For the past six years, rhinos have been increasingly under siege. The 1,900 to 4,000-pound animals are being slaughtered in steeply escalating numbers for their horns, which weigh six to eight pounds. The fact that rhino horn is made of nothing more than keratin, the same thing that human hair, toenails, and fingernails are made of, makes the atrocity all the more absurd. Further, like hair and nails, a rhino’s horn will grow back if it is cut off, but poachers blithely slaughter the animal. According to Ainsley Hay of South Africa’s National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, rhino poaching has brought on “appalling levels of suffering.” Because a rhino is so massive, the veterinary nurse said, it is not easily killed. Sometimes the shots will only cause a concussion. When the rhino wakes up, its horn and part of its face have been removed. Philanthropist Howard G. Buffett has donated $23.7 million dollars to help better protect rhinos.
The chief executive of South African National Parks, David Mabunda, accepted the donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation “with great humility” and called poaching a scourge. Today’s demand for rhino horn is based largely on the erroneous claim that it cures cancer. This is a modern-day iteration of claims made in 200 C.E. China when rhino horn elixirs were prescribed for liver problems. Over the intervening 1,800 years, curative myths have persisted to greater or lesser degrees. In part to combat the persistence of these myths, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the horn trade in 1972. And by the 1980s and early 1990s, trade bans were also implemented among Asian countries. Finally, in the 1990s, rhino horn powder was removed from the pharmacopeia of traditional Chinese medicine. For the white rhino in particular, these measures (among others) led to what was deemed possibly the greatest conservation story ever.
But that all changed in the mid-2000s due to a single widespread rumor in Vietnam. Rhino horn powder, the rumor went, had cured a Vietnamese politician of cancer. The politician’s name and medical proof were, predictably, never provided. It is now believed that the story was deliberately concocted by dealers in order to increase the demand for rhino horn. The rumor took full advantage of two facts about Vietnam: adequate cancer treatment is not easily accessible, and there is a growing middle class. People who cannot access proper medical treatment may turn in desperation to alternative treatments if they have the money to do so. Today, rhino horn fetches up to $48,000 per pound, which is well over twice the price of gold. In 2011, the Javan rhino was declared extinct in mainland Asia when the remaining animal was discovered dead with its horn sawed off and a bullet in its leg.
The unprecedented $23.7 million donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation is part of a three-year program that will focus on improving security in part of South Africa’s massive Kruger National Park. Over 75 percent of all the world’s rhinos live in South Africa. The program calls for intelligence networks, increased staff, sniffer dogs, cross-border criminal investigations, and balloons outfitted with infrared to cameras. The idea, says Buffett, is to learn “what works and what doesn’t work.” On a recent visit to Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, the eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett again pledged to help rhinos, this time by providing a helicopter, GPS, and training to root out illegal hunters in the 21,100 square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The $23.7 million donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will boost anti-poaching efforts in South Africa to an unprecedented scale. But Buffett, who has written eight books on wildlife and conservation, expressed a tempered outlook towards the outcome: “I have no illusions about this…This is an overwhelming issue.”
By Donna Westlund