Posts Tagged With: history

The History of Rhino Poaching

To think an animal’s body part is worth its weight in gold is mind-blowing to say the least. So how did this lucrative practice begin? Who decided a rhinoceros horn is the key to solving all ailments?

17th century rhino horn cups

17th century Chinese cups carved from rhino horn

In Greek mythology, rhino horns were said to possess the ability to purify water. The Persians from the 5th century BC used carved vessels from horn to detect poisoned liquids. This belief stuck and existed well into the 18th and 19th centuries among European royalty.

Between  100 BC and 200 AD during the Ming and Ching dynasties, the Chinese thought the same. They used the horn in carvings of plates, bowls and cups. The cups being especially prized to detect alkaloid poisoning, something that was treacherously common at the time.


Traditional Yemen dagger

Reports of Yemens’ use of the horn dates back to the 8th century. Although their fondness of horn is preferred in decorative use as opposed to medicinal. It is fashioned into ceremonial dagger handles known as jambiyas . This is a status symbol for young men. It epitomizes manhood. The quality of the horn was important because it possesses a translucent quality, that only improves with age.

The use of the horn for medicinal purposes was recorded as early as 1597, in the Chinese “Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu”.  In it there are mentions such as “the best horn is from a freshly killed male” and “pregnant women should not take horn as it will kill the foetus”. It also lists the many uses of horn ranging from stopping nightmares and curing possessions to curing headaches and dissolving phlegm.

rhino horn medicine

Chinese “medicine” made from horn

In earlier time it was not just the horn, but also blood, and urine used for medicine. This was a commonality of the Chinese, Burmese, Thai, and Nepalis.

In the early 1980s, it was even used as an aphrodisiac by the people of India. This myth probably stems from the fact that breeding pairs stay together for two to three days, and sometimes even weeks. Mating takes place several times a day and lasts for an hour or more at a time.

rhinos mating 2The earliest reports of horn trade (in addition to tortoise shell and ivory) were reported as leaving ancient East Africa for Arabia in 50 AD.

Throughout the history of trade, various countries have been involved: Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Yemen, China, Hong Kong, Sumatra, Singapore, Thailand, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa are the most prominent. Various efforts have been made in these countries to legalize and/or ban the trade as well.

What is the most interesting point in the history of the horn trade is that during times horn could be legally traded, illegal trade still flourished.

Thirty species of rhino once roamed the planet. Now  thousands of years later, there remain just five. Human greed, consumption and ignorance have cost the rhino. They are teetering on the brink of extinction. Will history teach us nothing?

rhino cave painting

Chauvet cave, France- rhino cave painting dating back 30,000 BP (before present time recordings).

Information obtained from TRAFFIC and Richard Ellis: Poaching for Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Possibility of Success in Rhino Conservation

White Rhino, Photographed in the Kruger National Park South Africa

White rhino crash by Etienne Osthuizen

The Southern White Rhinos

Just over a hundred years ago the southern white rhinos were on the verge of complete extinction, with less than 20 rhinos remaining. Hunting by Dutch and English settlers had taken a devastating toll.

In 1895, the area of these rhinos, which is now Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa, officially became a protected zone. After rebounding slightly, by the mid 20th century additional measures were taken.

Operation Rhino: The operation was headed by Dr. Ian Player. Breeding groups of rhino were captured and relocated. They were moved to Kruger National Park, private reserves, and even zoos. The goal was to reestablish viable populations. It worked.

By 1960 there were 650 southern white rhinos, by 2010 there were 18,800. Today’s current population estimates are at 20,000.

white rhino population growth graph


Ian Player INLSA

Ian Player (INSLA)

As a game warden, Dr. Player worked tirelessly to relocate rhinos.  Among his many accomplishments, he established a successful anti-poaching network in South African game reserves which resulted in an impressive reduction in poaching. His efforts were the root of the success for today’s ecotourism in South Africa.

Rhino Today

Kruger National Park appears to be attempting the same strategy for the black and white rhinos today. Relocation of rhinos to private reserves, and neighboring countries seems a logical, albeit costly and difficult maneuver.

It is a daily saga that leaves us angry, heartbroken, but always hopeful.

What Has History Taught Us?

1.There will always be hunters, poachers and greedy, short-sighted men.

2. There are not enough Ian Players in the world, but in the right time and place they surface to achieve insurmountable things. They are here to teach us. By this teaching, we know it IS possible to save the rhino. 

So ultimately it is up to us. The poachers will not go away, but neither will the people who want to protect wildlife. Their future is undoubtedly in our hands. For those of us trying right the ship, Ian Player’s spirit is is alive in us and together we have more than a fighting chance at saving our rhinos.

White Rhino, Photographed in the Kruger National Park South Africa

    “Conservation is not a plaything, or a luxury, or something new. It is survival” -Dr. Ian Player








Categories: Rhino Ramblings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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