Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reaching out for the Rhinos

This last week, I have been reading another compelling and heart wrenching book by Lawrence Anthony, the great South African conservationist otherwise known as the Elephant Whisperer. I have read the book that gave him his nickname, and also Babylon's Ark, the amazing account of his courageous mission to save the animals in Baghdad's beleaguered zoo shortly after the US invasion when the city was in total disarray. However, The Last Rhinos is, if anything, even more compelling. Throughout this remarkable account of his campaign to save the last of the Northern White Rhinos in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the underlying and desperate fear that these wonderful and ancient animals will soon be extinct if we cannot stop the poaching and slaughter being carried out. For what? For just their horns. And for what reason? So that an oriental belief that they have some kind of medicinal value for fevers (see this link) can be satisfied. Their horns have a massive black market value (some say more than gold), and conservationists throughout Africa and Asia are literally fighting to the death to protect the remaining rhinos from extinction.

Now, I am not a scientist and I don't know whether their powdered horns have any real medicinal worth or not, but given that there are so many other means of alleviating fevers and similar ailments, it is iniquitous that any animal's life should be placed at risk of a cruel and savage death for this purpose, let alone an animal that is on the brink of extinction. What is fact is that their horns are simple keratin. As Lawrence Anthony says, we might as well send them our finger nail and toenail clippings. The substance is the same.

You have to ask what on earth those who poach them will do when all the rhinos are gone? In pragmatic terms, why kill these animals to the point where there are absolutely none left. Anywhere. Animals that have been on this earth for thousands of years. It beggars belief. Talk about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The terrible truth, however, is that despite Lawrence Anthony and truly brave conservation fighters like him who are increasing public awareness worldwide, the poaching figures are growing.

Lawrence Anthony died last year. I was first alerted to his work when a South African friend on FB  'shared'  the touching story of how his elephants mourned his death. Since then, I have been spellbound by his books and awed by his endless fund of courage. He gained the trust of governments and rebel armies alike, being probably the only civilian to have formed a working relationship with the notorious LRA in Uganda and the DRC. The bravery he showed simply in an effort to stop the poaching and save the Rhinos is almost beyond human, but he did not do it alone, thank goodness. His family and close friends were there with him on several of these missions and I can only be thankful that these great souls, and many many others like them, are still alive and still fighting for our animal kingdom.

I haven't finished the book yet and am not really sure I want to know the outcome as I fear it will not be  a happy one. What has happened since he died certainly isn't optimistic. The figures are horrific and according to the Helping Rhinos Facebook page, two rhinos have been found dead with their horns removed in just the last couple of days.

This sort of situation makes me feel quite desperate. This is not about saving animals over people. Rhino horn doesn't feed people, nor does it save people's lives. The dead rhinos are left to rot. It is exploitation at its most mercenary and ugly.

A few weeks ago, I read an academic paper about the importance of preserving our 'ecosystem services'. The conservation of all our ecosystems, animal and plant, is important to our own survival. We have to work with our natural world and not destroy it simply to gratify a short term desire or perceived need. If we do that, we will ultimately destroy ourselves as the world that we rely on to nourish us will no longer be able to serve us.

The Last Rhinos is a compelling, exciting book, but it is also a very serious one. This kind of exploitation has to stop. It is neither the fault of those who live among the rhinos, nor those who are persuaded into believing their horns have medicinal value. It is the fault of the poaching cartels who are cashing in on a get rich quick opportunity. This kind of short-sighted greed has to end. It is as shameful as it is devastating.


  1. It is great that the world has people like Mr. Anthony, who rally to save our Animals. Sadly, he has passed. It is truly disgusting that any animal is killed just for a part of their body, or just killed because some jerk likes to trophy hunt. And I don't always believe in those medicinal ideas of helping some ailment.
    This book sounds very moving. Sometimes I cannot read or hear about the atrocities done to our Animals, it gets me too fired up.
    I shall check out that FB page. Thnks Val.

  2. Grace, the book is not hard to read. It is uplifting and inspiring if anything. What an amazing man he was! So sad that he died of a heart attack last year. I was deeply moved when I heard his elephants came in from the bush and stood outside his home for several days when he died. They knew, but how? That is just astonishing. Their powers of communication are quite phenomenal.

  3. This is as impassioned a post as we are likely to find and does you great credit, Val, not just Lawrence Anthony. Like Grace, I find it difficult to understand the frankly absurd belief in the medicinal qualities of rhino horn. This is much more about greed than anything.

  4. Thank you, Christina. It is something I feel very strongly about, I do admit. I wish I was in a position to do more than offer a meagre donation to the cause and rant about it publicly, but if it increases awareness somehow, somewhere, then it is something. I think you are right about the greed, but there has to be a demand in the first place, and that is what I cannot get my head around.

  5. Of course we need to preserve ecosystems - and these wonderful animals. (If you're chased by a rhino, either climb a tree or run in zig-zags ... you always wanted to know that!)

    AND - we need to understand the economies that mean people engage in this trade. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a shattered government and economy in tatters. Farmers cannot guarantee that their land will be safe to harvest even if they sow their rice and vegetables. (My brother was there last year with a rice project. He couldn't travel anywhere without an armed guard.) Simply demanding the trade must stop will not bring it to an end - it is essential that the African nations (and this cannot be imposed by the arrogant west who do not always understand African ways of governing themselves) must support the DRC to develop an economy in which people can feeding their families legally and safely.

    Like all such iniquitous markets, they will flourish in countries where people are so poor, and governments so weak, that man will do anything to stay alive - without thought for ethics or consequences.

  6. Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention, Val. I have meant to pick this book up after reading a recommendation from you elsewhere (or perhaps we talked last June?) but I find it hard to allocate proper reading time these days, much to my chagrin. I agree with Jo that the issues are complicated and that economies make people do desperate things. Who wouldn't kill and animal if it meant saving the lives of their family members? It is a heartbreaking story that will continue as long as there is local poverty and distant ignorance and greed. Too too sad.

  7. Animals in general are very "in tune" to what's going on.
    And, Elephants are very smart. That part touched me deeply. They must have sensed his energy disappear. For they had a spiritual connection with him, and that connection was broken when he passed. A part of their pack was gone.
    The book is inspiring then...I could check that out.

  8. Well said Val - as a conduit for Mr. Anthony! He should be knighted.
    We are the only species that displays greed, among several other distasteful characteristics.
    I doubt these killings are sanctioned by anyone but those who profit from this travesty.
    As an emerging misanthropist, I continue to feel saddened and frustratingly helpless in the face of such things ...

  9. This is one book I will definitely look out for. I am very passionate about animal welfare (hence one of my new year resolution to turn vegan). I get very upset when I hear about animal cruelty and we need more Lawrence Anthonys in the world to speak up for them. I got upset in the week on the way to work (0630) when I passed a farm where they were loading up the sheep onto a huge lorry ready for the slaughter house. I couldn't stop thinking about it all day :(

  10. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I think Jo has made some very good points here, but added to that is the fact that much of this trade is only possible because it occurs in countries that are in disarray through internal conflicts. The people themselves are otherwise pre-occupied, so the door is open for the poachers to go in and do their deeds.

    In Africa and notably the DRC, the poachers are rarely local people. They are gangs sent in by organised crime. They will of course employ one or two locals as their guides to the spoils, but it is not done by the community, most of whom have too much traditional respect for the spirits of the animals to engage in poaching. If the local people kill a beast, it is for everything the animal can offer, not just their horns.

    The wonderful thing about Lawrence Anthony was that he understood what the people needed too. This was why he gained their trust. He went in and worked with them to find solutions that would benefit them as well. He was a rare and remarkable man and it is very sad for all Africans that he is dead. All I can really recommend is that you read his books. They are as educational as they are exciting and riveting to read.

  11. PS: Anne Marie, I think that combination you mentioned of poverty on the one end and distant ignorance and greed on the other is the key and for me the iniquity is in the latter. I too cannot blame poverty stricken people from doing what they think is necessary to stay alive (btw neither does Lawrence Anthony).

    I have been doing some further reading since I wrote this blog, and it seems the most recent spike in demand comes from Vietnam where it was rumoured that someone in high authority had cured his cancer by using rhino horn. This rumour is apparently unsubstantiated, but it spread rapidly. Vietnam now has an emerging large middle class who can afford to buy what was formerly an expensive remedy. The combination of rumour and money has driven the much increased poaching numbers in the last few years.

    In DRC, though, it seems the rhino are officially extinct and have been for the last few years since Lawrence Anthony's initiative failed, so there it would seem that apart from some rumoured sitings in southern Sudan (again unconfirmed), the northern white rhino is extinct in the wild. There are seven left in captivity and these are guarded 24/7. The mating pair in Kenya have had their horns removed to stop them hurting each other inadvertently. However, Lawrence Anthony suggests this might be the only way to save the breed in any event, as without their horns, they have no value on the black market. Not the ideal solution, though.

    It is also interesting to note that the use of rhino horn is actually illegal in China, but a law that is largely disregarded.

    There is of course much more to the whole story that I won't bore you with here, but the more I read, the sadder I feel about the whole situation. When animals have to be protected with guns to stop poachers who themselves use helicopters, sophisticated GPS and weaponry and tactics that amount to guerilla warfare, something has gone very wrong. What's even worse is the number of people who are killed in the process too.

  12. I really don't know what to say to this, as I find the whole subject incredibly disturbing. Instead of looking and dealing with the likely causes of cancer, the victimization goes on, with animals being the last on the list. It is so easy to turn people's attention away from root causes of illness by barbaric practice rather than allow them to be educated.

  13. String, it is disturbing in the extreme. It is akin to the drugs trade in that those involved in organising the poaching are utterly ruthless. The trouble is if you live in the east and your doctor tells you to take rhino horn for your ailments, I doubt whether you think much further about where it comes from or what is involved in acquiring it. I also doubt whether many of those who take it would question their doctor's/healer's advice. It's all very sad. If the demand could be reduced, or even better eliminated, through education, then that would surely help, but like the drugs trade too, there's much more involved.

  14. Even if it were proved that rhino horn is a valuable medicine, what use would it be if there were no rhinos left in the world. I hate the way us humans abuse other living creatures (including other humans).

  15. Hi Val ... great post - I was horrified to see the reports on the news about a number of elephant in Kenya being slaughtered .... with the comment - well: the Chinese have arrived in Africa ... and the shipments are being made out of Nigeria.

    It's just not funny - as you say it is deadly serious ....

    The book does sound very good indeed ... and thanks for alerting me to Lawrence Anthony and his work ..

    Looks like you're freezing in the Netherlands just now ...

    Great informative post - we are all equal ... the ant to us rhinos to elephant to whales ... et al ..

    Thank you - Hilary

  16. Thank you Ros and Hilary. Spreading awareness is like ripples in a pool. We all need to do what we can xx

  17. Val, that is the worst, when a rumour is started about having some cure....this is the Animals worst nightmare.

  18. Hilary, thanks for the link! I read it with real dismay, though. It makes me quite desperate to think of elephant and rhino being killed in these numbers. Quite apart from the cruelty of how they are poached, the decimation of their populations is terribly worrying. We know not what we do.


Apologies for switching on comment moderation, but this is to make sure everyone can comment without jumping through captcha hoops!

However, anonymous comments will not be published, so please would you sign your name. Even if you leave a nice, relevant comment, I won't publish it without a name.