A (t)horny issue

APRIL 4 — The world mourns the tragedy that befell Vince, a White Rhinoceros belonging to Thoiry Zoo in western Paris. Poachers somehow managed to break into the zoo, shoot the poor rhino three times and proceeded to cut off its larger horn with a chainsaw. Its second horn and the other two rhinos in the zoo were spared.

It baffles me that such an event could occur within the confines of a zoo. A zoo that had security cameras and five members of staff living on site, at that. How the perpetrators managed to enter undetected, carry out what must have been a noisy affair and evade capture until today is perplexing!

Zoos are supposed to be safe havens for animals: well-equipped with sophisticated surveillance and state of the art facilities installed to prevent such an occurrence.

In the bigger picture, rhinos already face extinction in the wild from an array of factors that includes poaching. Are you now telling us that zoos are not a safe place for them either? Following this, what then are the chances of rhino populations surviving into the next century?

Expensive commodity

The spike in rhino horn trade is a relatively recent event. Although several countries in the Middle East have traditionally used rhino horn to make daggers and Chinese medicine (TCM) has been prescribing rhino horn for centuries, a large percentage of the contemporary demand comes from Vietnam.

This demand is attributed to the myth that rhino horn shavings can cure cancer, hangovers and is an aphrodisiac. Claims that have since been refuted by scientific studies of course.

It is, however, fascinating that such claims have also led to the inflation of rhino horn prices due to their perceived value and apparent rarity. Ironically, the horn itself is made from keratin — found in our hair and nails. Yet, it is sold for US$60,000 (RM265,649) per kilogramme — almost twice its weight in gold and even more expensive than cocaine!

The rise of Vietnam as an economic powerhouse in South-east Asia has further fuelled this trade since more people are able to afford this commodity. It is perhaps apt for conservationists to call rhino horn “the world’s most expensive placebo.”

Additionally, because it is not easily obtainable, rhino horns are used as status symbols. Dignitaries and collectors want a rhino horn not necessarily because they believe in the purported medicinal value but as a showcase of power and influence. The whole “if I can get a body part of a protected animal that is critically endangered from an exotic country, imagine what I can do for you and your business?” mentality.

With the demand exceeding supply, rhinos are in a lot of trouble. We can see this by examining rhino poaching statistics. Between 2013 and 2015, South Africa lost 3,394 rhinos. This is as opposed to 218 between 2007 and 2009, more than a thousand-fold increase!

Dramatic response

It is established that rhino horn poaching in the wild is not something new. Even auction houses and museums are targeted by more creative thieves. However, given that it is unprecedented to poach a zoo rhino, it is only natural that other facilities around the world panic.

As a direct response, a Czech zoo announced that they would be dehorning all their 18 rhinos. The action might sound barbaric but I opine that it might not be the worst one in our efforts to save the species. After all, we are removing the appendage that is causing their worldwide decline. This process has quickly raised more questions than provided answers.

Critics are quick to rebut this idea since biologists are still unsure about the behavioural repercussions following dehorning. In the wild, rhinos use their horn for various activities from defending their territory to digging for water; activities which are not necessarily exhibited by zoo animals. The effect of dehorning on zoo rhinos has yet to be studied.

Additionally, there are concerns about the fate of the removed horns. They are still worth a fortune in the market. What if they fall into the wrong hands? Can this be a way to fund a cash-strapped zoo in the future? 

Since zoos rely on steady stream of visitors, could dehorningrepel people from the rhino exhibit? This is since dehornedrhinos do not match the form seen on documentaries or in wildlife guides. Is a dehorned rhino in a zoo less of a rhino?

These debates do not alter the fact that the dehorning of rhinos has been quite successful in deterring poaching of wild populations in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. That being said, Savetherhino.org stresses that this measure must be carried alongside greater security and anti-poaching methods. 

Dehorning removes about 95 per cent of the horn but the residual stub still is worth a lot of money and can potentially justify the poaching risk for many.

Still a rhino

In my opinion, what dehorning represents is the willingness to take unconventional methods of conservation seriously. When tried and tested methods like protected areas, awareness programs and captive breeding do not yield expected results, society must be open to more drastic measures such as this.

This phenomenon within zoos is perhaps something that can be further researched.

I agree that the rhino is not be the same majestic animal without its horn. But at least it is still a rhino, even better: an alive rhino!One day when the world decides to change its mind about the rhino horn, dehorned rhinos will still have the genetic capacity to produce a horned one. Until then, we must do everything we can to prevent its extinction.

*This is personal opinion of the columnist.