The Deadly Price of Trade in Rhino Horn

Written by Ian Kilbride

There is a brutal irony to game ranger, Anton Mzimba, being gunned down a mere five days before ‘celebrating’ World Ranger Day on 31 July. In an ideal world, rangers would only be required to conserve and nurture wildlife, rather than protect it. But the reality of South Africa’s illegal rhino horn trade is that it is deadly, lucrative, well-organised and international. Indeed, the long and complex rhino horn ‘value chain’ makes it one of the most profitable for local and Asian criminal cartels. Anton was brazenly gunned down in his home, (rather than in the bush) with his wife also being shot and critically injured in the assault. Anton’s murder brings to 295 the total number of rangers murdered in Africa since 2011. Clearly, this brazen attack was intended to send out a clear signal to game rangers and all those engaged in wildlife conservation, that they are not safe from these brutal gangs, even in their own homes. Indeed, 2022 has already set a record for ranger deaths. Inevitably, these losses will deepen the vulnerability of endangered species and set back conservation for years. But the impact will be felt far wider.

The conventional view is that rhino poachers are feeding a quirky habit of Asian consumers. For centuries people in Asia and the Middle East have coveted rhino horn for its alleged properties. In Yemen, rhino horn has been used to adorn weapons. In China, rhino horn has had multiple uses, ranging from ornaments, jewellery, cups and paperweights. But the most widespread abuse of rhino horn is in its completely fallacious use for medicinal purposes. In countries ranging from Vietnam, Korea and Malaysia to India and China, rhino horn is shaved, ground, powdered, boiled, swallowed, drunk and sniffed as a putative palliative to conditions ranging from snake bites, hallucinations, vomiting, devil possession, typhoid and food poisoning. Yet there is zero evidence that rhino horn in any form contains any pharmaceutical properties whatsoever – none.

Perhaps the greatest myth is that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. Ground rhino powder has become the aphrodisiac of choice for exotic parties of Asia’s high-rollers, somewhat akin to the cocaine-filled debauchery of the stock exchange boom times of 1980s and 1990s. Given that rhino horn is principally made up of keratin (the protein that makes up hair and nails), it has no aphrodisiacal properties. Perhaps an effective antidote to this myth would be for Asian government health authorities to conduct a series of scientifically-controlled and peer reviewed public experiments among the limp and randy males of the region to identify the pharmaceutical properties of rhino horn, versus small blue pills and placebos.

But of course, this won’t happen. The illicit trade in rhino horn is far too lucrative to allow a small issue such as the truth to emerge. At US$20,000 per kilogramme, African rhino horn represents a relatively accessible, replenishable and globally traded commodity that provides terrorists, mafia, organised crime, corrupt officials, diplomats and government figures a lucrative income at the expense, not only of our iconic species, but at the cost of the lives of heroes such as Anton Mzimba.