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Time to safeguard the rhinos

Forest officials inspect the place where a rhino carcass was found. File picture

The year 2012 had been unkind to the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). Not only had poachers killed a record 21 rhinos, high floods in habitats such as Kaziranga led to the death of another score or so. Unfortunately, despite the clamour raised by environmentalists and animal lovers, this year forebodes to be no kinder. Within a month into 2013, and we have already had three deaths caused by poaching. Two of the animals, which had strayed out of the Orang and Kaziranga national parks, were targeted and killed and their horns removed.

The third killing was of a rhino which had been translocated to Manas National Park. This has served as a setback to the translocation project being undertaken under the Indian Rhino Vision (IRV) 2020 programme, and has made a major player in the rhino-conservation endeavour, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), warn that unless rectification measures were taken, the IRV programme might not achieve its intended target.

The great Indian one-horned rhino, which once had a home range across the whole of northern and eastern India and Nepal, from what is now Pakistan as far as Peshawar in the west and Assam in the east, had been, of course, historically a favourite target of big-game hunters. The fifth pillar edict of Ashoka the Great in the 3rd century BC, enumerating the animals that needed to be protected, mentions the Indian rhino, indicating that hunting of this species by human beings had already commenced. As early as in 1398, Timur Beg hunted rhinos at the Kashmir frontier; in 1519, Babur hunted rhinos in Peshawar and in his memoirs he describes how he killed three rhinos on a hunt accompanied by his son Humayun.

Abul Fazl records that the Indian rhino was present in the Sambal Sarkar of Delhi during the reign of Akbar. There are numerous references right to the 18th century of rhino-hunting in the subcontinent, with one Rana of Nepal being credited with 97 rhino-kills in a single month! In Assam, rhino hide was being used to make shields for soldiers, while later, European tea planters killed them by the dozen, camping around the river Mora Difloo and routinely shooting “two or three rhinoceroses before breakfast”.

The absence of historical references points to the gradual elimination of the Indian rhino from the Indo-Gangetic plains by the 18th century, hunting and habitat loss being the primary causes. By the beginning of the 20th century, the remnants of rhino population had been wiped out from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but in Bengal, rhino presence was strong well into the 20th century, so much so that shrinking loss of habitat brought them into conflict with villagers. Believe it or not, the government, holding the animal responsible for damage to paddy, offered Rs 20 per head for its destruction!

Today, an animal that had once roamed in thousands across a huge segment of the subcontinent survives precariously in a few pockets in Assam, West Bengal and Nepal, its number hovering around the 3,000 mark. Sadly, despite its endangered status, the persecution of the animal at the hands of man continues, the difference being that in earlier time it was hunted for pleasure, now for hard cash. It is this lucrative element associated with its horn which makes safeguarding the Rhinoceros unicornis so difficult a job and remains the sole reason why the animal continues to be killed in these “enlightened” times.

The primary use of this horn is as an essential ingredient in a powdered form in Chinese pharmacopoeia, both for its presumed “medicinal” value and also as an aphrodisiac. Medicines containing rhino horn are sold all over Southeast Asia mainly among migrant Chinese communities, for a wide variety of ailments. In Southeast Asian countries, the demand for the rhino horn is in proportion to the size of the ethnic Chinese population. If we look at the economics of demand and supply, we can delve into the root cause as to why the animal continues to be slaughtered.

It is interesting to note that legal trade in horns collected from rhinos which had died of natural causes had been permitted till the early 1970s, which had made poaching almost redundant and kept prices down. But once the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) was framed in Washington on March 3, 1973, legal trade in the commodity completely stopped. Till the 1970s, Singapore was the main centre for legal trade in horn, but all that changed after it adopted CITES. With the sale of legally obtained horns drying up, a black market for illegally obtained horns through poaching sprang up in countries such as Taiwan and trade centres such as Macao.

Also, the price of a rhino horn touched unimaginable heights. When its sale was legal, the price fetched in the Calcutta market was around £150-200 per horn, and at the Guwahati sales the price secured was about Rs 65,000 a kg. But, after CITES, the price rose till it touched around $40,000 a kg in the international market at illicit trade centres such as Taipei. Prices have fluctuated in accordance with the demand and so have cases of poaching. For instance, between 1965-1971, when CITES had not come into being, there were 63 cases of rhino poaching in Kaziranga, but in the post-CITES period, between 1983 and 1989, the number of poaching cases in Kaziranga shot up to 235.

Similarly, when China signed CITES and enforced a ban on rhino-horn products in the mainland, price of the horn of the Indian rhino witnessed a drop, though demand continued in the migrant Chinese communities of Southeast Asia. But recently, as reported in sources such as National Geographic, a rumour sprang up in Vietnam that rhino horn had cured a minister from cancer which jacked up prices to a fantastic sum of $60,000 per kg or twice the value of gold and even more than the street value of cocaine.

Continued usage in migrant Chinese pockets resulting in continued demand and escalating prices lie at the core of the problem of rhino poaching. The exorbitantly high prices the rhino-horn commands ensure that poachers will not hesitate to put their lives at stake, though at the field level they are paid a pittance compared to what the middlemen and end-level players get. Little wonder that in South Africa, crime syndicates have entered the poaching business, while in India it has been taken over by insurgents.

This also means that no matter what protective measures to safeguard the Rhinoceros unicornis are taken, the species will always be open to the danger of being poached upon, as long as the demand remains. Thus a concerted effort has to be made to lessen the demand among end-users even as more effective measures are taken to protect the animal.

By now we know that conservation agencies have carried out chemical analysis of the rhino horn in laboratory conditions and uncovered the truth that it is nothing but a compact mass of agglutinated hair and contains no aphrodisiac component. Laboratory analysis has confirmed that it is formed of keratin tissues (a fibrous protein, the chief constituent of hair), is totally inert, has no biochemical or hormonal properties, and possesses no medicinal value whatsoever.

In other words, one might as well eat one’s own hair for all the good that it would do! This truth needs to be driven home among the end-users if poaching of this unfortunate creature is ever to end. Since the end-users of the horn of the Indian rhino are primarily migrant Chinese pockets in various countries, the endeavour will have to be an international one and involve international conservation agencies under the aegis of the United Nations. Only when the end-users are convinced of the stupidity of using a commodity which has no medicinal value will the Rhinoceros unicornis be truly safe.


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