Apocalypse Rhinoceros

ROBIN MOORE/National Geographic Creative

Rhino poaching is at an all-time high, but will legalizing the horn trade stop the slaughter or seal the species’ fate?

It is a sound you never forget. Perhaps because it is so unexpected in an animal weighing two tons: a piercing, unearthly keen, like a child crying out in pain. It is hard to describe and even harder to endure.

The first time I heard it, I was in a cramped office staring at a computer screen while trawling through thousands of photographs and a handful of home videos that had been made by a key figure in an international rhino horn smuggling syndicate. It was a unique record, not only for the rare insight it gave into a shadowy criminal underworld but also for the horrors it revealed.

Some of the video clips had been shot on cell phones and were mercifully brief. One showed a rhino carcass being butchered; you could hear men laughing as they removed the horns. But there was another clip that was far longer and filmed in high-definition. It trailed a group of men: two heavyset Afrikaners carrying rifles, a tracker and at least two Thai men. For 20 minutes they walked, boots scrunching on dry African soil and parched scrub. Then they spotted what they had come for. In the shade of a tree lay the hulking shape of a white rhino. It appeared to be dozing.

There was a sharp crack as a rifle shot rang out. A few seconds of silence followed as the rhino struggled to its feet, confused and disoriented. The sound was muted at first; an almost indiscernible mewling that rose steadily in pitch. Blinded by fear and pain, the animal turned full circle, then charged headlong through the bush. More shots rang out and puffs of rust-red dust erupted from its hide as the bullets tore into it. The desperate cries continued until it fell, its last ragged breaths caught on camera as its killers stood over it.

One of them, Chumlong Lemtongthai, is currently serving a 40-year sentence in a South African prison. His boss, a Laotian citizen nicknamed the “Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking,” remains at large.

It’s early September 2013. So far this year close to 600 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa. The bulk of them—about 345—have been slaughtered in Kruger National Park. Situated on the country’s lawless border with Mozambique, it is larger than Israel. It is also the front line in an increasingly desperate war.

The killing is relentless. Every year since 2008 a grim new poaching record has been set. Eighty-three rhinos were killed that year, 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010, 448 in 2011 and 668 in 2012. At least 800 will die at the hands of poachers this year. Perhaps as many as 1,000. It seems inevitable.

“The problem with rhinos,” a wildlife filmmaker said to me recently, “is that they just stand around. They don’t do anything. Rhinos don’t sell.” He was bemoaning the fact that major wildlife television networks are reluctant to commission films about the rhino poaching crisis.

Rhinos have an image problem. Unlike elephants, they are not regarded as particularly charismatic animals. But over the past three years, while investigating the black-market trade in rhino horn, I’ve grown oddly attached to them. There is something primeval and magical about these lumbering giants of the bush. Despite their bulk, they can be as nimble-footed as ballet dancers. Just watch one of them run.

A few years ago, in a boma in southern Zimbabwe, I watched as a young calf who had lost her mother to poachers slurped down a gallon of milk formula, and then another, her eyes rolling back with pleasure. Her eyelashes were thick and long. After she had been fed, I reached out to touch her skin; it was my first encounter. I was surprised by its softness, and I scratched her under her chin. She tilted her head back like a cat, then took my hand in her mouth and suckled on it.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that rhinos are being killed for the very body part that evolved to offer them a means of defense. On the black markets of Southeast Asia and China, rhino horn is worth more per pound—selling for as much as $30,000—than gold or cocaine. Vietnam emerged as demand ground zero in 2006. Over the past 40 years, resurgent Asian markets for rhino horn have usually followed pockets of new prosperity. With a population of 92 million, Vietnam is the world’s 14th-largest nation and has, until recently, been one of the fastest-rising economic dragons of Southeast Asia. New wealth has unleashed an appetite for luxury products, and the use of rhino horn, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, is “another aspect of indulgent, status-conscious consumption.” There the horn has become a status symbol, a “party drug” for the wealthy (ground into rice wine, it has been described as the “alcoholic drink of millionaires”) and a panacea for the very sick. And yet it offers zero scientific or medical benefits. Its value is artificial, founded on myth and propagated by greed.

For close to 20 years, my work as a journalist has led me to focus on people. I’ve written about crime, politics and corruption, war, atrocities and famine. There was a time when I thought I’d seen it all, when I arrogantly believed that nothing could shock or surprise me. Until this.

Official estimates suggest the tipping point—the critical juncture when the number of rhinos being killed by poachers exceeds the number being born—will be reached in 2015. On the front lines, people are dying. Park rangers have lost their lives. Dozens of poachers have been killed. More than 800 poachers have been arrested since 2008. A fraction have been successfully prosecuted. The war—as it is currently being fought—is being lost.

South Africa is pushing hard for the international ban on trade in rhino horn to be lifted. It believes that by meeting the demand, it will slow and eventually stop the killing. It is a desperate gamble, and nobody knows if it will succeed. “Our rhinos are being killed every day,” the country’s environment minister, Edna Molewa, told me earlier this year. “The reality is that we have done all in our powers...and doing the same thing every day isn’t working.”

The trade debate, unsurprisingly, is extraordinarily contentious. Allan Thornton, president of Environmental Investigation Agency—an NGO that has been probing environmental crime for 30 years—argues that talk of legalization “is further legitimizing [claims to the medical effects] and commercializing demand for rhino horn products. It seems to me that the syndicates in Vietnam are popping the Champagne corks...because they will be the ones that mainly benefit from legalized rhino horn trade,” he says. Environmentalists point to the catastrophic consequences of one-off auctions of ivory from African elephants to Japan and China; today elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks on an unprecedented scale.

South Africa’s vocal pro-trade lobby argues that the comparison is fallacious. If spared untimely death by poachers, says conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, “the natural mortality rate of rhinos in Africa alone yields as much horn as has been poached to supply the market in recent years.” Furthermore, unlike elephants, rhinos do not have to be killed for their horns, which regrow when cut off and can be “harvested” every few years. In China, under the guise of “scientific ” at least one pharmaceutical company is experimenting with finding ways to harvest horns, which grow up to three inches a year, quickly and efficiently. It has established a breeding farm where rhinos’ horns are “shaved” with what is described as “self-suction, living rhinoceros horn-scraping tool.”

What form South Africa’s trade proposal will take remains to be seen. There is talk of a one-off sale of the 38,000 pounds of rhino horn in government and private stockpiles, which is estimated to be worth about $1 billion at current black-market prices. There are also suggestions of regulated trade through a central selling organization, similar to the diamond trade. But concerns abound, and for now there are far more questions than there are answers: How big is the market for rhino horn, really? Will South Africa be able to meet the voracious demand? How will trade be regulated, given the high levels of corruption in South Africa, Vietnam and China? What of the crime syndicates that currently have the monopoly on trade? They won’t give up easily.

The next meeting of the 178 countries that are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is charged with deciding if the trade ban can be lifted, is in 2016. But by then, the tipping point will have been reached and the slide will have begun. South Africa says trade is merely one of a “cocktail” of solutions it is considering, but little is ever heard about any of the others. International law enforcement remains as ineffectual as ever. Diplomatic efforts result in agreements and treaties that gather dust. Who will come to the rhino’s aid?

Those gruesome, dying screams I heard in my office have stayed with me. A relic of a long-dead past, rhinos predate us by 50 million years. At this rate, they won’t survive us. This is the rhino’s last stand.

Julian Rademeyer is based in South Africa. His book Killing for Profit (Zebra Press), published in January 2013, is the definitive, can’t-put-down account of the illegal rhino trade; killingforprofit.com.