Rhino horn has played a role in traditional Chinese medicine for nearly 1,800 years, but in the 1980s and 90s, a concerted effort was made to limit demand for the horn. Trade bans within Asian countries reduced poacher’s ability to sell horns on the Asian continent, and the removal of rhino horn powder from Chinese pharmacies dramatically reduced demand. Rhino horn, however, was still valuable and available through underground markets, resulting in around fifteen rhinos being poached from preserves in South Africa from 1990 to 2007. The horns poachers gained at the time sold for $250-$500 per kilogram.
However, in 2008, things changed. That year alone saw eighty-three rhinos killed for their horns on protected land in South Africa. The following year saw one hundred and twenty-two. By 2012, rhinos were being hunted and killed at a rate of nearly seven hundred per year, or almost two a day, every day.
Experts believe the sudden resurgence of demand for rhino horn coincides with a rumor that swept across Vietnam in the mid-2000s. The belief that a local politician had been cured of cancer by using a regimen that included crushed rhino horn has become so widespread that even some doctors in Vietnam have taken to prescribing the placebo to patients, or recommending that they find an illegal pharmacy that can provide the product.
Unlike previous demand for rhino horn, this trend in pseudo-medicine has no ties to traditional Chinese medicine, and seems to be born entirely out of popular belief. Some believe it is due to the rapidly developing economy in Vietnam providing an increase in disposable income, while medical treatments for illnesses like cancer have remained woefully behind the rest of the developed world. This leaves patients with severe ailments and limited treatment options – creating a bubble market for anything people believe can help them.
As a result of demand for rhino horn in Vietnam, the horn’s market value has sky rocketed past the previous selling price of $250-$500 per kilogram, all the way to its current street value of $100,000 per kilogram. A rhino’s horn tends to weigh between one and three kilograms, placing a price on each rhino’s head of between one hundred and three hundred thousand dollars.
Conservationists and the rangers tasked with protecting the rhinos on their preserves have been scrambling to find ways to curb the recent upswing in poaching. Satellite imaging, drones, security cameras and even cutting the horns off of live rhinos to remove their value to poachers have been attempted, but have been met with limited success. As a result, a number of veterans from nations like the United States have begun working alongside ranchers and rangers to tackle the threat to rhinos in the same manner used to combat insurgents in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You have animals who are targeted by people using automatic weapons,” Damien Mander, a former Australian Navy special forces officer, told AFP. “You cannot go to the communities and ask them nicely to stop. This is a war. We are fighting a war out there.”
Veterans are serving in a number of roles as they attempt to help curb the killing of endangered animals in Africa and elsewhere. While some actively patrol preserves and compounds, others instruct local ranchers and rangers in ways to defend their land and the wildlife protected within it. Lynn Westover, an American who originally hails from Seattle, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as within a number of African and Southeast Asian countries. He now runs two-day training courses in South Africa for New York City based Vetpaw, or Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife.
“I am still doing the same kind of work, but I am changing who I am impacting for a greater good,” said Westover, “It is repurposing because you feel a sense of unity and pride. I feel that I am giving these rangers a better chance of survival.”
Westover covers a variety of important tactics during his courses, including how to disarm poachers when taking them into custody, tracking footprints and vehicles, and effectively communicating with air support that frequently comes in the form of helicopters tasked with assisting rangers as they hunt for the men hunting the endangered rhinos.
In 2015, another American veteran, Kinessa Johnson, made headlines when she left the United States with Vetpaw to train rangers and aid in their conservation efforts. Images of Johnson toting a sniper rifle prompted some to accuse her of hunting local poachers, but Johnson disputes those claims.
“Our intention is not to harm anyone; we’re here to train park rangers so they can track and detain poachers and ultimately prevent poaching. Most of the time anyone that is in a reserve with a weapon is considered a threat and can be shot if rangers feel threatened,” said Johnson, “Our goal is to prevent trigger pulling through strategic movements and methods of prevention.” Johnson served four years in the army as a firearms instructor and mechanic.
Some in the communities surrounding these wildlife sanctuaries criticize the decision to bring in foreign military personnel, citing the detrimental effect that the deaths of locals can have on communities, as well as the perception their presence creates among the people in the area.
“It alienates local people and turns conservation areas into fortresses,” said Libby Lunstrum, a professor at Canada’s York University who specializes in poaching.
Organizations like Vetpaws and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) disagree however. IFAW has also recently taken to hiring veterans from foreign militaries, specifically former US Intelligence Officers, to aid in their efforts to protect endangered species across the continent.
“It is not unusual to see animals killed by automatic weapons,” Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, a director of IFAW, told AFP. “When we are in a war context, we have no other means than to respond using a similar force.”
Images courtesy of Kinessa Johson on Instagram and Getty