TIME seems at a standstill in the winding alleys of the bazaar in the old Arabian city of Sanaa. An old man crouches in a small, dimly lighted stall and looks over a finely worked handle for a dagger. ``This is not for the tourists,'' he says with a smile, ``this is the real thing.'' The ``real thing'' is a Yemeni jambiyya, the dagger worn proudly at the waist by virtually every man in this tribally oriented society of the Middle East. The jambiyya is not just another anthropological footnote to a little-known culture. The best Yemeni daggers are made with handles of rhinoceros horn, as they have been for centuries.
But now the rhinoceros is facing extinction.
Worldwide the population of this endangered species has declined dramatically from 70,000 in 1970 to few more than 10,000 today. Hardest hit has been the black rhino, once the dominant species on the continent of Africa. Only 3,800 animals survive - with no more left in Uganda, Somalia, and Ethiopia. The southern white rhino, which faced extinction in the early part of the century, has actually flourished due to the austere protective measures in South Africa. Of the Asian varieties, the Javan is down to its last 55 specimens.
In response to international concern, the government of North Yemen banned the import of the horn in 1982, but it continues to be smuggled into this poor, developing country. Not surprisingly, prices for rhinoceros horn have skyrocketed in North Yemen. From only $35 per kilogram in 1970 the wholesale price has reached $1,500 today. This is a bargain compared to $14,000 per kilogram of African horn in Hong Kong in 1987 and $24,000 for Asian horn in Taipei. The rather unattractive protrusion on the nose of the rhinoceros is literally worth its weight in gold, but it is also the animal's Achilles' heel.
``There are only a few hundred rhinoceros left in all of my country,'' lamented Perez Olindo, the director of wildlife conservation in Kenya. Dr. Olindo outlined the extent of the rhinoceros issue before I went to North Yemen, where half of the illegal horn on the market ends up.
International conservation organizations like World Wildlife Fund have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past two decades to save the rhinoceros, but it has been a losing battle.
``We cannot guard every animal,'' says John Hanks, who has been coordinating efforts for WWF. ``We need to put more effort into closing down illegal trade routes and reducing consumer demand.''
In Asia attempts have been made to introduce substitutes for the use of powdered rhinoceros horn in traditional medicines. The same is true for the horn as an aphrodisiac, although this use is far less common than most people think.
In North Yemen the need is for a substitute material for making dagger handles. The daggermaker in the Sanaa bazaar is not aware of alleged medicinal or stimulative properties of rhinoceros horn. The horn is valued primarily because of the way it wears as a handle. ``A rhinoceros horn handle gets better as it gets older,'' explained a Yemeni friend.
As an example he pulled out his own jambiyya and held it up to the light. It was hard to believe this was really from rhinoceros horn. The handle was translucent with an amber tint. It takes at least 60 years for a handle to mature like this, but the value soars to tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. At present the Yemenis know of no other material with similar qualities, but the daggermakers are eager to experiment as the supply of horn continues to decrease.
Very few people in North Yemen have ever seen a rhinoceros and most are not aware of the animal's alarming decline.
``We have so many basic health and development problems that wildlife conservation is far down on the list,'' remarked an official in the Ministry of Agriculture.
I came to Yemen for World Wildlife Fund to see what might be done to promote rhinoceros conservation, but where do you begin in the face of pressing concerns for health, education, and economic development? The country does not have the resources to stop the smuggling or promote wildlife conservation.
``If you want to educate people about the rhinoceros problem, why not begin with our own wildlife conservation needs?'' asked Dr. Ali El Shekeil, dean of science at the University of Sanaa. ``We have a natural stake in our own endangered species, such as the gazelle, ibex, turtle, and Arabian bustard. But we do not even have money for research by our faculty.''
Having completed his own graduate training at the University of Arizona, Dr. El Shekeil saw the need for further training of Yemeni students abroad on conservation issues. In the long run this will allow the Yemenis to promote wildlife conservation without dependence on outside help. Conservationists cannot expect the people here to simply say no to rhinoceros horn, especially in light of the symbolic value of the jambiyya in the culture.
But If the local species can be saved, there will be less reason to write the rhino's pitiful epitaph.
Daniel Martin Varisco is an anthropologist who works as a consultant in international development.