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I came across a very interesting article in Scientific American today concerning one person’s proposed solution to end the poaching of rhinoceroses. I’ll discuss his proposal in a minute, but first I would like to share a little bit of information concerning poaching in general.

According to the United Nations as well as many nature and wildlife organizations, rhino poaching has been rising over the past few years. Poachers are only after the horns. Some of them are sent to East Asia, particularly China and Vietnam, for use in traditional medicine; the rest are sent to some countries in the Middle East, where people make traditional dagger holders with them.

Earlier this year, members of CITES, also known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, met in Geneva to discuss the poaching of rhinos, along with other topics concerning wildlife management.

According to the New York Times:

The illegal trade that appears to be driving the poaching “includes fraudulent applications for Cites documents, abuse of legal trophy hunting and the use of couriers smuggling horns from Southern Africa to Far East Asia”, the organization added.

South Africa, which has more rhinos than any other African country, is thought to be the source of most of the illegal horns. In 2010, 333 rhinos were killed, nearly triple the 2009 toll, and the 2011 figures look to be as bad or worse. Poachers affiliated with organized criminal gangs sometimes hunt by helicopter with automatic weapons.

The same article also points out one of the most important facts about poaching: this is happening because poachers get an extraordinary price for horns.

The horns can be worth as much as 200,000 euros, or $290,000, Europol said.

South Africa is trying to crack down. Nine poachers have been killed this year by rangers. From the Huffington Post, discussing what’s happening in Kenya:

Wildlife agents in Kenya undergo paramilitary training and hunt down suspected poachers using battlefield tactics. In December 2009, poachers shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger. In response, wildlife agents set up an ambush of the suspects and killed two of them. Armed wildlife agents walk Kenya’s national parks on foot to hunt for poachers.

Kenyan wildlife agents shot and killed five poachers in November, the highest ever in one month.

So, aside from nations taking a military or policing role toward poachers, one man has proposed his own solution, getting back to that Scientific American article I mentioned earlier.

Ed Hern, who owns Rhino and Lion Nature Preserve in Johannesburg, has said that we should poison the rhino horns to deter poachers.

The horns of rhinos are made of keratin, which is the same material that human fingernails are made out of, so according to Hern the poison, cyanide, will not hurt the rhinos.

Via Scientific American:

“The aim would be to kill, or make seriously ill anyone who consumes the horn,” Hern told Sky News. He also hopes this could help disrupt the market for illegal rhino horns. “If someone in China eats it and gets violently sick, they are not going to buy it again,” he said.

I pondered over this solution this afternoon and here are a few of my thoughts. My first reaction was that if poisoning the horns does not hurt the rhino in any way then it may indeed be a good solution. In fact, even the knowledge that this is happening even to a few groups of rhinos may be enough to ward off some poachers. Afterall, no one is going to want to use horns infused with cyanide for medicine. Also, demand will probably decrease greatly.

My second reaction is of a more Buddhist perspective: is it ethical to possibly kill people as a way to stop poaching? Or is there a better approach? If someone illegally buys a poisoned horn to use in medicinal ways, he or she will undoubtedly become ill and maybe even die. Will the people buying the horns know about the possibility of poisonings? I doubt the poachers will tell their customers out of fear of losing their profits.

Overall, I think this could be a significant way to greatly reduce the number of rhinos being poached for their horns. I also think, if this plan is indeed put into effect, that the United Nations and environmental organizations should publicize it greatly. I have a feeling that if people think it’s such a danger to their health, they will no longer be willing to pay people to poach.

Reduce demand, reduce poaching. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

What do you think?

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