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WILDLIFE APOCALYPSE: How Myths and Superstitions Are Driving Animal Extinctions

Demand for wildlife body parts for scientifically unproven medicinal remedies and paranormal trinkets is causing a world-wide crisis for many endangered animal species, including rhinos and elephants.

Sporting AK-47 assault rifles and axes, the group of men stalk a black rhino through the African bush. They soon bring it down with powerful volleys. While still alive, the rhino peers at the men as they approach. The poaches quickly use the axe to sever its horn from its head, not caring that they are inflicting great pain as they hit a nerve andleave the rhino dehorned and its head a pulpy mess. It dies, leaving its own family behind because of human greed.

“Rhino have a particularly plaintive cry,' (conservationist Ian) Player 1 wrote (in The White Rhino Saga),'which once heard is never forgotten. The screams of agony from rhino that have had their horns chopped off while still alive should reach into the hears of all of us” (Rademeyer 2017).

The poachers sell that horn to a middleman, who may be working for yet another smuggler, a criminal syndicate, or even terrorists. Government border agents and officials are bribed as the horn makes its way to countries such as China and Vietnam, where the horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to treat various ailments, none of them proven scientifically to work.2

While most rhino horns are ground into powder and used as medicine to supposedly cure cancer, impotence, or, as an illegal wildlife trade monitor says, “you name it,” people in Asia have begun wearing beads or bangles made from rhino horns thought to cure ailments as well as for status symbols. Some horns are fashioned into ceremonial cups (Kolata 2018).

Why is the illegal supply and demand for rhino horns so pervasive? Rhino horn, after all, is mainly composed of keratin, the same substance in human hair and fingernails. But it’s as valuable as gold or heroin. A kilogram, for instance, can sell for $60,000 (Kolata 2018).

While TCM does include a lot of vegetable- and herbal-based medicines, as well as non-endangered animal parts, the use of critically endangered animal parts that it promotes for scientifically unproven treatments and cures has been a major factor in the decline and extinction of animal species.

The killing of rhinos is just the tip of the iceberg in the ever-increasing destruction of wildlife for dubious reasons. Not only rhinos are facing extinction but also African elephants; certain species of lions, tigers, and wolves; Grauer’s gorillas; and even giraffes. All this is done primarily at the hands of humans despite courageous efforts by conservation groups, governments, and individuals to stop the attacks. Some wildlife, such as rhinos and wolves, among many others, faced extinction when trade in animal parts was legal, but they now face that possibility again with illegal trading and other extinction pressures.

“Leading international wildlife crises involve illegal poaching of rhinos, elephants, and sharks for their body parts, to be sold on the Asian black market for exorbitant prices and used for medicinal purposes or art,” stated Cristina Eisenberg, chief scientist at Earthwatch Institute in Boston and author of The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators.

The myth underlying this illegal bone trade runs very deep. Proponents tout rhino horn, shark fin (cartilage), and elephant tusk medicinal uses, as tonics, blood-purifiers, or aphrodisiacs. But ultimately, it’s about money—these illegal products are primarily seen as status symbols in Asia. While the purported medicinal use of these items has not been proven by science, the profound negative consequence of poaching has been thoroughly documented and is decimating populations of rhinos, elephants, and sharks, leaving them at or near extinction. (Eisenberg 2018)

As of 2016, there were only 29,500 rhinos left in the world, 70 percent of them in South Africa. There are five species of rhinos—most of them endangered—with two subspecies going extinct in 2011 (Gwin 2012). Just a century ago, there were an estimated one million rhinos in Africa (Ellis 2005).

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