William Fowlds saw something at South Africa's Kariega Game Reserve this March that brought tears to the normally tough veterinarian's eyes. Fowlds found Thandi, a 9-year-old female rhinoceros, writhing in a pool of her own blood, while male rhinoceros Themba stumbled through the thicket with his last bit of strength before collapsing.
Poachers with machetes had cut off both rhinoceroses' horns, badly slashing the animals' heads in the process. The poachers themselves then disappeared under the cover of night.
"They were well organized," Fowlds says. "Finding one particular animal in a 9,000-hectare (22,000-acre) reserve is pretty much only possible from the air." He believes the rhinos' attackers were guided by spotters via radio to find their way across the savanna and carry out their bloody work. "This bears the hallmarks of a rhinoceros mafia," Fowlds says.
This type of slaughter occurs daily in Africa. In South Africa alone, 281 rhinos were killed in just the first half of 2012. The killers are always after one thing: the rhinoceroses' horns, which can be sold to markets in Asia for up to $133 (€109) per gram.
That sort of profit margin is generally only possible in drug- or sex-trafficking, so it's hardly surprising that international mobs control this trade, as well. While rhinoceros horns are stolen from natural history museums in Germany, in Kenya and South Africa, poachers hunt rhinoceroses and then transport their loot to Vietnam, Laos and China, where some believe that rhinoceros-horn powder can cure illnesses from cancer to malaria.
Searching for a Solution
In South Africa, special units formed of police, customs authorities and national park rangers work together to combat the poaching. Although there are around 21,000 rhinos here -- more than in any other country -- the increase in poaching is alarming. In 2007, these special units found 13 dead rhinos. Last year, the figure was 448.
One gang of rhinoceros-horn smugglers from South Africa and Thailand is currently on trial in South Africa after being caught trying to sneak more than 50 horns out of the country to a dealer in Laos.
But since no one believes police action alone will be enough to stop the killing, the hunt for new solutions is on. Kariega Game Reserve, for example, chose to remove all its remaining rhinos' horns after the last bloody attack. Although this makes the animals useless to poachers, the method is far from a perfect solution. "Rhinos need their horns to protect themselves from enemies and thorny underbrush," Fowlds says.
Some rhinoceros breeders want to take even more drastic action: poisoning their animals' horns. This causes the rhinos themselves no harm but is dangerous for humans, which makes the method controversial among activists.
Private rhino owners, in particular, are calling for a controlled deregulation of rhinoceros-horn powder. "If we supplied it to Vietnam and China, prices would drop, and poaching would no longer be lucrative," says Pelham Jones, head of the Private Rhino Owners Association, in South Africa.
Jones takes his example from the diamond market. Since around 50 countries began requiring a certificate attesting to the origin of each diamond, he says, it's been possible to significantly curtail the trade in "blood diamonds."
Practically speaking, Jones continues, verifying the origin of rhinoceros-horn substances would be easy. For the last two years, the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria has been assembling an extensive databank of rhinoceros DNA, which now includes thousands of samples.
An Alarming Discovery
Jones' suggestion has sparked an ideological battle among experts. "Rhinoceros owners are just looking to make a fortune with this," says Miranda Jordan of Activists for Animals Africa. "Deregulation would only increase the trade." Major animal-welfare organizations also consider the rhino-owners' plan to be motivated by self-interest.
Research conducted by Swiss conservationist Karl Ammann provides further cause for concern. Ammann purchased 20 samples of supposed rhinoceros horn from markets in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Vientiane, Laos, and then had the samples analyzed at the University of Pretoria. It was the first time that rhino-horn material being traded in Asia had come under the microscopes of South African scientists.
The scientists were shocked by what they found: Only three of the objects studied actually came from rhinos. The rest came from water buffalo, sheep and, in one case, a saiga antelope. "These results are alarming," says Cindy Harper, director of the Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of Pretoria. "They indicate that the demand for rhinoceros-horn material is much higher than we believed."
These results may also deliver a serious setback to proponents of deregulation. The amount of rhinoceros horn available even in a country as rhino-rich as South Africa is limited -- but the hunger for it seems to be insatiable.