Sacrificed on the altar of ignorance

Rhinos are in the news and for all the wrong reasons. Suni, a northern white rhino, was found dead at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on October 17. 

He was one of the last of his race. Two weeks later, 18 rhinos horns were seized at Johannesburg Airport, the largest such haul ever made in Africa. Meanwhile, the Kruger Park Times reported that 408 rhinos were killed in the park between January 1 and August 9.

Analysis of their DNA shows the ancestors of the northern white rhino and those of the southern race separated at least a million years ago. Some experts consider the northern to be a distinct species rather than a sub-species.

This magnificent two-horned beast roamed much of Central East Africa, but was hunted to the brink of extinction. By the mid 20th Century, there were only 500 northern whites left. The wars in the Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic ‘did for’ the few that were left; the poachers had a free hand. By 2007, only seven animals were known to be alive. It’s thought none now remain in the wild.

Dvûr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic had six northern whites. In 2009, four of them were sent to the 38,000ha Ol Pejeta reserve. Their traditional habitat and climate, it was hoped, might encourage them to breed. Sedated, they had their horns sawn off, rendering them useless to poachers working for the Chinese medicine trade. It would also reduce the risk of injury were the animals to fight. San Diego Zoo has a female and a male. She is no longer fertile. Samples of his sperm have been taken and frozen but attempts at artificial insemination failed in Kenya.

Suni, one of the transferred animals, was born at Dvûr Králové in 1980. He had mated previously and some sperm samples had been frozen. The cause of death has yet to be determined but poachers were not responsible. His half-sister Nazin, born in 2000, is alive and well. Of the six remaining northern white rhinos, only one male and two females are capable of breeding. If all attempts at getting them to mate fail, northern females will be ‘crossed’ with males of the southern sub-species. By doing so, some northern rhino genes can be saved.

The threat of annihilation hangs over rhino populations everywhere. Three of the world’s five species are listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Only 40 Javan rhinos remain. Vietnam had Javans which survived the ‘American war’, only to be killed by poachers three years ago. There are less than 300 Sumatran rhinos left.

South Africa is home to 83% of the world’s white and black rhinos. According to the IUCN, Africa is losing three of these animals every day. Visiting Kruger Park twelve years ago, I heard rangers talk excitedly about a Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park; an area, half the size of Ireland, which would encompass Kruger, Gonarezhou Park in Zimbabwe and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. Agreements between the three countries were signed in 2006. Over 50km of fences were removed, allowing animals to roam throughout the vast wilderness. I returned to Kruger this year to find the rangers dejected. Poachers are coming into South Africa to kill rhinos and smuggle their horns back across the borders. The barriers are being re-erected.

Contrary to popular belief, Chinese medicine practitioners don’t use rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. They claim that it reduces fever but there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that it does so. With huge demands from newly affluent China, a kilo of horn fetches tens of thousands of euros. Poaching is rife. Even museums and private collections are being targeted by criminal gangs, one of the most notorious of which is Irish. In the face of the threat, horn specimens everywhere are being locked away in safes and vaults. A magnificent animal is being sacrificed on the altar of ignorance and quackery!


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