Saving the rhino
In the autumn of 1892, a man named Frederick Courteney Selous set sail from Africa for England. Selous was in a deep funk. As the original Great White Hunter, he had, with his single-shot, 10-bore rifle, dispatched a great swathe of wild animals during a lengthy and bloody hunting career. Yet, despite months of searching, he had been unable to find and shoot a single white rhino specimen for a European museum.
Selous and other hunters believed that, at most, a handful of rhinos had survived the unhinged slaughter of Southern Africa's wildlife in the closing decades of the 19th century, but these now frightened, gun-shy animals were probably hiding in remote thickets in the difficult, malarial country between the White and Black Umfolozi rivers.
A few years later, Selous wrote: "But that 20 of these strange old-world creatures are alive today, I very much doubt ... I cannot think that the species will survive very far into the coming century."
Selous would probably have been greatly surprised to see what has happened a century later in South Africa. Not only has the white rhino survived, but there are now roughly 18500 of them spread across national parks, game reserves and private farms.
In many cases, Selous would not even have bothered to raise his rifle - because many have been dehorned in an attempt to prevent poaching, and the horns have been locked in bank vaults.
I recently visited a private rhino rancher (who requested his name be withheld). Formerly what he called a "normal" farmer, running cattle and growing vegetables, he turned to game ranching in the mid-1990s as the wildlife breeding business took off. Now he is just one of a growing number of private rhino owners in South Africa who, between them, own roughly 25% of the local white rhino population.
The rancher has been breeding rhinos since 1994 with considerable success. "I think the white rhino is the most incredible animal in the world," he said. "It deserves to be protected."
The large number of rhinos grazing happily in camps seems to confirm the idea that farming rhinos as if they were merely very large cows works. "Whether it's grapes or wheat or mangoes, give the job to farmers - they'll do it well."
As part of his sustained effort to protect his animals, all have been dehorned. At current prices, the rancher's horn stash is worth millions of dollars, but there will be no payday for him or any other rhino owner until the ban on the trade in rhino horn is lifted. That is unlikely to happen any time soon - but legalising this trade could be their salvation.
Rhinos are protected under the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which forbids trade in rhino horn.
That white rhinos have prospered so well in South Africa is thanks to a legal market for breeding and selling them, driven by rising prices for live animals for both wildlife tourism as well as the vibrant trophy-hunting market.
It is no small irony that the rhino, which had been hunted almost to extinction a century ago, has been saved by hunters.
In October 1953, when legendary conservationist Ian Player conducted the first aerial survey of the Umfolozi Game Reserve, he counted 437 white rhinos. In the following years, Player and his team translocated dozens of rhinos to other parks and overseas zoos because they were literally running out of elbow room in Umfolozi.
In the end, though, rhino survival is a matter of simple economics, says independent environmental economist Michael 't Sas-Rolfes. "Trophy hunting is largely responsible for the growth in our rhino population," he says. "The market has saved them."
Trophy hunting attracts large sums of money from hunters, mostly from the US, Europe and the Middle East, who can afford to hunt a rhino. A trophy hunter may shoot one rhino a year and export its horn, subject to CITES provisions.
That trophy hunting has saved the white rhino is a view that many conservationists and animal lovers find unpalatable. But the numbers do not lie: in 1982, trophy hunters paid $5500 to shoot a white rhino; by 2008, the price had peaked at $54000 before dropping to about $29000 in 2010.
If the trophy-hunting market ensured some sort of balance in the rhino business, the recent surge in poaching has not only wrecked the peace, but also threatens to drive the rhino to final extinction as the black-market price of rhino horn soars to astronomical levels. For the first time in recent memory, rhinos are worth more dead than alive.
Conservationists believe the resurgent trade has been driven by declining stocks of available horn in Asian traditional medicine markets, most notably China and Vietnam, where, although illegal in both countries, it is often used in preparations to cure fevers. Despite the popular myth constantly peddled in the Western media, rhino horn is not used as an aphrodisiac.
Tom Milliken, regional director for international environmental monitoring group Traffic, says improving economic performance and rising prosperity in the East means people can now afford traditional cures that were previously out of reach.
"GDP is up, personal income is up and there's lots of disposable income," he says.
The problem has been exacerbated by false rumours that rhino horn can cure life-threatening illnesses, adding a new dimension to an already complicated issue. "There is nothing in the traditional literature (to support these claims)," he says.
Right now, the authorities in various countries are struggling to get a grip on poaching. CITES, which employs just a single enforcement officer, has been largely powerless to stop the boom in the illegal trade.
Many officials and conservationists have pinned their hopes on the recently established CITES Rhinoceros Enforcement Task Force, which brings together wildlife law-enforcement officials from range, transit and consumer countries to share intelligence on rhino-related crimes.
Meanwhile, the slaughter continues unabated.
So far this year in South Africa, 141 rhinos have been killed by poachers, a figure not far short of the road death toll over Easter. And Sas-Rolfes believes the rising price of horn may be encouraging speculative stockpiling.
"This leads to even more rhinos being killed now to harvest horns for anticipated demand in the future in the hope of earning massive profits."
He says the current poaching levels prove the rhino horn trade ban has failed and that it is time to investigate the possibility of legal trade.
"Whether rhino horn can be scientifically proven to work as a medicine is most likely irrelevant to those who use it." He believes that a legal trade will most likely result in a lower price for horn and so reduce pressure from poaching. A legal trade would also provide an economic incentive to ensure the rhino's survival.
Milliken is more cautious. The issue of demand for rhino horn "is completely out of focus", he says. "There are huge fundamentals - we don't have a grip on it. One mistake, and we could wipe out an entire species."
He argues that better policing and more vigorous prosecution of offenders would go a long way to curbing the trade. "If these people are successfully prosecuted, it would be a huge deterrent."
The recent poaching surge has everyone worried, to the point that South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs plans to commission a study on a legal trade in rhino horn. If it happens, the rancher and other rhino breeders will be smiling.
"What regulation do you have on merino sheep?" he asks? "None. And as long as wool pays, you will never have a problem of merino sheep getting too few."
So it could be for the rhino.