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Listing white rhinos as endangered could save all rhinos, conservationists say

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has named southern white rhinoceros an endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act, a move that the organization says could help protect the other four highly endangered species of rhinos.

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“Now you see why people are getting involved in illegal rhino horn trade,” says Hoover.

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Indeed, the surging price has spawned a coterie of international criminal syndicates that rival drug and arms cartels in the sophistication of their methods. The US, while not a major player in a market that largely spans from Africa to Asia, has nevertheless emerged as a worrisome linchpin in illegal rhino horn trading.

That’s because Americans are the largest importers of rhino hunting trophies in the world, says Teresa Telecky, Director of Wildlife for Humane Society International, noting that hunters brought some 688 trophies into the US between 2002 and 2012.

“Basically, there are a lot of horns in this country,” says Dr. Telecky.

In the US, hunting trophies from both black and southern white rhinos can be imported with proper documentation from either South Africa or Swaziland, but they cannot be sold. Those trophies consist of the full rhino head, and both black and white rhinos have two horns.

The US, then, has become a hotspot for traders looking to buy up horns that will win big cash rewards in Asia. To date, a massive, undercover criminal investigation known as Operation Crash, led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, has resulted in 14 arrests and six convictions for illegal rhino horn trading. Those convictions included two Chinese businessmen caught buying horns in the US for illegal sale in China, one of whom attempted to package the rhino in a postal box marked as bearing sweets and handicrafts.

In its March 2013 report, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also identified a rise in the theft of rhino horns in the US.

As the threat to rhinos becomes increasingly dire, attempts at combating the problem have also become more creative, with most aimed at curbing the ballooning price of a horn. Some conservationists have advocated legalizing the rhino trade, in hopes that doing so will convert rhino poaching into rhino farming, since rhino horns that are shaved off can regenerate, with no need to kill the animal for its horn.

That solution, though, is saddled with major questions about sustainability, as is its unclear if regenerating horns could sustain an industry that is expected to draw more participants if legalized. One Chinese pharmaceutical company is currently experimenting on how to harvest rhino horns efficiently and without injury to the animal.

In another surprising turn, private rhino owners in South Africa, who consider the animals essential to tourism, have begun poisoning the horns. The controversial practice, which does not harm the rhinos but is aimed at making those who ingest the horn powder extremely ill, seeks to warn away would-be consumers in Asia, says Telecky.

“People in South Africa are really just so desperate to protect the rhinos,” she says. “They’re at their wits’ end about what to do.”

Telecky’s organization has taken a less extreme approach, attempting to rebrand how Vietnamese businessmen perceive the horns. Vietnamese businessmen are among the product’s biggest buyers, purchasing horns as status symbols, she says.

White rhinos – when allowed to live – are enthralling animals. In white rhino social groups, adult males cordon off for themselves a plot of land about one square mile and rim it with dung piles to form a symbolic fence. Dominant males then patrol that land to ensure that breeding females do not leave the plot and will lunge – horn first – after any male that expresses interest in its preferred mate.

And these are big beasts: White rhinos are the second largest land mammals in the world after elephants, placing them in a group of big-boned animals that historically have not fared well on the planet. Vanished Brobdingnagian animals include the Elasmotherium, a four-ton, furry rhino that went extinct during the Pleistocene. 

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