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Sticking a rhino horn to China’s Giant Panda

Developing nations don’t hold much truck with wildlife conservation for sentimental or scientific reasons. In places where human existence itself can be nasty, brutal and short, animals are butchered without compunction and often with thoughtless cruelty.

They are clubbed, shot, stabbed, fished, or slaughtered with zero regard to the long term effects on species survival. Unless, of course, their continued existence holds promise to humans of an eventual monetary bonanza.

Given then what nations do to their own animals, how much easier when the beastly extermination takes place in far-away foreign lands? Out of sight and out of mind of the squeamish, but never out of pocket for those who trade in exotic animal parts.

The Asian nations appear to have insatiable appetites. If it moves, eat it. Or if you can’t eat it — tiger bone, rhino horn, elephant tusks — turn it into a potion imagined to cure any ailment, from headaches to cancer.

Hence the particularly dire plight of South Africa’s rhino. After being rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1970s, largely through the determination of a single man, Dr Ian Player, they are once more critically endangered.

The Chinese believe, falsely, that powdered rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. The Vietnamese believe, falsely, it to be a hangover preventative. Such banality as the cause of such barbarism.

At $55 000 a kilogram, rhino horn has, according to an Associated Press report, become the ‘must-have’ luxury item of the Asian noveau riche. As a direct consequence, at least 448 rhinos were poached in SA in 2011 and another 150 in the first quarter of this year.

Now the fight is being taken to the enemy camp. A group of SA activists, the Wildside Warriors, has launched an anti-poaching campaign aimed directly at Chinese consumers of rhino horn.

Durban designer Torsten Fehsenfeld conceived for the campaign a provocative magazine and online advertisement, that appears in both English and Mandarin, featuring a Giant Panda. It has just been published in Wildside, the Enzemvelo KZN Wildlife magazine. One wouldn’t want to spoil the punch line, suffice that the gutsy ad will undoubtedly irritate those government knuckleheads who cravenly lean over backwards to avoid offending China in any way.

Watch the Wildside Warrior Video of the campaign poster.

This is no Kony 2012 call to arms. It’s clearly a low budget, volunteer affair and the conservationist activists are relying on social media to spread the message far and wide and ratchet public pressure.

As much as the stolen children of Uganda, this is an advert and a campaign that really deserve to go viral. If for no other reason that, unlike Kony 2012, the Wildside approach is not premised on the big-brother West riding to the rescue of poor Africa.

Instead it asks no more than the Chinese — and the other Asian countries, like Vietnam, that tolerate horn-poaching — take personal responsibility for what they are doing. As Fehsenfeld puts it, “This is not meant to be tit-for-tat. It’s with frustration and sense of helplessness that we have watched the slaughter of this African treasure.”

“The end users of rhino horn, mostly in Asia, may well be ignorant of the true value of this magnificent animal, which is an integral part of our national heritage. This is an attempt to change grassroot consumer behaviour.”

Thus speaks perhaps the naiveté of idealism. But given that SA is incapable or unwilling to exert diplomatic pressure on those plundering our natural resources, and given that the line cannot be held against poachers able to suborn the very guards, veterinarians, and farmers who are pledged to protect the rhino, what else to do? All that remains is idealism.

As Player notes in a moving interview in Africa Geographic, it is not going to be easy to change superstitions about the efficacy of rhino horn that are more than 2 000 years old. But Player himself has already proved what just one idealistic man can do. Maybe, just maybe, we collectively can shame China and Vietnam into curbing their horny appetites.


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.