One night in October 2016 I learned the bitter truth. Mark & I attended a talk by Dr. Nicky Holdstock, a renowned equestrian vet with an awful lot of letters after her name, in our hometown of Cambridge. The talk was called “Racehorses to Rhinos” which interested me, so along we went.
I grew up in South Africa and spent many happy hours in the bush from a very young age. I vividly remember the feeling of immersion and connection with nature. I spent hours observing birds, animals, and insects, appreciating the wonders around every corner that we explored. My dad has the sharpest eyes and could spot things hiding that most people would miss. To have the opportunity to hear a talk about rhinos on a cold autumn night in Cambridge felt like a joyful reconnection to those days. I admit that I was naive when Mark and I walked into the lecture room.
A bit like being strapped into a rollercoaster and unable to exit the ride, I quickly discovered that my childhood utopia was at war. This talk wasn’t a celebration of wildlife at all but a desperate distress call. Due to the fact that rhinoceros horn is more valuable by weight than gold, diamonds, or cocaine, every rhino is worth more, to some, dead than alive. Nicky’s inspiring story unfolded, complete with a very graphic slide show. She told us about how she went from treating racehorses to battling to save rhinos with the most devastating injuries following the removal of their horns.
The images shown and the stories told that night affected me very deeply and I was unsettled for a long time. I won’t go into details, the information is out there if you’d like to know more, but I will say that the process of separating a rhino from its horn is brutal. Rhino mothers are especially vulnerable and this brutality is often witnessed by a rhino baby, which becomes an orphan in the most traumatic way.
That night at the lecture we had unexpectedly ‘taken the red pill’ and now knew the truth. I was furious at my ignorance and determined to learn all I could and to tell anyone who would listen. I attended more talks, I researched, I changed my social media bubble and we became involved with several rhino charities, trying to find a way to make a difference.
Why is this happening?
The sole threat to rhinos is human greed. The thing that really surprised me is this: although these animals belong in Africa, there are countries many miles away whose relentless appetites for social status and personal gratification fuels the killing of at least two rhinos per day, driving the rhino population into crisis.
So which countries am I talking about? Consumer demand for rhino horn is almost exclusive to Asian nations, with Vietnam in the top spot, followed by China occupying the top two consumer markets. Rising economic growth in these areas has given rise to an increasingly wealthy urban middle class with enhanced purchasing power. This is one of the main enablers of the status-driven consumption of rhino horn that has been so catastrophic for the future of the species. Offering powdered rhino horn to guests at a party in Vietnam, for instance, is a display of wealth and prosperity that would increase social status. Especially if that person could produce the ear or tail of the rhino, along with a photograph of the carcass, to prove that the kill was personally ordered.
Urban myths surrounding the medicinal properties of rhino horn have given rise to beliefs that they can cure cancer, relieve hangovers, or enhance male virility. Extensive testing of rhino horns has proven this to be completely unfounded. Rhino horn is made up of keratin – the same as our finger and toenails.
The Rhino horn trade is a very lucrative business as the horn can fetch up to $60,000 per kilogram. Organised criminal gangs have skilfully exploited this market with criminal networks extending from Asia to Africa. As I said earlier, this is a war. There are approximately 25,000 rhinos left in the world, which means the rhino could become extinct in the next 15 years. In fact, the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in 2018. There are two females left on earth but with no male, their species is effectively extinct.
Every wild rhino in Africa is monitored and protected by the reserve they live in. Every time one is killed, the people who protect them are devastated. There are enormous costs involved in protecting each rhino with armed guards around the clock; aircraft patrolling the skies during a full moon, because that is when poachers are most likely to strike; rescuing orphans; providing veterinary assistance to rhinos who are still alive after having their horns cut out.
This is the real rub for me: these costs are borne by the African countries where the rhinos live and the costs are crippling. This trauma is inflicted by wealthy Asian countries so far removed from the situation that there are no repercussions for them.
Why are rhinos important?
Rhinos are a keystone species. This means a species whose role within an ecosystem ‘significantly alters the habitat around it and this affects large numbers of other organisms’. These mega-herbivores shape entire ecosystems by geo-farming, fundamentally reshaping the land around them over time. They also spread nutrients, providing the basis of complex food chains. They play host to scores of ectoparasites and modify vegetation by establishing and maintaining short-grass ‘lawns’ which are key to the survival of certain plants. We can’t afford to lose these colossal vegetarians, the intricate balance of the environment depends on them.
When Mark and I founded The Herbtender in 2020 there was no doubt in our minds that we would be a company that gave back, and that we would support rhinos. Back in 2017 I became a founding supporter of an innovative new rhino charity called The Council of Contributors, founded by the inspirational Kennedy Zakeer. Kennedy's journey with rhino conservation started when two orphan calves who she looked after at an orphanage were killed by poachers for their small horns. That event was a turning point for Kennedy and she now dedicates her fight to save rhinos to the calves, Impy and Gugu.
‘The COC is a group of like-minded, passionate people. Conscious people, who understand that the time is now to thwart the pandemic of rhino poaching. Anyone can sign up to donate monthly and collectively our donations accomplish big things. ‘
What appealed to me about this charity is how they support a variety of projects enabling people in Africa to keep fighting this war. Funds are short and the odds are bleak, but with local and international support they will keep fighting for each and every rhino.
You can read more about them, and sign up yourself, here:
“Rhino horns are like bars of gold walking around in the open and left for the taking. We need to curb the demand and stop the killing. We have to protect them – whatever it takes.” Kennedy Zakeer