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Rhinos Forever

by Roy Siegfried in December 2011 - The Nature of Things

Let’s face it; rhinoceroses are neither beautiful nor intelligent beasts. Other than when very young, they are not cud-dly creatures. Indeed, rhinos are lumbering, belligerent behemoths. They have blundered their ways little changed and highly successfully so for tens of thousands of years. No predator has wanted much to do with them until people acquired powerful guns. Killing rhinos, then, became easy. They were hunted for so-called sport, and for their horns which formed the bases for ceremonial daggers in Arabia and medicinal products in the Orient. Were it not for the single-minded, stubborn and persistent efforts of a few obsessed conservationists in the second half of the twentieth century, rhinos would in all likelihood be extinct today.

Did these worthy people bump their heads and labour in vain, since rhinos are seriously threatened once again?

Last week, a well-groomed young lady came to my door. She explained that she was soliciting money (she actually said funds) for a new NGO (Non-governmental Organisation) that had been set up to fight against rhino poachers. She showed me a portfolio of grisly photographs of dead rhinos whose horns had been hacked off. I asked her how her principals intended spending the public’s money. All donations, she responded, are to be spent on staff employed as guards stationed in nature reserves containing rhinos. I saw no point to continuing our conversation. I respected the lady’s idealism and zeal, and suspected her organisation’s sagacity and pragmatism.

I wished her and her organisation both well. I hadn’t the heart to dampen their enthusiasm. They would have to learn the hard way that their philanthropy was neither sustainable nor practicable. Perhaps, however, their fund-raising was nothing more than a cunning scam.

The poaching of rhinos for their now extraordinarily valuable horns during the last two years or so is well known enough in South Africa not to have to repeat it here. It’s a sickening story that has evoked call after call from the public for the “authorities” to act. The people, to put it mildly, are frustrated by what they perceive to be ineffective action, to date. It seems to Joe Citizen that South Africa lacks a comprehensive national strategy for preventing the poaching of rhinos, let alone defeating the demand for their horns. Public support for the cause of rhino conservation is not in short supply in South Africa. That’s not the challenge, as it was for Karl Marx, for example, in getting people to care enough to get involved in his politico-economic revolution. The South African rhino challenge is vested in acquiring the appropriate knowledge or “intelligence” for constructing an overall strategy for effective action.

South Africa knows the details of how many rhinos it has and where they are, and the forces it needs to guard those rhinos. It knows that the overall costs of these forces are not sustainable in the long run. It knows something, but not enough, about where and how poachers are recruited, and the make-ups of the poaching syndicates. South Africa also understands the complexities of the supply-and-demand economics of the trade in rhino horn, so that, for instance, it can evaluate whether farming rhinos for their horns is worthwhile or not. (Some 100 rhinos are farmed in China.) South Africa knows something, but again not enough, about the principal traders and local retailers involved in marketing rhino products. It knows almost nothing about how many local purchasers there are and their perceptions of the benefits of these products. And, therein is the dynamic nub of a logical, and hopefully successful, strategy aimed at securing the long-term survival of rhinos in the wild.

Is there really enough evidence to state quite conclusively that there are absolutely no medicinal benefits attending rhino horn? It may seem that there is proof that horns are worthless in this regard, but confirmation and endorsement by many associations, local and international, of medical and pharmaceutical professionals have not (yet) been forthcoming. The World Health Organisation (WHO), for example, apparently has nothing to say, either way, about the supposed aphrodisiacal, fever-reducing or cancer-curing properties of rhino horn. The conservation lobby is quick and forthright in proclaiming that the medicinal benefits of rhino horn are fallacious depending on myth, but rarely muster empirical evidence supporting their allegations. Of course, it would aid their cause even more if they could show that not only does rhino horn have no medicinal benefits, it’s bad for you as well. However, I can’t see how the ingestion of small amounts of keratin (the main structural constituent of horn) can damage a person’s health.

Although little is known about the age of the beliefs for the presumed medicinal benefits of rhino horn, or how deeply these are ingrained in the cultures of particular ethnic groups of people, almost everyone agrees that if the market can be persuaded that rhino horn contains no medicinal benefits demand for it will shrink. Yet, little or nothing is done to convince consumers that they are purchasing a bogus product. If solid proof can be marshalled for the product being bogus, then, use every means possible to hit the consumers with this, and hit them hard. The rapidly growing influential power of the electronic social media is one important way to go with this. Today’s world is not tomorrow’s. By all means increase the guards for wild rhinos today, but the future of tomorrow’s rhinos will be secured, if at all, with the assistance of out-of-the-box thinking, reliable intelligence and cyberspace.

When people think about defending themselves against such complex crises as terrorism, stock-exchange crashes or epidemic disease, they tend to organise their reactions according to the immediate, explosive, fast-moving factors of the threats, rather than the underlying, slower moving, propagatory forces involved. Ignoring these forces almost always results in defensive failure. If we want to safeguard our easily targeted slow-moving rhinos, we need to target the slow-moving forces that threaten their survival. The battle for rhinos can’t be won by shock-and-awe, in-and-out, tactics. Better be prepared for a long haul of adaptive and novel management.

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