more while in Kenya during the summer of 2006.

Here is the photo of me (see lead photo) standing with that very same ranger who has just called out to a White, male rhino the same way you would summon your cat or dog. And what’s more the animal heard him and was coming down the path  approaching us from behind. If my face looks rather distorted it’s because I’m getting ready to run even as the ranger assures me that everything “is OK”. All of my “fight or flight” responses kicked in at once and I was determined to make it back to the vehicle in one piece.  And the only reason I did not reach the Rover was because the ranger continued to hold on to my jacket in a very gentlemanly-like way as we stood there having our picture taken.  I could literally feel the ground shake under my feet as this several ton mammal advanced convincing me that my luck had run out and that I would soon become rhino fodder. Obviously that was not the case and to my amazement not only did the rhino stop when the ranger asked him to, (very nicely, I might add) but he stayed there and let me rub his face and ears. And the only thing the ranger carried with him was a small thin wooden stick- that’s it ( see lead picture). No gun, no Taser, no weapon of any kind. And it was obvious that the only thing keeping the animal in check was a deep, reciprocal bond between the two of them.

After recovering my nerve and adjusting to the fact that I was indeed standing beside a wild rhino I looked into the animal’s eyes.  Although rhinos have very poor eyesight in general and are forced to take in peripheral information using their sense of smell and touch this male had kind, aware eyes and was enjoying my company. He seemed more than willing to stand there and share a moment with me turning his massive head to the side so I could better scratch behind one ear then the other. One swipe of his tremendous head would have rendered me unconscious and broken my bones. I’m sure the big male was aware of his destructive power and as a wild animal would lash out at any perceived threat real or imagined in the blink of an eye. But it was also evident that this rhino had developed a close relationship to this ranger, enough so that he willingly did whatever his friend asked of him.

I must confess I had previously thought that all rhinoceros were dumb bovine-like  creatures that lived together like cattle with temperaments resembling bulls.  But this male did not seem to thrive on confrontation or domination at all and seemed more than content to spend his days eating grass out on the Mara and interacting with humans especially his friend the ranger. And most importantly, this wild rhino seemed to be in a peaceful mood when my students approached him so I let them scratch behind his ears too. They enjoyed the experience immensely and talked about it all the way back to Nairobi while the rhino seemed to appreciate every pat and rub. I don’t think I ever got the rhino’s name and have since forgotten the name of the ranger but I do remember the overall sweetness of the creature, yes sweetness! There was something very lovable about the animal and the way it related to human beings despite its imposing physique and great capacity for violence. There was a certain cuteness in its over- all ugliness too. And the caring relationship I observed between rhino and ranger? Well that made a lasting impression on me as well.

Once I was back in the Bush Rover my driver explained to me that originally there were five species of rhinoceros in the world and two of these species the White and the Black rhinoceros are found on the continent of Africa.  Rhinoceros have been named not by the color of their skin but by the shapes of their mouths and heads. Actually all of the rhinos I’ve seen although actually grey in color appeared reddish brown because of the red mud they had rolled or waded in to keep them cool under the hot savannah sun. All rhinos love water and wading in shallow pools is one of their favorite pleasures. If you look at my lead picture the rhino there appears more reddish brown in color than grey.  Although both animals have two horns, the White Rhino has a larger and blockier head with a square mouth where both lips meet evenly. Think of the white rhino as a grazer like a cow that enjoys eating grass out on the savannahs. The Black rhino has a smaller, rounder, pig-like head with a definite over-bite where its top lip hooks over its bottom one.  Think of them as browsers more like deer that enjoy eating leaves, buds, twigs, and branches from shrubs and trees in woodland forests but they will also venture out on savannahs even deserts. Of the two the White rhino is the more social and less aggressive one although both kinds can live in families of up to twelve members. Often adult males tend to live solitary lives.

By the turn of the twentieth century White rhinos had been hunted almost to extinction with less than fifty of them living in Kwo Zulu- Natail Reserve.  The South African government engaged in a tremendous country-wide effort to increase their numbers and succeeded until the age of the poacher began at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As of June 2013 South Africa is currently home to about 20,000 rhinoceros- the largest rhino population in the world.

Although Black rhinoceros originally found in Southern and Eastern Africa are native to Kenya the White Rhinoceros was not and has been introduced into Kenya and placed in government and private reserves to help restore the White rhino population in Africa. The White Rhinoceros was native to the countries in Southern Africa as well as the Northern Congo, Southern Sudan and Western Uganda. A subspecies, the Northern White Rhinoceros is considered a critically endangered species and on December 20, 2009 four out of six Northern White rhinos housed at a Zoo in the Czech Republic were sent to Ole Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in order to help restore this subspecies to its original home in East Africa. Only two more animals of this subspecies remain at the Czech Zoo and another two at the San Diego Zoo in California, USA. It was thought that there might be 10 more Northern White Rhino in Garamba National Park in DR Congo but with civil war raging on in this district most conservation groups have given up hope that these animals are still alive .

According to the Rhino Resource Center (2013) the Black Rhino has fared the worst with an estimated 3,610 of them currently left in the wild compared to a total population of 70,000 only 53 years ago (1960). And one of its subspecies, The Western Black Rhinoceros had already been declared extinct by the IUCN back in 2011. The White Rhino is doing somewhat better with a total wild population of about 14.500 but that number is quickly shrinking as poachers kill off these mammals lured by the tremendous amount of money that can be made from the sale of rhino horns especially in Vietnam and China.

The powder created from one adult rhino horn could make the seller an extremely wealthy man in the Asian Black market as it currently sells for $1, 400 US an ounce right up there with the price of gold. The street value of three large adult horns could be upwards of one million dollars to the seller. These exorbitant profits have created an international league of poachers who use advanced technology and bribe the rangers and local villages for information about the location of the rhinos and the presence of conservancy officials. It is hard to blame desperate people who have nothing for turning on the rhinos in order to earn enough money to survive.

So it comes as no surprise that just last week, May 23, 2013 poachers shot to death seven rhinos in four different conservancy areas around Kenya: the first was killed in Lake Nakuru, Central Kenya; three days later the second and third were killed in Solio Ranch, Central Kenya and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, Southern Kenya. The next day one more rhino was killed at Meru National Park in Northern Kenya, and two days after that three more rhinos were killed at Oserian Wildlife sanctuary, a private ranch in Naivasha, Central Kenya. And what makes these strikes most chilling is that wild life officials have reason to believe this was a coordinated effort among one specific group of international poachers.

All this in a county where poachers are given a mere slap on the wrist and many buy their way out of jail before being handed over to wild life authorities. These seven killings put the death of the rhino at about 24 as of June 2013 and the country had already lost 30 in 2012. According to Kenya Wildlife Service officials there are only 1,000 wild rhinos living in Kenya as of June 2013 and at this rate of loss the entire population will become extinct by 2018.

Although on May 20, 2013 the Kenyan MP’s voted to raise penalties for poaching and trafficking of wildlife products this all come a little too late. Based on all that I’ve read and been told – the international poachers have already won this war and the African rhino will go the way of the Asian rhino unless something drastic is done immediately. These new penalties of fifteen years in jail and millions of Kenyan shillings in fines will not stop these international poachers if the profit margin continues to be so lucrative and the risks manageable.

So I am supporting The Rhino Rescue Project and believe that unless we take the enormous profit out of selling rhino horns on the Asian market little else will deter the horrifying slaughter of the African Rhino. By placing poison in the rhino’s horns that does not hurt the animal but turns the horn into its own poisoned mace we may just be saving these creatures’ lives and deterring potential buyers. It would not take long for word to circulate around Hong Kong and other Asian cities that rhino horn powder just might kill you. No huge profits means -no incentive for poachers to seek these animals out.  Each horn would be thoroughly marked poisonous on the outside and the poisoned powder made from these horns would also be identifiable. I am sure that after the first few deaths word would circulate fast among the nouveau –riche that Rhino powder is no longer a “safe” sale. It has already been proven that Rhino powder serves no real medicinal purpose anyways and is considered a status purchase in the Asian markets at best. I am in full agreement to “let the buyer beware” on this one.

So please visit The Rhino Rescue Project, read what they and the other links have to say, and then make up your own mind. And if you have the time send me your comments letting me know what you think as well. The murder of White and Black rhinos all over Africa must stop now!. Sometimes I wonder what happened to the White rhino I met that day. Is he still alive grazing away on that Kenyan savannah or did he end up something like this?

Kat Nickerson   Kingston, RI   USA.




Photo: Phil Mattews, May 2013

Photo: Phil Mattews, May 2013





One Response to “Saving the African Rhinoceros? Is Poison an Option?”

  1. Buddy2Blogger June 4, 2013 at 5:18 am #

    Reblogged this on Sherlockian's Blog and commented:
    Save the Rhinos.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: