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200 years ago over 1,000,000 rhinos roamed the earth, but by the early 1900s, most species were on the brink of extinction. European settlers in Africa hunted the White and Black rhinos for food and sport, while hunting and habitat fragmentation caused the three species of Asian rhino to decline precipitously. Luckily, mankind woke up and conservation efforts were put into place from South Africa to Nepal. In the mid-70s CITES (United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) placed a ban on the international trade in rhino horn. Yet despite these efforts, rhinos are still being slaughtered at an unsustainable rate and we may lose them all within the next ten years.

Both the Sumatran and Javan Rhino species have a population of fewer than 80 individuals and their ranges are miniscule compared to what they used to be. They are both considered critically endangered. The Greater One-Horned Rhino has seen some success due to strict protection from the Indian and Nepalese governments. They are considered vulnerable. The Black Rhino, once roamed over much of central, eastern, and southern Africa. Now, almost 98% of the total population is found in just 4 countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.

There are two subspecies of the White Rhino – the Northern and the Southern. The Northern White Rhino had ranged over parts of northwestern Uganda, southern Chad, southwestern Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This subspecies has all been poached to extinction – only two females survive in a conservancy in Kenya. The Southern White Rhino, while considered a “success story” because the population came back from fewer than 100 individuals, is still in danger of extinction. From fewer than 100 in the early 1900s, to a high of 21,300 in 2012, poaching is still killing these animals faster than they can reproduce.

Over the last 15 years, rhino poaching has developed from a relatively primitive cottage industry into an industrial scale slaughter. Millions of dollars have been spent on trying to stop the trade in rhino horn and countless organizations, conservationists and others have devoted considerable energy to stopping the relentless poaching, but the fact is that at the present rate of poaching, African rhinos may very well be extinct in 10 years time.

The current poaching crisis began in 2008 in Zimbabwe, which reached 94% unemployment that year. Desperate individulas turned to any and every resource to survive. Poaching of rhinos increased massively with 164 individuals killed that year, as most systems in place to counter poaching collapsed. It was evident that there was a market for rhino horn, so the criminals turned their attention to South Africa, which holds the majority of the world’s rhinos.

Prior to 2009, domestic trade in rhino horn was legal in South Africa. The law created a gap which opportunistic criminals flouted with ease. Vietnamese and Thai women were brought to South Africa posing as hunters and the resulting trophy horn would be exported to Vietnam. 2009 saw the ending of the legal export of trophy horn but it had opened pandora’s box. South Africa was where rhino horn existed in relative abundance. The illegal smuggling route was opened.

The main consumers of rhino horn products have largely been Eastern with the demand arc starting in Yemen and ending in China. It is the far eastern consumers, in particular the Vietnamese, who have been at the epicenter of the huge spike in the slaughter of rhinos in the last decade. Economic growth in the country since 2008 created a newly prosperous upper-middle class. This was the key to the demand side for rhino horn – the richer individual Vietnamese became, the greater the demand for horn grew. Rhino horn is considered a symbol of wealth and power and is strongly associated with success and therefore asserts one’s social status.

The infographic below shows how quickly a poached horn can move through the system.

Growing demand of an illegal product involving one of the world’s largest herbivores requires that the suppliers become more organized and have more efficient methods of killing. Enter the last piece in the puzzle explaining the massive increase in rhino poaching since 2008. High caliber guns manufactured in the Czech Republic have become the weapon of choice because they can fell a rhino with one shot. They are imported illegally through Portugal to Mozambique where they are distributed to middlemen who in turn pass them onto poachers. These high caliber guns equipped with silencers means poachers are much more efficient and harder to detect. To kill a creature of over 3,000 kg effectively and silently and to be able to hack off its horn and then disappear before any anti-poaching units arrive becomes a whole lot easier with these guns.

The language of war has become the language of poaching and like all wars it really is about winning the peace rather than the war. Over a thousand human lives have been lost in this war which has become unsustainably costly. Protecting rhinos in the wild becomes more expensive with each passing year as both poachers and anti-poaching units up the game. There are remarkable organizations across the globe dedicated to rhinos, who pour constant effort and funds into countering poaching. Ultimately the conflict can only end when the demand for rhino horn ends. Until then there literally is only the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for the long term survival of rhinos.