The facts and challenges
Of all the environmental threats facing Africa's rhino, from habitat loss to political upheavals preventing proper conservation, it's poaching that’s proved the most difficult to overcome. In fact, the problem of poaching on the continent is approaching catastrophic proportions, with startling, sobering statistics revealing the sheer extent of the illegal practice today.
One study found that a huge 1,338 rhinos had been poached in 2015 alone, with the vast majority of those in South Africa. And talking of South Africa, stats show an 86-fold increase in the number of poached rhinos between 2007 and 2014, with the number now firmly above the 1,000 per year mark.
More recently, there have been some meagre drops in the number killed, with 40 less poached rhinos in South Africa in 2015 than in 2014. However, whatever positives may come from that statistic, they are more than offset by worrying increases of more than 100% in neighbouring Namibia and Zimbabwe.
When population estimations put total numbers of the white and black rhino at around just 24,000 (just 20,700 southern white rhinos and fewer than 5,000 remaining black rhino), the future for this most iconic of African beasts hardly looks bright.
The trade and false medicine
Getting to the root of the poaching problem means first getting to grips with the startling size of the illegal trade in rhino and other exotic animal products. As a whole, it's estimated that the elicit market for unlawful wildlife goods is worth as much as $20 billion worldwide. And with rhino populations eviscerated by as much as 95% in the last four decades, it's clear that the horned beast is right on the frontline.
But what's feeding such a boom? Well, from ornamental daggers in the Yemen to traditional folk medicines in China and the Far East, the horn of black and white African rhinos is used in a whole host of different ways around the globe. And while reports show a drop in the illegal importation of rhino goods in the Middle East, it's clear that trade in Indochina and Southeast Asia is on the up.
Today, Vietnam is considered the largest consumer of raw rhino horn. Just as in nearby countries like China and Japan (two of the leading Asian importers of rhino products from the 1970s onwards), powdered rhino horn is hailed for its purported medicinal powers. Crushed and mixed with alcohol, it's said to cure cancer; ground up and ingested with water, many see it as a remedy for hangovers.
However, countless scientific studies have discredited all claims that rhino horns can cure any sort of ailment. Made of keratine, a type of natural protein also found in fingernails, they contain no exotic substances, and there's no testable evidence to show their efficacy as the panacea many in the Far East consider them to be.
Saving the rhino through education
With increasing affluence and booming middle classes in the Asian countries where rhino horn is most in demand, it's likely that the trade in such products will only get worse if nothing is done. However, moves are being made to combat this, and today conservationists argue about everything from systematic dehorning of rhino populations to actual legalisation of the trade for better regulation. However, there is another way.
Education has proven itself a powerful tool in the conservation of wildlife around the globe, and it's likely that with a proper understanding of the situation, end users of rhino products in countries like Vietnam and China will come to realise the impacts and realities of the goods they use.
Not only does that mean helping people see the scientific truths surrounding the use of traditional medicines like powdered horn, but it also means conveying the seriousness of the plight of the African rhino. Today, that can be done using apps like iDOPT, which aims to create emotional, personal connections between younger generations and the exotic African beasts they might otherwise consume in the future.