Dereck Joubert, a filmmaker and conservationist who runs Rhinos Without Borders with his wife, Beverly, says that extinction of the rhino would be a crippling blow to Africa’s ecosystem.
“Rhinos play a vitally important role in keeping the ecosystems in Africa alive,” he says. “Letting rhinos go is the start of a slippery slope of letting everything go.”
One million rhinos roamed Africa 150 years ago. Today, only about 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 white rhinos remain there. (The three other rhino species live in Asia.)
Buying and selling rhino horns across country lines is illegal. But the practice persists on the black market because it’s so lucrative. One pound of rhino horn can fetch $30,000 to $50,000.
In South Africa, impoverished communities often help poachers in exchange for a cut of the profits. Some local people even track rhinos, then radio the animals’ locations to poachers.
Many poachers in South Africa come from the nearby nation of Mozambique, which is one of the poorest in the world. Mozambique also lacks strict penalties for poaching or for possessing rhino horn. Its hunters often cross undetected into South Africa’s Kruger National Park, kill rhinos and hack off their horns, then escape back across the border.
The poachers are highly skilled, says Beverly Joubert. They use tools such as drones and night vision equipment. Some line their escape routes with armed men to help them avoid capture. “They’re in and out very, very quickly,” she says.
Most poached rhino horn ends up in Vietnam, according to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. The Southeast Asian country’s economy has grown in recent years, and the upper class has money to spend. Wealthy Vietnamese often give rhino horn to business associates as a sign of respect and power.
Rhino horn has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Some people believe that consuming it can heal anything from a fever to liver disease. In Vietnam, the horns are rumored to have cured a local politician’s cancer. People desperate for the same result shell out thousands of dollars for even a tiny bit. Studies, however, have not shown rhino horn to have any medicinal value.