march 2012

An eight-pound rhino horn like this one can reap up to $360,000 on the black market. (Photo: ©Brent Stirton/National Geographic)

Psst, I Got Rhino Horn…

Almost nonexistent only a few years ago, rhino poaching has grown by leaps and bounds in the past four years. Now lucrative and organized, it’s also become a very dangerous pursuit. Inside a National Geographic writer’s dramatic expose

logoBy Duncan Strauss
Host, ‘Talking Animals,’ at NPR affiliate station WMNF-FM, Tampa, Florida; online at

Peter Gwin's article about rhinos in the March issue of National Geographic is not for sissies.

That likely applies to the author of the piece as much as to readers of it, especially when you factor in Brent Stirton's accompanying photographs, which are stunning--and themselves definitely not for sissies.

marchThe article in question, “Rhino Wars,” represents Gwin's sprawling examination of the current state of rhinos and rhino poaching in South Africa and other African regions. An exhilarating piece of long-form journalism both deeply reported and poetically written, “Rhino Wars” tells a rich and compelling story, even if that story is often profoundly upsetting.

Part of what makes the story so eye-opening (and eye-popping, thanks to Stirton's photos) is the disorienting sense of time-warp confusion--I mean, hadn't rhino poaching largely disappeared decades ago? In an interview on the March 21 edition of Talking Animals, I asked Gwin about this, suggesting that before cracking his piece, someone could be excused for holding the belief that rhino poaching was a thing of the past.

gwinNational Geographic writer Peter Gwin on the rise in rhino poaching: ‘Last year, we hit a new record of 448. So that marks a whole different thing. That's not poaching of opportunity. That's syndicates, and it points to much larger issues.’ (Photo: ©Brent Stirton/National Geographic)

"That's true," Gwin answered.  "In fact, one of the great success stories, up until recently, was the white rhino, the southern white rhino. There are five species, two in Africa--the white rhino and the black rhino and some subspecies within those species. But those are the main ones. The white rhino had been poached almost to extinction by the turn of the 20th century--there were, like, 20 left of the southern white rhino.

"And South Africa really was at the forefront of creating preserves, and breeding--and they brought the white rhino back. Today, there's on the order of something like 25,000 white rhinos, with the majority of those being in South Africa, and thanks to those efforts. 

"If you look at it over time, there's always poaching--"poaching of opportunity" is what it's called. Bush poaching. That's not as great a concern to conservationists because it's on a relatively small, localized scale.

"And if you look over the past years," Gwin continued,  "the statistics for poaching in South Africa were really manageable numbers. In 2000, there were seven reported poachings. When they find a carcass, you can assume there's probably more. But, still, seven reported carcasses. By 2007, it was only 13. The very next year, 2008, we saw a stark jump, and that's where people really started paying attention--there were 83. The next year it's 122. In 2010, it shoots up to 333. Last year, we hit a new record of 448. So that marks a whole different thing. That's not poaching of opportunity. That's syndicates, and it points to much larger issues."

As a whole, the world's five species of rhinos make up the most endangered large animal group on the planet. This is due to relentless and vicious illegal poaching of rhino for their horns for use in Traditional Asian Medicine. Melinda MacInnis has made this video in the hopes of raising awareness about this global crisis. Written and Produced by Melinda MacInnis. Edited by James Aikman. Director of Photography in Africa: John Mans. Warning: this video contains graphic images of butchered rhinos.

I'll say. As Gwin meticulously documents in “Rhino Wars,” and further addresses in our interview, the dramatic surge of rhino poaching in these areas has been propelled by the exploding black market trade of rhino horn. And this black market was born of a newly-insatiable demand in Vietnam--rhino horn is highly valued in traditional Asian medicines, and more recently touted as a cure for cancer, which in an absurdist twist was attributed to rumors that one Vietnamese panjandrum had cured his cancer using rhino horn.

Whatever role those rumors played, there's an enormous, widespread belief in Vietnam and other Asian countries that rhino horn has cancer-curing properties, which Gwin delves into with reporting, research and a trip across Vietnam, accompanying a woman who'd recently received disturbing results on a mammogram and who planned to receive modern treatment, while exploring possibilities in the Asian traditional realm. Gwin recounts in his article asking the woman if she felt rhino horn would serve as a cure: "I don't know," she said. "But when you think you might die, it can't hurt to try it."

In discussing this facet of his article on Talking Animals, Gwin noted that this attitude was somewhat echoed in the course of his reporting when speaking with Western-trained doctors, who often practice a hybrid of Asian and Western medicine. About rhino horn, he said in the interview, "One of the theories is, it doesn't necessarily kill cancer, one doctor told me, but it might be used as part of a suite of treatments: somebody who might be getting chemotherapy might also be taking traditional treatments to help with the side effects of chemotherapy, and rhino horn ostensibly is one of those things."

He hastened to add in our conversation that "the science on whether or not rhino horn works is very thin," a point certainly underscored in “Rhino Wars,” as he recounts that doctors and others claiming impressive medicinal results with rhino horn were unable to produce any peer-reviewed or otherwise legitimate research studies supporting those claims.

The dearth of material documenting its curative properties has in no way stunted the skyrocketing demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. or the resulting big dollar, big business enterprise that's become an international dark phenomenon, attracting crime syndicates, nefarious operators and colorful characters galore.
As one measure of this, “Rhino Wars” includes a Stirton photo of an eight-pound rhino horn, with the caption indicating that a horn that size "can reap up to $360,000 on the black market." At another point in the article, outlining the dough rhino horn can fetch, Gwin writes "as of last fall dealers in Vietnam quoted prices ranging from $33 to $133 a gram, which at the top end is double the price of gold and can exceed the price of cocaine."

…doctors and others claiming impressive medicinal results with rhino horn were unable to produce any peer-reviewed or otherwise legitimate research studies supporting those claims. (Photo: ©Brent Stirton/National Geographic)

But that's nowhere near as chilling as what van Deventer--who had taken his talents and hired on with a rhino poaching operation, recruited by a safari operator named Saaiman--started to fear, once arrested, if he buckled to police pressure squeezing him to testify against Saaiman and his cohorts.

Van Deventer doesn't come across as a guy easily spooked, but then, mere days after his arrest, Gwin reports, "Saaiman's wife was shot in the throat in her driveway and died in front of her children," then van Deventer's ex-wife was raped--she and their children went into a witness protection program. "Not long after," Gwin writes, "men claiming to be private investigators visited (van Deventer) in prison and offered him a new truck, $100,000 and a job" not to testify.

Again, the money's big, the stakes are high. If you're an African rhino, your short-term prospects don't look too hot. Ditto your long-term prospects. But in Gwin's masterful telling of this saga, the rhino world is peopled with an array of notable figures--the good, the bad, the ugly. One gent who stands out, even amidst this motley crew, is John Hume, who may land in "the good" category, even if shamelessly driven by dollar signs.

Hume looks at the bottomless maw that is the demand for rhino horn--and the sinister, often ruthless methods for fulfilling that demand (Gwin describes poachers crudely hacking the horns off still-living rhinos, and some of Stirton's arresting photos show what that looks like; remember our opening admonition: not for sissies)--and sees entrepreneurial opportunity.

He owns two rhino farms in South Africa, has cultivated a herd of more than 700 rhinos, and regularly has his rhinos anesthetized, then the horns are carefully cut off--which will grow back in two years. This stands in stark contrast, of course, to the world of elephant poaching and the ivory trade--elephants' tusks are their teeth, so a poacher determined to seize tusks must kill that elephant.

"John Hume is a wealthy guy who started buying up rhinos and taking off their horns," Gwin said in the Talking Animals interview. "Now, it's illegal for him to sell the horns, but he's stockpiling them, thinking that eventually the trade will be legalized. He makes a strong argument that we can harvest rhino horns sustainably, and there can be a legitimate market for certified rhino horn. And maybe that's not the long-term answer going forward a hundred years, but maybe it would offer a bridge to another solution, whereby education catches up in Asia and some of the practices would fall out of favor."

At first blush, Hume's idea may sound a bit nutty. But upon further reflection, you can't help wonder if he's crazy like a fox. And things are so dire in this scenario, it appears it may take a crazy fox or two to save the disappearing rhino.

Here's the link to the show featuring Gwin

And a link to Gwin's article

A photo gallery of Brent Stinton’s rhino poaching photos is published in the March issue of National Geographic and can be accessed at All Brent Stinton photographs used in this story are from the March i`ssue of National Geographic.

Peter Gwin is a National Geographic magazine staff writer and author of the ‘Rhino Wars’ article March issue and of the upcoming eBook short, Rhino Wars: The Violent Underworld of Poachers and Black Market Medicine.

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