Rhinos, Viagra and Eco-Tourism

Behold

We take special care to stand downwind of the black rhino to avoid detection by his exceptional sense of smell. The wind is smoothing over my face as I stand and stare at this most magnificent creature. He is a mix of fairy tale and monster all-in-one . . . not quite a unicorn, but also too charming to be considered the stuff of ghouls and goblins.

As I hear his breathing pattern, his thunderous chewing, his heavy-footed amble all I can hope is that my children will be able to see his children living in the wild – these animals have been on earth for 50 million years and yet we are driving them to extinction.

Horns

He has no horns. The Namibian government engaged in a dehorning project over the course of 2014 and 2015 in an effort to combat rhino poaching on their land. All in all, the government dehorned 65 rhinos and then defunded the program due to the extraordinary cost and relatively low efficacy.

Low efficacy because the horns grow back. Much like our fingernails and hair – rhino horns grow back in as little as 3 years*. Effective dehorning must be consistently administered every 18 to 24 months. More importantly, the poachers have continued to kill rhinos in spite of dehorning. Why? Even a freshly dehorned rhino has a small bit of horn remaining under the skin and connecting into the skull. The poachers’ values dictate that an inch of horn under the skin is worth the rhino’s life.

According to our guides a rhino horn can sell for about $100,000 per kilogram on the black market, and the ultimate profit made through sales to the end-consumer can be upwards of $2,000,000 per horn.

Thwarting Conservation

While we were in this vast and meditative land, we learned so much about these solitary animals and the conservation efforts carried out for their benefit. The dehorning program was just one of many different tactics used to combat rhino poaching, others include community outreach and education, partnerships with Save the Rhino Trust and similar organizations, field patrol, research and special operations.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the local villagers are using their intimate knowledge of the land, the rhinos and government conservation efforts to help poachers track the rhinos. As a person with highly idealistic views, I was appalled when I first heard this. However, our guide – who is a local villager himself, helped me understand the problem on a human level.

He presented me with the following situation: The average daily wage in Namibia is $5 a day, or approximately $2,000 a year, and unemployment rates are well above 25 percent**. A villager works hard on his farm and barely has enough money to send his child to school or to cover a medical emergency. When poachers offer him $5,000 to $10,000 to lead them to a rhino, the choice is not black and white.

The villager certainly knows that eco-tourism is better for his village and his country in the long-run. He is aware that live rhinos will bring thousands of tourists over a period of years and inject millions of dollars into his region – but he is being offered the equivalent of 3 to 5 years of wages for a day or two of work. Not only that, he knows that if he turns down the offer his neighbor certainly won’t. Only the strongest of character are able to walk away from the poacher.

The Root of the Problem

It was obvious to me that if there is a will to kill a rhino – there is a way. The government certainly hasn’t made it easy, and the NGOs are doing incredible work trying to protect these majestic animals – however, the poaching organizations have so much money at their disposal that they are able to kill rhinos for their horns. It is that simple.

Where is the solution to this torrid story? It lies in the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The supply is in sub-Saharan African countries, India, Nepal and Indonesia – but the demand is coming primarily from Vietnam, followed by China. A great part of the demand is caused by ill-informed notions that rhino horn cures cancer or, alternatively, increases sexual performance. Demand is also rising due to the fact that rhino horn has been transmuted into a status symbol for the ultra wealthy.

Disrupting the demand is the only hope for these poor creatures and the park rangers who die trying to protect them. A core component must be focused on education – informing the consuming demographic that rhino horn powder is as effective at curing cancer as biting one’s fingernails. Similarly, promoting products such as Viagra that actually achieve the purported effects of rhino horn may help the rhinos survive this unfortunate time in human history.

The Impact

As I trudge over the big, rust colored rocks covering this wild and remote part of Namibia I am filled with a deep sense of peace. Not only because I have been infiltrated by the slow paced chewing of the rhino who now stands behind me, but because I know my leisure activity of coming to see him may very well be the difference in his survival – as an individual and a species. A portion of my lodging rate goes directly to support the Save the Rhino Trust team that is stationed in this part of Namibia. More importantly, every time the villagers see me or other eco-tourists they cannot help but be inspired to save the rhino!

 

*Our fingernails and hair, and rhino horns are all made of the same material – keratin.

**All currency values have been converted into U.S. dollars for ease of reference.

 

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