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.