Magazine article The Spectator

Pink Horns and Poison: Saving the Rhino

Magazine article The Spectator

Pink Horns and Poison: Saving the Rhino

Article excerpt

Can anything protect the rhino from rapacious human stupidity?

The idea of dyeing a rhino's horn pink is not absurd. It's everything else about the 21st-century rhino-human interface that's ridiculous. The pink-horn notion is a serious proposal and it's as sane as the whole thing gets. There are plenty of other wacky notions out there. One is to drill a hole in a rhino's horn and fill it with poison; the idea of the dye is to mark the horn as a poisoned one. Cutting the damn things off has also been tried. There are experiments that involve a horn-cam placed on a living rhino.

If you're involved with rhino conservation, you're waist-deep in brochures for drones. That's the trendiest idea on the table: long-range surveillance without the need to step outside. Well, that's the theory. There's also work involving satellite imagery, predictive analysis, DNA analysis and GPS, and there is an enthusiastic group of people who want to develop and sell synthetic rhino horn. There are advanced plans for powder that's 'biologically identical' to rhino horn, and others for a pretend horn that is 'genetically similar'. There have been attempts to culture rhino horn from rhino DNA.

So there's a great deal of science, a great deal of human ingenuity and all kinds of thrilling 21st-century thinking involved here -- and it's all lined up against the might of the fairies. For the rhino trade is based on exploded and pathetic ideas that are blood-brothers to flat-earthery, evolution-denial, Biblical literalism, pixies, ectoplasm and all the other bits of bottom-wiping nonsense we're supposed to set aside before puberty.

But it's a fact that all five species of rhino are charging pell-mell towards extinction because of an idea that's proven bollocks. It's also a fact that some great minds and serious money are lining up in the attempt to stop it. And here's the cream of the jest: they're losing. South Africa provides the most reliable and the most regularly quoted stats. In 2007 they lost 13 rhinos to illegal poaching. Last year they lost 1,215. Those figures are reflected elsewhere in Africa: it's an increase of 9,000 per cent. At this rate we'll be out of rhinos in about 20 years.

Most sharp declines and extinctions happen because the species in question finds itself in conflict with humans. Habitat destruction, the effects of intensive agriculture, increasing human population, demands for space: that's an old story. But in Africa at least there's still plenty of room for rhinos, and plenty of financial reasons for keeping them there: income from wildlife tourism is important in many African countries. But rhinos are constantly being killed because people believe in fairies.

Rhino horn is traditionally used in Chinese medicine to treat fevers and disorders of the blood. Never as an aphrodisiac: that's a western fantasy. Fact: it doesn't do anything. Not even harm. A rhino's horn is made from keratin, like your fingernails. Next time you have a blood disorder, chew your fingernails.

Rhino-poaching for the Chinese medicine trade has been going on for years. The black rhino went nationally extinct in Zambia in the 1980s, though there's now an excellent reintroduction programme. The trade in African rhinos has been increasing, not least because there are now many Chinese people working in Africa. Supply lines have been radically shortened, while the increasing prosperity in China put rhino horn within many more people's range. …

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