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19 November 2017 17:58 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mic Smith

Rhino killings: Only consumers can end the crisis

  • Mic Smith
    Mic-smith.jpg
    Mic Smith

    Mic Smith is a freelance environmental journalist from the Gold Coast in Australia. He also tutors journalism at Griffith University. He worked in newspapers in Vietnam for four years during which time he covered the poaching of Vietnam’s last rhino. Mic wrote two major features about consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, one of which won an award from TRAFFIC. This year he was nominated in his home state of Queensland for a Clarion Award in the Freelance Media Category for 'Amid rhino poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society" which he researched in SA in February. It was published by the environmental news website Mongabay.

The best and brightest in conservation and international crime fighting are battling to find a solution to the rhino killings in South Africa. They are dissecting every little factor, exploring every type of player, from the hand that grinds the horn in Saigon to the hand that hacks the horn in the Kruger National Park, but the number of rhinos being shot, drugged, hacked and mutilated just keeps rising.

These days everyone has an opinion about the killing of rhinos in South Africa to supply the illegal Asian trade in rhino horns. Whether you look at the little picture or the big picture the killing is excessive, brutal and sadistic.

It may be just one example of man’s inhumanity to animals across this whole planet, but the cruelty in the rhino’s case is so explicit and the reasons are so selfish that it’s become an international story.

The best and brightest in conservation and international crime fighting are battling their hardest for a solution. They are dissecting every little factor, exploring every type of player, from the hand that grinds the horn in Saigon to the hand that hacks the horn in the Kruger National Park, but the number of rhinos being shot, drugged, hacked and mutilated just keeps rising.

It’s like beating your head up against a brick wall or should I say a rhino’s thick skull.

Trying to change factors that are heavily entrenched is particularly futile and frustrating. Two facts that are not going to change any time soon are exotic Asian beliefs and Asian organised crime.

Forget about trying to change that stuff, at least from the outside. It would be like trying to change the Catholic Church … But hang on hasn’t Pope Francis decided to forgive women who have had abortions … Maybe the Vatican is not a good example.

It’s not possible to change beliefs about the medicinal effects of rhino horn in Vietnam and China without changing the whole premise of traditional Chinese medicine and folk medicine. Those beliefs have been around since the legends of the ancients and survived wars and revolutions.

And you’ve got to admit Asia would lose its main appeal if lost its exotic orientalism. If it didn’t have yin and yang, invisible energy channels, the smell of dried herbs and Chinese doctors what would be the attraction for tourists?

Food is medicine and every object on earth has yin and yang qualities. Old people have survived by living in harmony with Heaven and Earth. Who’d want to change those wonderful beliefs? Please don’t.

The other thing I wouldn’t pin the rhino’s hope for survival on is defeating the organised crime gangs that are behind the horn trade. The Vietnamese gangs, often called Vietnamese Triads, that emerged from the Vietnam War such as the 5Ts are relatively recent but the Chinese Triads or Tongs who gave the Vietnamese gangsters dirty jobs in their early days have been around for millennia.

The Chinese Triads have secret warrior origins that can be tracked back to 25 AD. They’ve long since dropped their noble warrior motives. Since the 18th century the Triads have had a leading role in the opium trade, addicting millions of Chinese. Now they exist purely for crime around the world with links to Africa, Europe, Australia, the US, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Vietnamese Triads such as the 5Ts are considered one of the largest Asian crime threats globally for their brazen crimes, and unlike the Chinese Triads they don’t just focus on their own communities.

These gangs deal in drugs, prostitution, gambling, people trafficking and illegal wildlife everywhere, and have a good stronghold in Southern Africa.

The Triads are structured like an octopus so cutting off one arm or even the head just results in it being replaced.

I’m not saying enforcement doesn’t help, it does. Without the police and the courts putting criminals behind bars things would be much worse.

But if the rhino is to survive this crisis the consumers have to stop using rhino horn. There’s a bunch of information, however, that is confusing the issue for consumers in Vietnam.

One point that annoys them is that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) allows rhinos to be hunted for trophies. The horns can be used as trophies under Cites but not as medicine. What difference does it make?, the consumers must ask.

A living rhino can be traded but a dead rhino can’t?

The consumer must ask why Cites values trophies over medicine. It’s not fair. Of course there are answers to these questions relating to trade but the confusion is still there.

The other thing that helps validate consumers’ decisions to use the horn is the debate in South Africa to legalise the trade. They must think: “A lot of South Africans support our use of the horn so it’s not that bad.”

I’m against legalising the trade because the demand is high so the Asian Triad gangs will make sure they still get their money by continuing the killing. The criminals won’t let some quotas and regulations stop them.

The Vietnamese are also partly right in saying that it is not them who are mutilating rhinos’ faces to remove the horn. It’s the poachers from Africa, both black and white. But of course the Vietnamese are to blame for the horrific machete attacks because it’s the consumers who are ultimately paying the poachers and condoning their methods. They are so hot to use rhino horn that they will pay thousands of dollars for horn that is technically not really horn but just baseplate hacked out of the rhino’s skull.

The rarer the horn gets the more the Vietnamese consumer wants it. To say that’s unfortunate for the rhino is an understatement. But it’s also unfortunate for the consumers that the organised crime syndicates’ involvement means demand can never be met through legalising trade.

Unfortunately the only thing consumers can do to stop this environmental crisis is stop using the horn. DM

  • Mic Smith
    Mic-smith.jpg
    Mic Smith

    Mic Smith is a freelance environmental journalist from the Gold Coast in Australia. He also tutors journalism at Griffith University. He worked in newspapers in Vietnam for four years during which time he covered the poaching of Vietnam’s last rhino. Mic wrote two major features about consumer demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, one of which won an award from TRAFFIC. This year he was nominated in his home state of Queensland for a Clarion Award in the Freelance Media Category for 'Amid rhino poaching frenzy, dark days for South African society" which he researched in SA in February. It was published by the environmental news website Mongabay.

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