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SOS Rhino : In the News : Dark days ahead for rhino

Dark days ahead for rhino

  Mail & Guardian Online
08 October 2004 17:53

Aphrodisiacal qualities attributed to the horn of the rhinoceros have rammed a hole through protective international laws designed to conserve the animal.

Conservationists are aghast at the way proposals from Namibia and South Africa, to allow export quotas for trophy hunting of the black rhinoceros, have been accepted at the 13th Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

"At the end of the day the Cites convention is meant to protect species from over exploitation and not to facilitate trade," Jason Bell, country director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) in South Africa told reporters.

"The world needs to take notice of these dangerous decisions being made at Cites and encourage their governments to vote for conservation and not be pushed by national lobbies into policies that could lead to species' extinction," added Erica Martin, the Australian-based spokeswoman for Ifaw.

Martin said attempts would be made to revive the issue at the plenary of the 12-day conference ending on October 14, although she expected little to come out of it going by past history.

Over 1 500 delegates from 166 Cites member countries are in the Thai capital to deliberate on about 100 proposals and resolutions about various species of plants and animals.

Cites is a United Nations-backed treaty that has been in effect for nearly 30 years. But without any policing authority, its effectiveness is only as good as the political will and resources of each of its member nations.

Four range states, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, contain 97.6% of the remaining wild black rhino population

with poaching and habitat destruction having already decimated its population from a probable few hundred thousand at the start of the last century to fewer than 2 500 by the early nineties.

South Africa and Namibia have shown net increases in numbers of the black rhino between 1980 and 2001 through conservation efforts including enforcement, but activists say that is not good enough reason to allow trophy hunting.

"It sends out all the wrong signals -- that it is all right to hunt rhinos and also trade in the animal and its parts," said Shyam

Bajimaya, an ecologist with the department of national parks and wildlife in Nepal, one of the last refuges of the great one-horned rhino.

Bajimaya is fearful that the easing of restrictions in southern Africa could have an adverse impact on the Asian rhino, which continues to be poached despite stringent conservation and enforcement efforts, thanks to strong demand for its horn by wealthy clients in countries like Thailand, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

The horn from the Asian rhino is smaller but fetches higher prices than the larger ones from the African species because it is considered to be more "concentrated".

A kilogram of Asian rhino horn fetches more than $50 000, although higher prices have been reported.

There are five rhinoceros species that have survived extinction with three of them living in Asia and two in Africa.

Rhino populations are endangered not only by poachers but also by shrinking natural habitats they increasingly have to share with insurgent groups armed with automatic weapons and interested in more immediate issues than animal conservation.

According to Bajimaya, as a result of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, authorities in the Chitwan national park, famed for its rhinos, had to reduce the number of forest guard posts from 32 to about eight.

"This naturally encourages poaching and over the last two months we have seized as many as five rhino horns in Chitwan," Bajimaya said.

"From examining carcasses of rhinos left behind by poachers after sawing off the horns, we find that rhinos are being hunted down with more and more sophisticated firearms, suggesting that the business continues to be lucrative," she said.

Carcasses are also found with the hooves and hides removed, apparently because even these, apart from the horns and penises, are prized as having aphrodisiacal properties. In traditional Asian medicine rhino blood is given as a tonic to women with menstrual disorders.

"People even scoop up the earth on which a rhino may have urinated to be dunked into water and filtered to make potions," said Bajimaya, wishing that poachers would be satisfied with the urine and leave the animals alone. - Sapa

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