Close Encounters

Mfalme, a 35-year-old southern white rhino, bears a name that aptly translates to “king” in Swahili. With his towering build and impressive horn, he exudes a commanding presence that captures our attention effortlessly. Despite his poor eyesight, his keen sense of smell and inquisitive nature drives him closer to our vehicle, compensating for his visual impairment. Little else can divert our gaze from this magnificent creature at this moment.

Mfalme, a southern white rhino in Solio Game Reserve. © Chags Photography by Amish Chhagan

Mfalme resides in a highly secure and private sanctuary in the Central Province of Kenya. Spanning over 20,000 acres, this reserve is home to hundreds of black and white rhinos, with whom he shares his habitat. Solio Game Reserve, established in 1970, stands as one of the earliest privately-owned rhino sanctuaries, and it boasts the world’s most extensive population of rhinos within a single conservancy. Remarkably, this population continues to thrive and expand with time.

(Existential) The threat of the Unicorn

Unfortunately, the broader story is not so pretty. Based on the current and official poaching statistics, it is estimated that at least one to two rhinos are killed every day in Africa.

The audience of this piece is likely well-informed about the primary threat that rhinos face: poaching. This danger has been extensively documented through various channels, including investigative journalism, reporting, and research conducted by conservation organisations and selected media outlets. Renowned conservation photographers and videographers have also captured visual accounts of the issue, often depicting the horrific nature of the act. Though difficult to watch, these visual exposés are crucial for raising awareness about the severity of the problem. A simple search on Google regarding rhino poaching yields over two million results, illustrating this issue’s widespread attention.

Despite this, poaching remains the number one existential threat to rhinos. Why? In short, the reason is that the demand for rhino horn in the black market is enormous and remains a highly lucrative trade.

Although rhino poaching in Africa had decreased since its peak in 2014/15, when nearly 1,400 rhinos were poached, the numbers remain high. In 2019, an estimated 600 rhinos were poached – still an incredibly significant number. It is worth noting that these are officially reported figures; some countries do not release these statistics; hence the figure is likely to be much higher. About 90% of all rhino poaching occurs in South Africa, as the country boasts the world’s highest rhino population. It also borders Mozambique, a major trading hub where much of the rhino horn is smuggled to its final destination in East Asia.

The black-market commercial value of rhino horn is a delicate topic as there are mixed opinions regarding publicising the value to avoid enticing new market entrants, amongst other reasons. Others suggest that the focus should not be on the value of the horns but on addressing the overarching cause, which in my opinion, is true. 

Despite the controversy surrounding the commercial value of rhino horns, we humans are more likely to take action if we have a basic understanding of the problem’s magnitude. To provide some context, the current value of rhino horn by weight is more valuable than gold, platinum, or cocaine. Grasping the horn’s worth can help us comprehend the potential market size. With some high-level assumptions, the estimated annual value of this illicit trade on the black market is around US$200 million. However, this figure is likely underestimated, and the actual value could be twice that amount.

Put mildly, if this were a legitimate legal corporation, it would be a highly profitable billion–dollar unicorn. This is why poaching remains the number one existential threat to rhinos.

Five Species of Rhino Exist (today)

Unbeknownst to many, there currently exist five species of rhinoceros. However, this number may soon change due to the critical endangerment of two species: the Sumatran and Javan rhinos, primarily found in Indonesia. Meanwhile, the greater one-horned rhino can be found in India and Nepal, and the black and white rhinos are native to Eastern and Southern Africa.

The Black rhino is characterised by having more aggressive behaviour and is currently classified as critically endangered, with only around 6,000 individuals remaining. The White rhino is the second-largest land mammal (after the African elephant) and is the most populous among all rhino species, with an estimated population of 16,000 (down from around 18,000 in 2017), and is considered near threatened by the IUCN. Approximately 80% of the global population of black and white rhinos reside in various national parks in South Africa.

Whilst the Southern White Rhino is the more prevalent sub-species, the Northern White Rhino is critically endangered and considered extinct in the wild. Only two individuals remain, both female and residing in a protected sanctuary in Ol Pejeta in Kenya. In 2009, they were imported from a zoo in the Czech Republic to participate in a natural breeding program. The efforts have yielded positive results, as a consortium of scientists and conservationists known as BioRescue has created several viable Northern White Rhino embryos.

The Rhino Horn Mafia

East Asia, particularly Vietnam, is the primary market for highly-prized rhino horns. These horns are distributed locally within the region and to China, which is known to have the highest demand for rhino horns and ivory. This demand has been increasing in recent years, partly due to growing populations and the emergence of a burgeoning middle class. The Level 5 Wholesale Traders serve as intermediaries between storage facilities and the underground retail market. Various products are produced between them and the Level 6 Retailers to serve the high market demand in Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. They are sold to everyone from powerful kingpins, tycoons, government officials, diplomats, and, in recent years, the emerging middle class.

Status Games: Rolex or Rhino Horn Powder? 

Re-affirmed by old beliefs and a growing middle class across East Asia, the ever-growing rhino horn market has created a varied product offering. In Chinese medicine, it is considered a miracle “drug” with versatile properties – everything from treating fevers, hangovers, and various forms of cancers, to a Viagra alternative and even a potential cure for COVID-19. It is crucial to establish that no evidence suggests any of these treatments work. A rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin, a protein humans produce naturally in our hair, nails and skin. This alone should dispel the belief that there are any medical benefits from rhino horn or, at the very least, encourage people to seek alternative sources for the active ingredient. Unfortunately, the deep-rooted beliefs and traditions surrounding the use of rhino horn have proven difficult to overcome, and scientific evidence and common sense have been unable to erode the foundation of this long-standing practice.

The Rhino horn is also valued as an ultimate status symbol in many East Asian cultures. Owning rhino horn allows the affluent to display and mark their status, influence, and power within a hierarchical society. Just as many in the West might show their wealth with luxury watches or expensive sports cars, some view owning rhino horn or ivory as the ultimate status symbol in certain East Asian cultures. These items are often fashioned into decorative objects such as beads, bracelets, rings, or carved ornaments, among others.

Top Level Accountability

It is important to recognise that each participant within the value chain plays a vital role in facilitating this illicit trade. While local rangers and conservation organisations play a significant role on the ground, their efforts alone will not stop the trade in rhino horn. Addressing the entire organised crime syndicate will, however, make a difference. While we must do what we can to protect the species from poachers and their informants, we must also recognise the source of the demand for rhino horn. Ultimately it is these organised crime syndicates that finance entire operations. Therefore, it is crucial to tackle the issue at its source.

Stopping poaching, educating local communities, and challenging long-held beliefs are essential to combating the rhino horn trade. However, the most significant players with the power to disrupt this value chain are the government in Africa and East Asia. Governments must take a more active role in addressing the issue and implementing stricter regulations and penalties. The current systems need to be more effective at curbing this illicit trade. Only through collaborative efforts between governments, conservation organisations, and local communities can we hope to protect these magnificent creatures from extinction.

A Bright Spot: Solio Ranch

Originally a cattle ranch, Solio Game Reserve was formed as part of a conservation effort initiated by The Parfet Family’s owners. They apportioned a considerable amount of the land for conservation and the breeding of rhinos, particularly the threatened black rhino. The ranch was the first of its kind in Africa and was created in response to the alarming increase in rhino poaching in Kenya, which posed a severe threat to the survival of the species in the country. Black rhino populations in Kenya dropped from around 18,000 in the late 1960s to less than 1,500 by 1980 and to about 400 in 1990. In the 1970s, The Kenyan Government, in collaboration with the Kenyan Armed Forces and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), helped safeguard the sanctuary.

Although black rhino populations in Kenya rapidly declined in the late 20th century, the Solio Game Reserve was successfully and quietly breeding black and white rhinos. As the population grew, the conservancy had to be expanded in the mid-1980s to prevent overpopulation. Eventually, Solio Game Reserve became a primary breeding ground, supplying national parks nationwide, including Lewa, Lake Nakuru National Park and Ol Pejeta, and helping restock Southern and East African populations. One can trace most black rhinos in Eastern Africa back to Solio Game Reserve; this is called impact.

Despite its success, The Solio Game Reserve has also faced significant challenges. The early 2000s saw a rapid spike in poaching, mainly targeting Solio Game Reserve. To counter this, additional private anti-poaching security and Kenyan Armed Forces and KWS were brought in to help curb the sudden spike. In 2005, a photographic database was created to track and monitor all the rhinos living on the reserve. These efforts provided long-term monitoring programs and made it nearly impossible for poachers to breach.

Solio Game Reserve plays a central role in rehabilitating the species in East Africa, boasting the most successful private rhino breeding reserve in the world, which helps to facilitate the reintroduction of rhinos all over Africa.

“No one in the world needs a Rhino horn but a Rhino.”

Paul Oxton

This a fitting quote for what has been an emotionally difficult article to research and write, for the most part. While some arguments may be disheartening, some shining examples and places in parts of Africa are creating an impact and making a real difference – Solio Game Reserve is one such example. We may feel helpless, but by reading this article, you have already contributed to the cause – knowledge and awareness about the issue are crucial in taking the first steps toward making a difference.

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