Monday, officials from South Africa and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding in an effort to curb the rhino poaching epidemic. The purpose of the MoU is to join forces between Vietnam, one of the largest markets for rhino horn derived products, and South Africa, where 618 rhinos have been killed this year. The two countries will work together to improve law enforcement, compliance with current regulations and the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The driving force behind the current poaching situation is the use of rhino horns in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Rhino horns consist of keratin, the same material that makes up hair and nails on humans. While there is no evidence to show that these horns hold medicinal qualities, followers of Traditional Chinese Medicine believe that the horns will cure problems like headaches, fevers, skin diseases, heart and liver trouble, cancer and even improve virility. This belief is spurring a multi-million dollar market in China and Vietnam for products containing rhino horns, increasing the value and motivating the greedy to destroy the rhino population.
The Saving Rhinos non-profit organization describes the problem:
"Although rhino horn has no medicinal effects on humans, myths about rhino horn still persist. In China and Vietnam, rhino horn is unfortunately promoted as a "remedy" for nearly everything, from fever to cancer. The cultural myths surrounding rhino horn are why rhinos are slaughtered illegally - and why wild rhino populations in Africa and Asia are at risk of extinction."
The Wildaid non-profit organization estimates that in the last 40 years, ninety percent of the world’s rhino population has been lost. Only five rhino species remain; the African Black Rhino, One-Horned Rhino, Sumatran Rhino, Javan Rhino and the White Rhino. All of these five species are either endangered or vulnerable due to habitat loss and poaching.
Despite increased protection of the rhino population, international bans and plummeting populations; poaching of the five species of rhinos continues at an alarming rate. Poachers range from amateur individual poachers desperate for money to organized professional poachers who have a plethora of resources, including helicopters and high-power weapons, to back their efforts. These poachers hunt at night, even daring to trespass into sanctuaries where rhinos should live safely, just to get their trophy.
The large herbivores have weak eye sight and make for an easy target for poachers. Poachers will shoot the unsuspecting animals several times from land or air to immobilize them, then cut off their horns with chainsaws or other sharp tools. If the rhino does not die from the initial attack, it may suffer for several hours or days before finally succumbing to their injuries.
Animal lovers and conservationists are desperately trying to find solutions to protect the rhinos. Non-profit groups like WildAid and Humane Society International are working to improve laws and regulations, to increase protective measures and convince followers of Traditional Chinese Medicine that the rhino horn is ineffective and unnecessary. Celebrities like Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, former Houston Rocket, have joined the fight in bringing awareness against the problem. Others have suggested removing horns, putting fake products on the market to drive down the demand and even poisoning the horns to protect the rhinos.
South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, commented on their newest fight against poaching.
“The continued slaughter of South Africa’s national treasure, the rhino, is a cause for immense concern. South Africa continues to vigorously implement various interventions in a bid to curb rhino poaching and we believe that this latest development at an international level is crucial for South Africa to effectively deal with the current scourge of poaching, and with illegal hunting largely driven by the international demand for the rhino horn.”
“The latest rhino poaching statistics indicate that a total of 618 rhinos have been poached in South Africa. As the poaching toll mounts, it is clear that everyone has a critical role to play in this war that we are waging against poaching. The signing of this international MoU adds to our arsenal against rhino poaching and increases the number of role players working towards curbing rhino poaching.”