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As Rhinos Go Extinct, Asia Keeps Buying

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 22, 2011

An update on the new war against rhinos, from the New York Times:

Authorities at the Hong Kong International Airport made a record seizure of illegal rhino horns last week, estimated to be worth about $2.2 million, officials said.

Customs agents confiscated 33 rhino horns, 758 ivory chopsticks, and 127 ivory bracelets concealed inside a shipping container from Cape Town, South Africa. The concealed animal parts were labeled as “scrap plastic,” an increasingly common trick for smuggling horns and ivory out of Africa and into Asia.

Tom Milliken, a program coordinator at Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said the rhino horns were likely bound for Guangzhou, China, where the largest waste processing industry in the world is located. “Unfortunately, Guangzhou also has a very large ivory carving industry,” he said.

In this case, airport scanners revealed the presence of hidden rhino horn and elephant ivory, but conservationists have no way of telling how many illegal goods slip under the radar. “We don’t really understand exactly how much ivory goes undetected,” Mr. Milliken said, but added that new seizures in Africa and Asia are made every week.

Since July, customs officials in Malaysia made three major seizures, uncovering thousands of elephant tusks.

According to Traffic, rhino and elephant poaching has reached epidemic levels in Africa: 366 South African rhinos were poached in 2011, compared to 13 in 2007. “There’s been an uninterrupted upsurge in illicit trade in ivory and rhino horns,” Mr. Milliken said.

In October, Vietnam’s Javan rhino was declared extinct in the country, and in November, East Africa’s Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in the wild.

Elephant ivory is often sought for Chinese sculptures, name seals and jewelry. For rhinos, killings have escalated because of rising demand in Vietnam, where the horns are used by practitioners of traditional medicine, despite no evidence of any health benefits. Conservationists at Traffic are concerned that last week’s seized shipment was destined for China, and not Vietnam, indicating that the Chinese market for rhino horn may also be on the rise.

“Before, we’d been looking at Vietnam as the epicenter of rhino horn consumption,” Mr. Milliken said, “but this is a surefire indication that Chinese consumer dynamics are kicking in as well.”

Scientists at the University of Pretoria in South Africa hope to compare DNA samples from the rhino horns to records in their African rhino database to identify the poached rhinos. This would help to pinpoint the location of the crimes and could help to narrow an investigation into the poachers’ identity.

Mr. Milliken says arrests and convictions for illegal wildlife trade crimes don’t occur frequently because of a number of challenges, including misinformed or corrupt officials and a lack of collaboration between supply countries, like South Africa and Tanzania, and demand countries, like China and Vietnam.

Conservationists at Traffic say they view the seizure as a way to enforce more smuggling crimes and protect rhinos from the ongoing poaching crisis.

“This is not an unlimited supply,” Mr. Milliken said. “These are finite resources that, in many cases like with rhinos now, are down to the brink of extinction.”

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