Southern Africa is home to around 90% of the world’s remaining white and black rhino population. With current numbers dwindling at 19,700 rhinos in South Africa, we ask ourselves just how we got here.

The history of rhino poaching is a long one.

History of Rhino Horn Use

The Ancient Greeks believed that rhino horns could purify water. In the 5th century BC, the Persians believed that drinking from a rhino horn would prevent poisoning. This belief persisted in parts of Europe until the 19th Century. Around 100 AD the Ming and Ching dynasties also suspected that drinking from rhino horn cup would detect alkaloid poisoning, something that was treacherously common at the time.

An ancient decorated rhino horn cup used to deter poison. Credit: Annamaticus.

An ancient decorated rhino horn cup used to deter poison. Credit: Annamiticus.

It was not until 1597 that rhino horn was believed to have medicinal properties in China. According to the “Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu”, rhino horn can cure headaches and stop nightmares. According to this medical guide, the best kind of rhino horn is taken from a freshly slain beast.

The Beginning of the Rhino Trade

The earliest ivory trade dates back to 50 AD in East Africa and Arabia. Over the centuries, many countries have been involved in the trading of rhino horn, including Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, to name a few.

During this time trading rhino horn was legal, yet illegal trade and slaughter were still prominent.

In just this recent poaching history we have driven 25 species of rhino to extinction. Africa and Asia used to be home to around 30 types of rhino, we are now left with only five. And their numbers are decreasing.

The distribution of rhinos in 2015. Credit: Save the Rhino.

The distribution of rhinos in 2015. Credit: Save the Rhino.

Although steps were taken during the 1900’s to ban rhino horn trading, the trade numbers have been steadily on the rise. According to National Geographic, in 1977 there was an international ban on trade by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna). But in 1994, CITES allows exports of white rhino horn, who bounced back in numbers since their near extinction in 1900.

Since then, the illegal trade of rhino horn has spiralled out of control. Poaching numbers in South Africa escalated from just 13 in 2007, to a staggering 1054 in 2016. Governmental and other officials are battling to get the statistics under control. And the poachers have expanded to include 46 elephants in the count last year, according to Department of Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa.

Although 2016 showed a dip in poaching of 10.3%, it is still not enough to make a relevant difference. We need to remain vigilant to ensure the persistence of this species.


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