The Deadly Rhino Horn Trade

Photographs and Text by Brent Stirton

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This photoessay examines the environmental crisis caused by a thriving market for rhino horn, driven largely by Asia’s appetite for the substance. The horn, part of folk medicine traditions in several Asian countries, is today seen as a cure for everything from cancer to kidney stones. The horn is essentially keratin, a mild alkaline substance identical to fingernails, and is ground down in grinding bowls and mixed with water. This is then ingested by the sick and the wealthy of Vietnam and China, the imbiber hoping for miracle cures, when in fact science shows us it has a placebo effect at best. The use of horn dates back over 2000 years but the recent economic rise of countries like China and Vietnam – and the subsequent wealth of the new upper class – has had disastrous effects on the world’s remaining rhino population. Rhino horn is now worth more than gold and the poaching crisis is a direct consequence of that rising value. This crisis is unfolding in the most corruptly managed wildlife systems with some of the poorest poachers, as well as rhino ranchers who, seeing millions of dollars in potential sales, push to legalize the trade. South Africa, the main repository of the world’s remaining rhino, has an estimated 20,000 rhinos and lost an estimated 1600 in 2016 – a figure that has risen every year since 2006, when less than 20 animals were killed for their horns

This essay takes us along the Mozambique/South African border, where daily incursions by armed poachers has resulted in a war in Kruger National Park, the largest reserve for rhino in the world. We see the poachers with silenced weapons, the middle men arrested in sting operations by Mozambican authorities, and the few rhino who dare to venture into Mozambique, protected by a tiny NGO who is the only effective organization in the country. The average life expectancy for a Kruger rhino in Mozambique is 24 hours, a country where the native rhino population was recently declared extinct. The essay goes on to show widows who have lost husbands and sons in this fight, rangers who have been tempted by the huge profits to be made, and poachers showcasing their new wealth with lavish homes in the poorest area of one the world’s poorest countries. We also meet local village police swimming against the tide as they try to defend rhino from their own neighbors, a very dangerous activity in rural Mozambique.

In South Africa, we visit with the world’s largest private rhino owner, John Hume, a man spending over $200,000 a month on security alone for the 1500 plus rhino he owns. Hume is gambling on legalization of the international rhino horn trade. If that happens, he is sitting on over $50 million of horn. We see the dehorning process and what is required to secure these horns and Hume’s property on a daily basis.
The photo essay also shows us the man behind one of the strongest pushes for legalization, Dawie Groenewald. He is a convicted criminal, both in South Africa and the USA. He is currently facing hundreds of charges for killing over 40 rhino on his property under suspicious circumstances. Despite all this, he continues to operate.

All around, South Africa rhino owners are struggling to provide security for their animals. The price is too high and as a result many are selling their rhino cheaply and those rhino are being transported to more secure facilities secreted around the country. This essay reveals the process.

The photographs move on to show forensic teams investigating poaching incidents in Kruger National Park and Kwazulu Natal, the new hotspot for rhino poaching. These teams are overworked, underpaid and exhausted. The job is increasingly dangerous and politicized, painted as a “white issue” in South Africa and often framed in apartheid terminology, a convenient methodology for poachers and their enablers.
From South Africa this essay goes to Namibia where we see inside the horn stockpiles the Namibian government would like to sell on the open market. CITES recently voted against the legal sale of rhino horn but powerful lobbies in Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland continue to push to legalize. There are powerful arguments on both sides but what remains clear is the lack of a functional central authority to police this potential trade.

The consequences of the poaching crisis are most starkly illustrated in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, home of the last three surviving Northern White Rhino, doomed to extinction and the focus of some determined DNA extraction for potential cloning at a future date. The essay shows these final few rhino and the rangers whose lives are devoted to their safety. The photography then moves on to San Diego Zoo where rhino have been imported from South Africa for an advanced in-vitro fertilization program, a potential precursor for rebuilding lost rhino species in the future. Finally, the essay ends on the streets in Vietnam, the number one country for illegal rhino horn. Here we see people using the horn in grinding bowls, seemingly unaware of the chaos and controversy their appetites are causing on the other side of the world.

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See Brent's previous coverage of rhino poaching here.