Rhino Horns Fuel Deadly, Intercontinental Trade

May 12, 2013
Originally published on May 12, 2013 3:55 am
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We're going to now turn our attention to an international issue with repercussions stretching from the African continent all the way to Asia. We're talking about the market for rhinoceros horns. More than 300 rhinos have been killed in Africa already this year. Much of the horn ends up in the homes of newly rich Vietnamese, who use it as medicine for all kinds of ailments. Two NPR correspondents - Frank Langfitt, based in China, and Gregory Warner, based in Kenya - have teamed up for a series tracing the growth of this black market. They join me to talk about their series, which will air on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this week. Welcome to you both.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Great to be here.


MARTIN: Greg, I'd like to start with you, if I could. We mentioned that 300 rhinos have been killed this year alone. How big is the population?

WARNER: There are about 25,000 rhino in the world - and that's all the species, with white rhino being the most common. And 85 percent of the entire population are in South Africa. There are still more rhino being born every year than being killed. But looking forward, officials say that's going to change in 2016, that's if the poaching trends continue. So, after 2016, extinction becomes a real possibility.

MARTIN: And are they, Frank, are these rhino killed exclusively for their horn?

LANGFITT: Yes, absolutely. What we see particularly in Vietnam is there's been a lot of demand for rhino as a traditional Chinese medicine. In the old days, it was seen for treating fevers. But recently in places like Vietnam, it's now been prescribed for everything for cancer treatment and hangovers. And so that's driven a lot of demand.

MARTIN: So, let's talk a lot more about that, Frank. You mentioned Vietnam. You traveled there to report parts of this story. What is happening there that is really driving this market?

LANGFITT: We have this sort of deadly combination of misinformation and money. And in the last 10 years, the Vietnamese economy really took off. You have a new rich there. They can afford this. And what's happened is rhino horn has kind of also become a status symbol. Give you an example: I met a retired government official and he'd been taking rhino horn for hangovers that he would get in drinking binges with contractors. And he showed me a small block that he had, and it was, like, the size of maybe two or three erasers and it was worth over $1,000.

MARTIN: So, Greg, you're in Kenya. Give us the view from there. What the impact of this illegal market on the African continent?

WARNER: I think what surprised me doing the reporting on this series was just what a military operation this war against poachers in Africa has become. And then secondly, the way that that military approach has been, in many cases, used by poachers as an instrument for killing rhino instead of protecting them. So, for example, if I'm a game ranger, I'm armed, I'm using radios to talk with other rangers and track where these rhino are on this vast patch of land. And let's say I have some good information that there's a rhino that's wandered in this direction and I call up a poacher on my cell phone. And I say, look, there's where the rhino is, you'll find him unguarded. Just making that five-minute phone call, I can earn three to four thousand dollars. If I actually shoot the rhino, then I earn 50,000. So, you compare that to what a poacher can make for an elephant tusk: $200. The money on this black market is huge and that's cracking the fissures of this protection apparatus that's been set up.

MARTIN: So, there's all kinds of corruption. Are there other economic implications of this market, more broadly speaking?

WARNER: Sure. I mean, rhino poaching is not just about the rhino. Some of Africa's worst warlords and rebel leaders have definitely woken up to the fact that the current price of tusk and of rhino horn will pay for all kinds of illegal activities. So, especially in Central Africa, you see the economics of poaching directly connected to terrorism, to child soldiers, sexual slavery, human trafficking and these kind of things.

MARTIN: Let me close by asking a question of both of you: are there any incentives out there to change this market, to slow down the illegal killing of these rhino? Let's start with you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Well, in Vietnam, there's been a lot of critical media attention on rhino horn, and there are also public information campaigns basically describing it as an overpriced placebo that doesn't do very much. I did talk to some older users, and they actually had stopped using it because they didn't find that it was really helping them. Some people say Vietnam is a particularly faddish culture, and one of the hopes is that, you know, with a strong public information campaign, they can begin to change minds there. And maybe this, you know, as a fad will kind of burn out.

MARTIN: And Greg?

WARNER: Well, in Africa, there are three new strategies on the horizon, besides just, say, increasing militarization, which includes things like drones. There are now some conservancies getting drones. But the new strategies are basically legalization, dehorning and poisoning. To run through the three: legalization is a very controversial idea. It's coming from economists in South Africa. So, these economists imagine a world where you have rhino farmers and they're selling the horn to meet the demand. And then somehow, although this part not fully explained, somehow they calculate that that would also decrease the black market, decrease the illegal poaching.

Now, dehorning is an idea coming from Kenya, where it's somewhat of an internal memo circulating around the halls of the Kenyan government, would be to cut off the horns of many of Kenya's rhino and burn them publicly as a kind of message that nobody's entitled to rhino horn if the rhino can't have it himself. That may not work because even after you cut the horn from a rhino there's still a little bit left. And even current prices, even that little bit is something valuable or dehorned rhino will be poached.

The last idea, kind of the most radical, is poisoning. There are some rhino ranchers in Namibia and South Africa who are poisoning their horns. The poison allegedly does not hurt the animal but it could kill anyone who eats the rhino powder. And so these farmers are trying to instill fear into the Vietnamese people.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Gregory Warner from Kenya and Frank Langfitt from China. You can hear their reports on the illegal rhino horn trade all this week on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.