Today is World Rhino Day - a day to celebrate these beautiful endangered creatures and unite against their senseless killing.

I am currently halfway through my 14 week ‘Solving Poverty Saves Wildlife’ mission. I have traversed Zimbabwe and Zambia, and rhinos have been hunted into extinction almost everywhere I ventured. I am now in South Africa, home to the vast majority of the surviving rhinos left in the world.

On August 27th the official number of rhinos poached in South Africa was 749, of which 544 were butchered in the Kruger National Park. This is higher than at the same time last year, and it’s likely that a new South African rhino poaching record will be set this year (as it was last year). At the time this announcement was made by the South African government, the Ministry of Tourism stressed that they have long emphasized ‘people are the cornerstone of conservation and that without involving communities we cannot hope to eradicate this problem’.

Image courtesy of WildAid / Shannon Benson

Rhino poaching drives the exploitation of Africans living in poverty – those living near wildlife areas are recruited by global wildlife trafficking syndicates to kill rhinos and are then paid peanuts. All the while their criminal bosses are getting filthy rich by gambling on extinction. There is a government-approved strategy in the pipeline that will provide sustainable alternative livelihoods for communities living in these areas, but we’re still waiting for it to be implemented, and as we wait, rangers are dying and rhinos are getting killed every eight hours.

Many would argue the South African government is too distracted from doing what needs to be done about poaching because it’s too preoccupied with the debate around legalising the trade in rhino-horn.

“All this talk of legal trade seriously compromises a cost-effective, proven and far more durable solution to the rhino crisis; demand reduction, or making rhino-horn use socially unacceptable in China and Vietnam, as it has become in places like Taiwan ”, says Adam Welz, South Africa representative for WildAid.

Rhino horn is made out of keratin – the stuff in your fingernails – so it is absolute ludicrous that the black market price is higher than gold. Rhino horn’s current reputation as a powerful medicine, as a cure for cancer, impotence, wrinkly skin and many other things, has been built on rumours and the lies of criminals and could not be further from the truth. 

Image courtesy of WildAid / Shannon Benson

In China and Vietnam horn is illegal and to some extent stigmatised; resulting in only a very small number of people buying it – a fraction of one percent of the population. In a way it’s sobering to realise that the rhino poaching crisis in these countries is being caused by such a minute percentage of the people, but it’s also terrifying to think what would happen if rhino horn were legalised.

We know from past experience that the first thing that happens when wildlife commodities are legalised is that seller’s start advertising and the pool of interested buyers skyrockets. One per cent of China and Vietnam’s population is about 15 million people – if all of them wanted to buy just 10 grams of rhino-horn powder, we would need 150 tons of horn to supply their demand. That’s more horn than what is on every living rhino on the planet today. 

Image courtesy of WildAid / Shannon Benson

The illegal wildlife trade is a cake walk for criminal syndicates, and a legal front would only make it easier for them to launder their contraband and undercut the market. WildAid’s slogan ‘When the buying stops, the killing can too’ gets right to the point. Without consumers to drive up the price of horn, there would be no incentive for poachers to poach.

Between 1970 and 1993 the Black Rhino was nearly wiped out by a wave of poaching even larger than today’s. The Black Rhino population went down by an incredible 96 per cent, from about 65,000 to just 2,300. The carnage was halted by law enforcement, massive public education and demand reduction in Taiwan (then the biggest market for rhino horn) and other countries.

Without consumers to drive up the price of horn, there would be no incentive for poachers to poach.

If South Africa take a trade legalisation proposal to CITES’ next Conference of the Parties in 2016, it is highly likely it would get voted down by the rest of the world, thus wasting more time and causing shame and humiliation for the people of South Africa. It must be clearly communicated that saving the rhino makes good economic sense, whereas poaching will collapse the tourism industry and cost Africa millions of jobs in the next decade – fuelling more poverty and conflict. 

Image courtesy of Saving the Wild

Africa’s beating heart belongs to the wild. Take that away and we will lose the very essence of this great land. This is the rhino’s last stand, and this incredible prehistoric creature’s survival is, for the most part, in the hands of South Africans – too many of whom have remained silent for far too long. There is very little political will to save the rhino, but politicians will soon change their tune if they think that more of their voters care about the issue.

This World Rhino Day let us look forward to the Global March for Elephants & Rhinos – taking place on Saturday 3rd October in cities across the globe – as an opportunity for each of us to unite and make a stand against corruption, against theft of our natural heritage, and against the greed that drives extinction.

People often say that they feel hopeless, as if there is nothing they can do, and yet every day is an opportunity to rise up as a global wildlife ambassador, whether it’s sharing stories that matter on social media, or making a one-on-one connection when you look someone in the eyes and say, “Enough already! Not on our watch!”.

​- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

Jamie Joseph is the founder of Saving the Wild. She is currently based across various locations in Africa on a 14 week mission ‘Solving Poverty Saves Wildlife’. Follow the journey on Facebook and Twitter.

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