Will We Save the Rhino?

A global, decade-long poaching epidemic has conservationists wondering how long the animals will survive.

By Russ Juskalian|Tuesday, October 10, 2017
last-chance-to-be
last-chance-to-be
Each found beside the body of their poached, dehorned mothers, orphaned rhinos Gertjie and Matimba were taken in at South Africa’s Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC). Humans cared for the two around the clock to reduce their physical and emotional trauma. Sheep are sometimes used as surrogate mothers for orphaned rhinos; Gertjie and Matimba eventually formed a herd of three with Lammie the ewe.
Russ Juskalian

Amid a decade-long global rhino poaching epidemic, many conservationists wonder how long the animal will survive in the wild. Rhinos are killed for their horns, which are sold illegally in Vietnam and China — at street prices higher than gold — for their purported medicinal qualities. For example, just in South Africa, rhino poaching incidents skyrocketed over 9,000 percent, from 13 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2014. The country responded with dramatically increased funding and the militarization of anti-poaching teams, resulting in a small drop in 2016, to 1,054 poachings.

Now, conservationists are scrambling to save the last five rhino species left on Earth, limited to ever-shrinking territories in Africa and Asia. Some governments are even experimenting with the controversial idea of allowing farmers to raise rhinos to harvest their horns (which can be painlessly trimmed and regrown like fingernails). Russ Juskalian traveled to South Africa, Vietnam and Indonesia to document the animals’ last stand.

Jay Smith
helicopter-rhino
helicopter-rhino
A helicopter carrying a team of environmental crime scene investigators casts a shadow beside the decomposing body of a poached rhino in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Poaching sometimes occurs within view of roads that, in daytime, fill with tourists observing the park’s wildlife.
Russ Juskalian
decomposing-rhino
decomposing-rhino
Senior environmental crime scene investigator Frik Rossouw uses a metal detector to search the decaying body of a rhino poached in Kruger National Park. He’s looking for bullet casings and other clues that might help convict the poachers, should they be caught. Rossouw will also collect DNA from the animal to cross-reference against a centralized database. Such evidence can help solve individual cases when poached horn is seized, even months or years later, as well as piece together the complex criminal networks responsible for poaching rhinos and transporting their horns to Asia.
Russ Juskalian
rhino-jaw
rhino-jaw
Using coordinates phoned in by rangers on the ground, investigators document another poaching incident in Kruger. A standard crime-scene placard beside the lower jaw of the poached rhino provides positioning information in photographs.

On the busiest days, there are backlogs of more than a dozen similar cases in the park, and the risks of working in the bush are ever-present. Landing a helicopter in a small break in the trees is dangerous, and the threat of a shootout with poachers is just as real. At this scene, the team’s work ended abruptly when a large animal was heard rustling nearby.
Russ Juskalian
rhino-field
rhino-field
A solitary rhino grazes in Kruger’s southern area, caked in mud after spending time in a wallow — a common rhino strategy for cooling off and protecting their skin from the sun.

Many of the rhinos in Kruger have been moved into small, so-called Intensive Protection Zones in order to limit poaching. The zones are monitored by air, remotely and on foot by heavily armed rangers, but shootouts with poachers are common.
Russ Juskalian
horn-removal
horn-removal
On John Hume’s rhino farm northwest of Johannesburg, a veterinary team prepares to cut off a rhino’s horn. The whole process takes just minutes and is painless: It’s akin to clipping one’s toenail, as long as the horn is removed well above the skin.

Hume’s farm has over 1,100 rhinos whose regrown horns are removed every one to three years. Hume and others who support the idea say the goal is to create a renewable, legal market for rhino horn to take the pressure off wild rhinos and reduce poaching. But opponents argue that legalizing the trade will reduce the taboo of using rhino horn and encourage so many buyers that farmed horn won’t be able to keep up with demand.
Russ Juskalian
horn-removed
horn-removed
A moderately sedated rhino on Hume’s farm rests after a veterinary team cut off its horn. During the process — which involves darting the animal by rifle and then blindfolding it to help keep it calm — the team uses the opportunity to draw a blood sample, vaccinate the animal and conduct a basic physical exam.
Russ Juskalian
horn-up-close
horn-up-close
Calcium and melanin deposits form a dark core in the harvested horn’s cross-section and also strengthen it. Horns typically are made of bone and covered with a thin sheath of keratin. Rhino horns, however, are made primarily of keratin and are chemically almost identical to a human fingernail.

The horn has no medicinal value, but users still believe it can help with a range of ailments, from reducing hangovers to increasing energy. With a street price in Asia of $20,000 and up per kilogram, a large rhino horn may be worth upward of half a million dollars by the time it is sold in pieces.
Russ Juskalian
rhino-tire
rhino-tire
HESC resident Matimba, orphaned by poachers when he was less than a month old, has grown into a mischievous adolescent. After drinking his daily tub of milk from a large saucepan secured in a truck tire, he playfully lifts the tire over his snout.
Russ Juskalian
rhino-close
rhino-close
In the summer of 2013, three rhinos were darted and dehorned by poachers in South Africa. The male died, but the two females survived, despite the poachers’ hacking into their sinuses and nasal cavities to remove their horns.

Numerous surgeries, including insertion of Fiberglass nasal casts, saved the animals. About 18 months later, one of them, pictured here at HESC, has started to regrow her still-deformed horn.
Russ Juskalian
at-the-border
at-the-border
At the border of Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park, the Javan rhino’s last habitat, a ranger on patrol spots a problem: Local men, using a bamboo pole, have pulled apart the border fence’s cables, likely to transport illegally harvested wood, poach small animals and graze their water buffalo herds on the protected land.

About 60 Javan rhinos remain on the planet, all of them in this single park, and human encroachment increases the risk of destabilizing their environment. Rhinos can share mud wallowing pits with domestic buffalo, heightening the risk of disease transmission, a particular danger given the small population’s low genetic diversity.
Russ Juskalian
horn
horn
In Vietnam, a woman in her 70s demonstrates how to grind rhino horn in preparation for consumption. Many people use a special dish with a sandpaper-like surface, rubbing the horn in circles in a small pool of water. Others, like the woman in the photo, use a hand file.

The woman originally bought the horn to treat her ill husband, but now she uses it when she is dehydrated or feeling low on energy, she says. Paradoxically, she said the killing of rhinos for their horns saddened her, and asked how she could help conserve the species.
Russ Juskalian
rhino-skulls
rhino-skulls
The skull of a rhino poached in Sumatra in 2005, on display at the rhino protection unit headquarters just outside Way Kambas National Park, is a testament to the brutality of poaching. A bullet hole is visible above its eye socket, and the snout of the animal has been destroyed, likely when the horn was removed. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed in 2010. And this spring, poachers broke into a zoo in Paris and killed a rhino for its horn.
Russ Juskalian
young-rhino
young-rhino
A rare Sumatran rhino leaves its fenced enclosure for food and a medical exam, part of its daily routine at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Way Kambas National Park in Indonesia. The seven rhinos at the facility each live in large, enclosed sections of forest within the park and are closely monitored.

The sanctuary’s goal is to develop a breeding population that will protect the genetic diversity of the species and strengthen wild populations. There have been small victories and a few natural births, but a rapidly dwindling natural environment remains the primary threat to the roughly 100 Sumatran rhinos remaining.
Russ Juskalian
[This article originally appeared in print as "Last Chance To Be."]
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