On February 20, several men armed with rifles attacked South Africa’s Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage. They brutalized the refuge’s staff with beatings and sexual assault. They destroyed cameras and equipment. And by the end of the raid, two juvenile rhinos lay bleeding in the dirt, their tiny horns hacked off. One, a female named Gugu, died instantly. The other, a male named Impi, had to be euthanized the following day as a result of his wounds. Both were less than 18 months old.
As if this weren’t heartbreaking enough, poachers earlier this week broke into a wildlife park near Paris, where they shot and killed a four-year-old white rhino named Vince. They cut one of Vince’s horns off with a chainsaw. The fact that the other horn was only partially cut suggests that the criminals were interrupted, though French police have yet to make an arrest.
Both events are sickening reminders that so long as rhino horn remains valuable in places like China and Vietnam, no place is safe for these animals.
Making matters worse in the South African incident is the fact that the two young rhinos were just about to return to the wild. In the following week, the orphanage’s staff would have sedated the calves and sawed off their horns themselves—as low as the calf’s comfort would allow. The horns would have grown back in about four years, but in the meantime, their absence would make the rhinos less appealing to any poachers they might encounter.
A rhino without a horn has no monetary value to a poacher. And it’s this calculation that likely brought these calves to the orphanage in the first place. Rhinos aren’t born with horns, you see. So if a poacher encounters a mother with a calf, he may choose to kill the adult and leave the calf alone. With no horn, the animal isn’t even worth the cost of a bullet.
In the wild, young rhinos rely on their mothers for around a year and a half. If that bond is severed, they will probably die. This is why places like FTTRO exist—to take in rhinos orphaned by poaching, raise them to a point where they can survive on their own, and then release them back into the wild.
But raising rhinos isn’t easy. It can cost almost $1,600 a month to provide formula, water, inoculations, and veterinary care for a single calf. (Fun fact: One white rhino calf can suck down almost 20 gallons of milk in a day.) And while FTTRO doesn’t publicize the exact number of animals in their care for security reasons, the facility was built to hold around half a dozen rhino calves comfortably, which would mean nearly $10,000 a month in expenses.
FTTRO is equipped with intensive care units, exercise areas, and pre-release enclosures that prepare the orphaned rhinos for life in the wild. The organization also employs up to ten onsite staff who put in long hours to ensure the survival of the animals.
“When a new orphan is admitted it can be normal for staff to work 20 hours a day,” says Simon Jones, founder and CEO of a United Kingdom–based conservation organization called Helping Rhinos, a partner of FTTRO. “They will sleep with the rhinos to comfort them, and the orphan will need feeding every two hours. This process can continue for days at a time and is definitely the less glamorous side of wildlife rehabilitation.”
Nobody deserves the kind of violence recently committed at FTTRO—but when we witness it happening to those who devote their lives to saving the orphaned young of an endangered species, it puts things in stark perspective.
According to Jacques Flamand, a wildlife veterinarian who works with the World Wildlife Fund in South Africa on the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, the orphanage attack “shows the frightening extent to which the violence and crime associated with illicit trade in rhino horn is impacting not just conservation efforts but people’s lives.”
But the main reason the men were there is obvious—rhino horns, even little ones, are worth a lot of money. The wholesale market for rhino horn alone may be worth a quarter of a billion dollars. And while rhino poaching has gone down and poacher arrests have gone up for the past two years in South Africa, these trends feel less significant when you consider how the poaching rate overall skyrocketed in the past decade. In 2007, just 13 rhinos South Africa were documented to have died at the hands of poachers. In 2016, the number was more than 1,000.
Just 25,000 rhinos remain in all of Africa, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature —down from about 500,000 at the beginning of the last century. And while the loss of two more at the orphanage and another at the Paris Zoo won’t directly impact those statistics, it’s certainly a blow to conservationists’ morale. After all, if we can’t protect the rhinos of suburbia, then what hope do the animals in the wild have?
I’ll leave you with perhaps the only possible good news concerning this story at this point.
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Wildlife trade is big business, with wild plants, animals, and products made from them sold around the globe, legally and illegally. It’s also a leading cause of the planet’s accelerating biodiversity crisis and resultant ecosystem collapse.
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