Last month I went on safari. It was a trip I had wanted to take for as long as I can remember. I left New York bubbling with excitement, and after 24+ hours of travel, I arrived at a beautiful South African reserve. Each day, we would wake up before the sun and drive into the bush, crossing our fingers we would see something special. By my third day, I was lucky enough to have seen some roaring lions and enormous elephants, whose emotional intelligence fascinated me. I saw funny-looking warthogs (Pumba!), sneaky hyenas, and lazy hippos. But one animal was missing: The increasingly rare rhinoceros.
It is easy to understand how leopards can be elusive. Their next meal depends on stealth. Rhinos, on the other hand, should be hard to miss. It is humans who can be blamed for making them so tough to spot. In Africa there are only about 20,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos left. (Small numbers that look large compared to Asian rhinos, whose numbers have dwindled into the hundreds). The main reason for the drastic population decline is poaching to obtain their horns. This reality is a two-sided problem involving misguided demand for their horns which leads to killing rhinos to generate supply. The solution: education. Basic economics tells us that by decreasing the demand, supply will have to fall. And this is where you can help spread the word.
The Myth of Rhino Horns (or How to Solve by Education)
The high demand for rhino horns comes from a combination of several factors, the main of which are their use in Chinese medicine and their role as a status symbol. Let's be clear: Rhino horns don't have magical powers; they do not cure cancer, they do not increase virility. They are not even bone, but keratin. That's right, you're better off biting your nails, since keratin is the same stuff your hair and nails are made from. As for being a status symbol, some people purchase horns as a gift and/or to display wealth. These people are usually wealthy (as I said, horns are expensive!) and feel little connection to the animals that are being sacrificed. Education is also important on this front: the very heirs people want to bequeath their horns to won't ever get to see a live rhino if they become extinct.
The problem with poaching
Poachers illegally kill rhinos for their horns. In Southern Africa, poaching is a big problem and it is estimated that one Rhino is killed every seven hours. Even with poaching being an illegal, high-risk activity, there are still those willing to engage in it. That is unsurprising, given that many of these people live below the poverty line and see poaching as an opportunity to drastically improve the lives of their family by killing an animal. The solution here is more complicated, since it involves keeping rhino horn trade illegal and having organizations and governments enforcing safety patrols for the Rhinos. That said, if demand decreases, the reduced price will create a disincentive against poaching- arguably the most straightforward solution to poaching.
How can we help?
While the situation looks grim, there are amazing organizations on the group fighting extinction. One of them is Rhinos without Boarders. An amazing initiative that is moving 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana, where poaching is less prevalent. Creating a satellite population also increases the chances of survival for these animals. Read more about this initiative here.
You can help out by donating, fundraising, or even spending your time volunteering. Savetherhinos.org has an amazing resources page where you can find out more. But the main point is awareness: spread the word and half the battle is won.
As for me, I eventually lucked out by spotting a beautiful white rhino and calf in South Africa and spent the afternoon falling in love with them. I hope they are still around so my future kids get to see them too.