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The war to save the rhino Add to ...


Vietnam is believed to be the world’s biggest consumer of rhino horns, which are ground into a powder and turned into tablets or dissolved in boiling water as a traditional remedy for fever, anxiety, headaches, arthritis, typhoid and a vast array of other ailments. The demand skyrocketed after a prominent Vietnamese official claimed that he beat cancer by consuming rhino horn.

Yet the truth is that rhino horn has absolutely no medical value. It is made up largely of keratin, the same substance found in human hair and fingernails. “It is more expensive than gold, yet as medicinally useless as a pile of fingernail clippings,” said Keith Martin, a physician and Liberal MP in Ottawa who heads an all-party committee on international conservation.

Diplomats at the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, are among those implicated in smuggling rhino horns. One employee was videotaped receiving one of them on the street outside the embassy.

The embassy now says it is educating its citizens to obey wildlife laws. But a Vietnamese man was sentenced to 10 years in prison in South Africa after he was arrested at Johannesburg’s international airport in June with seven rhino horns that he was trying to smuggle out of the country. In another recent case, three Vietnamese nationals were caught at the airport with 18 rhino horns.


Wildlife is big business in South Africa, where tourists and hunters flock to luxury lodges for guided safaris or shooting expeditions. Buffalos and rhinos – two of the famed Big Five of the safari animals – traditionally sell for more than $50,000 each at auctions here. Private hunting-safari companies cater to wealthy foreigners who pay up to $100,000 to shoot a lion or rhino.

The safari business has become more lucrative as nouveaux-riches Asians join the Americans and Europeans who traditionally did the hunting. But now this profitable business may have gone too far. Among those recently arrested for poaching-related crimes were several professional hunters and hunting-safari operators.

Until a year ago, Riaan Kotze allowed hunters to visit his game ranch to shoot rhinos, using legal permits issued by the government. Now he is calling for a five-year moratorium on hunting. The legal hunt is being exploited by Asians who sell their trophy horns, and it fuels the rising demand for illegal horns, he says.

“Since the start of this year, so many Vietnamese citizens have come to South Africa to hunt,” Mr. Kotze said. “I know a lot of tourist operators who are making a killing on Vietnamese citizens coming here.”

Because of the soaring cost of anti-poaching security measures, many owners are selling their rhinos now, and the IR price at auction has plummeted. A year ago, a rhino cow would sell at auctions for 450,000 rand (about $65,000). Now they sell for a fifth of that price – or not at all. Rhinos today are more valuable dead than alive.


Many of South Africa’s top leaders have joined the fight against poaching. “The butchering of rhinos in South Africa must be stopped,” said a statement last month by Desmond Tutu, the former anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Some wildlife farms and nature reserves have responded to the crisis by dehorning their rhinos, removing the object of desire. But this often fails to deter the poachers, who can still profit from the remaining stub of horn beneath a rhino’s skin.

Niel Maritz, who owns four rhinos on his small game lodge in the Waterberg region has boosted security by telling his employees to track the rhinos daily. He is also trying to set up radio towers to connect the farmers in his remote region where cellphones don’t work .

Riaan Kotze, who has about 40 rhinos on his 9,500-hectare game ranch in the same region, is spending nearly $100,000 a year on security – six times more than a year ago. He has hired 16 scouts to guard the rhinos and has moved them into centralized locations where they can be more closely guarded.

In the most sensational development in the anti-poaching fight, South African authorities arrested 11 people last month – including the two veterinarians, several professional hunters and a hunting safari operator – and charged them with involvement in hundreds of poaching incidents.

But a few days later, more rhinos were killed in another region of South Africa. “This isn’t the end of the story – it’s just the beginning of the war,” Mr. Maritz said.

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