Sounding The Horn

Writer Sean Lee-Davies | July 2, 2013

Sean Lee-Davies ventures out on safari in the world-famous Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa, to visit rhinos in their natural habitat and under siege.

Rhinoceroses have been roaming the earth for nearly 50 million years. The two species of rhino that we are most familiar with, the black and white rhino, have been around for four million years. These herbivores, great symbols of African wildlife, can live up to 50 years and grow up to one tonne, and yet their survival now hangs in the balance.

This is not the first time that rhinos have been driven to near extinction. Once common throughout Africa, rhinos were almost exterminated during the 17th century by European settlers. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the white rhinoceros was reduced to only one population of 50 to 100 animals. The black rhino didn’t do much better and had been shot to extinction in the Cape by 1880. By 1930, the total population was down to around 180 animals and the last black rhino in the Kruger National Park was recorded in 1936.

Through the efforts of visionary individuals, politicians were convinced to protect the animals and proclaimed the first game reserve in South Africa in 1897. The creation of these reserves, coupled with the advances in technology, drugs and capture techniques, led to both species of rhino being saved from extinction, at the last minute. By 1990, almost 3,500 white and 180 black rhinos had been bred and translocated out of the nucleus of rhinos from natal reserves to form new populations both in Southern Africa and abroad.

But since 2007, poaching has reared its ugly head. In 2012, 668 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa. That is up from 13 in 2007, representing an astonishing 50-fold increase. And another record slaughter is predicted for 2013. At the current rate of poaching – on average, two to three rhinos are being killed in South Africa every day – rhinos will be extinct in 20 years.

Why? Rhino horns are worth more than their weight in gold. According to the latest estimates, an adult rhino’s two horns can fetch up to US$70,000 per kg on the black market in China, Vietnam and South East Asia as the horn powder is believed to cure all kinds of ailments, such as cancer and fevers, and is supposed to act as an aphrodisiac.

Rhinos are characterised by their relatively solitary behaviour and can also be quite cantankerous creatures