September 22 #WorldRhinoDay
The reality behind the demand is far more complex. Historically rhino populations were decimated by uncontrolled trophy hunting during the European colonial era. These days the main threat to the surviving rhinos comes from the illegal rhino horn trade between Africa and Asia. Certain buyers in Vietnam and China—the largest and second-largest black market destinations respectively—covet rhino horn products for different reasons. Some purchase horn chunks or powder for traditional medicinal purposes, to ingest or to give others as an impressive gift. Wealthy buyers bid for antique rhino horn carvings such as cups or figurines to display or as investments. A modern market for rhino horn necklaces, bracelets and beads has also sprung up.
There is one group of buyers in Vietnam that may partially reflect the stereotype of horny Asians seeking a rhino horn fix. A 2012 report by TRAFFIC International, wealthy Vietnamese and Asian expatriate business elites in Vietnam would “routinely mix rhino horn powder with water or alcohol as a general health and hangover-curing tonic”—an extravagant version of a detox routine. That group also included some men who also apparently believed rhino horn could cure impotence and enhance sexual performance.
Between 2007 and 2019, the populations of 4 of the 5 living species of rhinos saw a significant growth. Collective enforcement and conservation efforts are paying off, though we must remain vigilant to the continued threat of poaching and trafficking.
In Africa, rhinos have seen a short term benefit in reduced poaching during the global pandemic. In response to the virus outbreak, countries around the world closed borders and restricted international and domestic travel. With increased military and police presence, regular checkpoints enacted, and government parks and private reserves shuttered to all outside visitors, local poaching gangs found it risky to be on the move without raising suspicions. And the international travel restrictions have closed wildlife trafficking routes to China and Vietnam, the largest black markets for rhino horn.
In comparison, 900 rhinos were killed by criminals in Africa last year, nearly 1 every 10 hours. But this year, South Africa recently reported that poaching dropped from 319 animals in the first half of 2019 to 166 in the first half of 2020. Kruger National Park’s Intensive Protection Zone reported zero rhino poaching incidents in April, the first since 2007.
In Indonesia, fewer than 80 Sumatran rhinos remain. The species is likely now the most endangered large mammal on Earth, with declines of more than 70 percent in the past 30 years. Three small, isolated populations exist on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, plus a tiny handful of animals in Kalimantan.
The Sumatran rhinoceros is now extinct in Malaysia. The country’s last rhino, Iman, died of cancer in late 2019.
The Sumatran rhino is the smallest species. Members of the species once inhabited rainforest, swamps and cloud forests in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. In historical times, they lived in southwest China, particularly in Sichuan. They are now critically endangered, with only five substantial populations in the wild: four in Sumatra and one in Borneo.