Irish link to a bloody and brutal trade

ACCORDING to Andrew Hamilton and Emer Connolly, of the Clare People, customs officials at Shannon Airport found a pair of rhino horns on Christmas Eve.

Eight more horns have been confiscated since then. Ireland has signed the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), under which rhinos are listed. It’s an offence to import their body parts without a licence. Nobody has been charged in Shannon, but, presumably, “investigations are continuing”. The horns were sent to Dublin Zoo for analysis.

Unicorns were horses with marlin spikes projecting from their foreheads. Rhinos and horses come from the same evolutionary stable. With the ass zebra and tapir, they belong to the odd-toed line of hoofed animals. Cattle, sheep and deer, which descend from the even-toed line, seem to be faring better than their odd-toed cousins. Perhaps their technology is more advanced; cattle have better digestive systems than horses.

Rhinos, the lumbering tanks of the animal kingdom, are an example of odd-toed failure; of the five surviving species, four are in danger of extinction. The male deer’s antlers are mainly for show, but the rhino’s horn is a formidable weapon. Some species have two horns, one above the other. Contrary to popular belief, the horn is not made of bone, but of compacted hair. Such a spectacular appendage attracts unwanted attention; in parts of Africa, horns were used to make dagger handles and European hunters collected them as trophies.

Some tourists still want ornaments fashioned from horn, but the main threat to rhinos, today, comes from southeast Asia, where horn is used as an aphrodisiac. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, animal organs can be used to treat ailments in parts of the body that resemble them, and a rhino’s horn resembles a phallus. However, Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College and winner of this year’s Boyle prize for scientific research, says that horn tissue is entirely useless as an aphrodisiac. Fashioning ornate drinking cups from horn makes more sense. Poisoning was a traditional method of assassination in China. Alkaloid poisons react with the keratin in the horn to give off tell-tale bubbles.

Five rhino species survive worldwide. The white rhino of Africa, the biggest land animal, apart from the elephant, was hunted to the brink of extinction. Only 50 remained in the wild by 1895. Thanks to a South African conservation programme, there are now about 20,000 individuals and the species is listed as “vulnerable” rather than “endangered”. However, the northern sub-species of the white rhino has the distinction of being the rarest mammal in the world. Only eight individuals survive, six of them in zoos and two at a reserve in Kenya. Africa’s other rhino, the black, is also endangered. South Africa’s population of 600 animals is the only secure one left.

All of the three Asian species are endangered. In 1904, only 200 one-horned rhinos remained in India’s northern grasslands. Kaziranga National Park, in Assam, now has 1,800 and the world population is 3,000. It’s thought that less than 300 Sumatran two-horned rhinos remain in the wild. This, the smallest of the tribe, refuses to breed in zoos.

The Javan rhino may owe its survival to the notorious eruption of Krakatoa, which devastated the Ujong Fulon peninsula in 1883, wiping out people and animals. The rhinos re-colonised the area after the disaster, but humans didn’t, and so, free from persecution, the rhinos survived. There are about 50 individuals in Ujung Kulon National Park. Rhinos are slow breeders, but four babies were born in 2006, more than in any other year. The Javan rhino was also found in Vietnam, where the American war, napalm, Agent Orange, and the casual slaughter of everything that moved were thought to have rendered the rhino extinct. However, a handful survived. There are half a dozen animals in Cat Tien National Park, 150km north of Saigon. As rhino numbers fall, the black market in poached horn has mushroomed. A kilo of horn, according to the Clare People, can fetch up to €20,000 on the black market and estimates of the value of the Shannon seizures run to half a million.

That poor people elsewhere in the world might be tempted to poach rhinos is deplorable, but understandable. That rich Irish tourists encourage their destruction is inexcusable.

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