ESCONDIDO — The illegal rhino horn trade has wildlife experts on the offensive.
Thousands of rhinos, along with elephants, have been butchered over the past several years, dwindling their populations to endangered levels.
Last week, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, state and federal officials held a ceremonial burning to destroy $1 million worth of rhino horns and products at the park.
The reasons for the poaching are the rhino horns and the elephant ivory tusks, which sell for thousands of dollars on the black market. In fact, rhino horns fetch up to as much as $30,000 per pound, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Chief Bill Woody.
“No one wants a future where zoos and aquariums are the only places you can see these iconic animals,” he said.
Money drives the economics of the trade, but so does tradition and unproven medical “benefits.”
Wildlife agents in the U.S. and around the world are battling not only poachers and the pipeline of dealers, but individuals who believe ingesting rhino horns brings medical relief, as well as serve an aphrodisiac.
These uses, and beliefs, have run for hundreds of years, but no medical study has proven the horns provide such benefits, said Woody. In fact, rhino horns consist of keratin, the same fibrous protein as found in fingernails and hair.
“There is no medicinal value,” said safari park Ambassador Rick Schwartz.
Zoo CEO Doug Myers spearheaded the event, which burned $1 million worth of rhino horns, powder and commercial products at the park.
It was one of the first such gestures in the U.S. with a goal of raising more awareness, education and updates on the fight to stop poachers and the black market trade.
Woody said rhino horns are consumed and used mostly in Asia and Africa. Last week’s event meant about 33.3 pounds of contraband were wiped from the market.
Officials also detailed the dwindling rhino populations in Africa, which stem from demand from that continent and Asia.
Woody said one in 20 rhinos were killed last year and the market for their horns and ivory is leading to billions in revenue.
Wood also spoke about the efforts of Operation Crash, which netted 41 arrests and 30 convictions over the past year.
“Law enforcement is not the answer,” he said. “We need a demand reduction. Our goal is to change wildlife trafficking … and solve the demand. With this campaign, we hope to drive the message home.”