Killing Fields: Africa's Rhinos Under Threat

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Investigators dig for bullets inside a poached rhino as the manager of a South African game reserve covers his face in disgust

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The Sanya facility does not appear to be Longhui's only rhino-horn farm. Last year, at least 16 white rhinos from South Africa were imported to Yunnan province in southwest China, according to provincial statistics. A February announcement from the Yunnan Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau declared that Hawk Group head Zhang "has an ambition: to establish the largest rhinoceros industrial base in China. He is planning to import at least 40 rhinos this year and hopes to expand [the Yunnan] population to 200 within five years."

In June 2010, China's patent office published a curious patent application. Zhang claimed to have co-invented something called a "self-suction living rhinoceros horn-scraping tool." The online business plan, which appeared on a district government website, states that Longhui's "live rhino-horn grinding technology research has been approved by the State Forestry Administration." But under current CITES regulations by which China is bound, trading in rhino horn for medicinal purposes — whether from live or dead animals — remains illegal.

Harvesting horn from live rhinoceroses is largely unknown territory, although biologists estimate that a rhino's horn naturally grows around 3.9 in. (10 cm) a year. (Like fingernails or hair, rhino horn regenerates.) In many parts of the world, confining wild animals for their body parts is taboo. But China has a history of harvesting bones from caged tigers and bile from moon bears, all for purported medicinal benefit. Jia, the scientist who has been involved in setting up both of Hawk's rhino farms, says his research shows that one live rhino can supply 1 kg of powdered horn annually. "Farming rhinos in China for their horns will definitely be allowed eventually," he says. "It's just a question of when."

Jia contends that rhino farming will help protect wild animals that might otherwise be poached. The live horn-grinding technique, he says, ensures that the farmed specimens aren't killed. Some prominent African wildlife experts also advocate rhino farming as the only practical way to cut down on illegal hunting. Hawk Group, which Jia says spent 1 million yuan ($154,000) to import each animal, presumably hopes to corner this lucrative market in China. But while countries like Japan put aside some of the profits made from legal animal-part sales for conservation, China does not have such a scheme. In fact, it hasn't even publicly admitted to any plans to farm rhinos for their horns.

Conservationists also point out that endangered-animal economics are complicated. What will happen if demand in China — and elsewhere in Asia — is rekindled by the availability of legal rhino horn and the farmed material can't meet the rush of orders? In 2008 a legal auction of 119 tons of ivory didn't halt elephant poaching in Africa; in fact, some believe the influx of tusks catalyzed further slaughter of elephants as more people developed a taste for ivory. "The natural world is scarred with the unintended consequences of good business plans," says Traffic's Milliken. "The scale of the Chinese market is potentially so awesome, one miscalculation and we potentially could lose entire species."

Blood in the Bush
John Bassi banks his bell jet ranger up the side of a mountain, turns and sweeps back into the valley below, skimming the acacia trees that are a favorite rhino snack. Behind him, Charlotte Moueix leans out the helicopter door, gun ready. Below them is Pilanesberg National Park, in South Africa's northwest. A mother black rhino and her baby trot past. As the chopper hovers above, the calf, perhaps a year old, swirls around, plants its feet on the ground and snorts, ready to charge the strange flying beast above. Moueix fires. The baby takes off but begins to totter and stumble, burying his nose — and tiny horns — in a thornbush.

Bassi touches down some 50 yards (45.7 m) away. Moueix jogs toward the animal and extracts the dart. Then another colleague takes a hand drill and bores holes in the baby rhino's horns. Microchips with identifying codes are inserted so that if the animal is poached, its horns can be traced. Soon Moueix injects the calf with a reviving agent, and in three minutes the animal is trotting away, a bit dazed but unharmed. The team will dart and microchip three more calves that day. They work from dawn until dusk. "I can't remember what happened two days ago," says Bassi, his eyes bloodshot. "I'm so tired. And I'm so sick of finding dead rhinos. I'm sick of the smell of them." Until last year, Pilanesberg park had never lost a rhino. But a dozen were poached in 2010. In the wild, the stench of death is never far away. But with humans slaughtering rhinos for their horn, even more blood will run in the African bush.
— With reporting by Jeffrey T. Iverson / Lyon and Jessie Jiang / Beijing

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