The wholesale slaughter of rhinoceros for their horn vexes citizens and ethicists alike in South Africa. Over the past six decades, these two species – the black and the white rhino – had been brought back from the brink of extinction by the careful breeding programmes of wildlife authorities. With renewed poaching, they are are once again gravely threatened. The status of their three Asian counterpart species is unclear as they are seldom seen in their former home ranges. Nowadays these long-lived slow-breeding relics from the Miocene era have been reduced to barely sustainable isolated populations in the wild with minimal genetic diversity in national parks and a few private game reserves. The greatest proportion of these behemoths survive in South Africa.
Poachers typically locate the animals, shoot them with high-calibre rifles, hack off the horns, and try to make off before animal-protection authorities arrive. Up to 1500kg of meat, bone, gore and leather are left to rot in the sun. The horn is thickly matted hair at the end of the nose, and consists mostly of keratin, which is the chemical that makes up finger-nails and hair. Said to be rich in calcium and potassium, the horn is used principally in China for traditional medicine, including the treatment of high blood pressure, fever and other ailments. In the West the myth persists that the horn is used in the East as an aphrodisiac. The horns are also highly prized for their lustre and are used in ormanental carving – often, but not exclusively in the hilts of traditional daggers in Yemen and Oman. Despite government bans on the sale of rhino horn products, they are still freely obtainable in the Arabian Peninsula.
Before even considering the rights of the animals themselves, the trade in rhino horn already speaks volumes about the exploitative nature of international trade in Africa’s natural resources. The horn increases in value by several orders of magnitude, and little of that value ends up in Africa. Poachers receive a few dollars for the horns they risk their lives to hack off. Yet final buyers can apparently pay upwards of US$ 50 000 per kilogram. The trade in endangered species replicates so many other trade relations.
Reflection on the moral status of animals is not highly developed in our part of Africa. Where life and death are cheap, where people in their thousands die annually in violent crimes and motor accidents, or with treatable diseases, where girls as young as 12 are having children, and babies are left to die at the roadside, it seems a luxury to worry about animals. And those who do raise their voices over animal rights often receive an unsympathetic hearing.
If we are not to treat animals simply as commodities to be exploited, like livestock bred for consumption, then we need to realise that they merit moral consideration. Rhinos are not the same as disease-carrying mosquitoes or rats, the killing of which can be regarded as a service. They differ from cattle, sheep and goats, which are bred for their meat. Rhinos raise the question of what it means to ‘own’ an animal that is essentially wild. They survive these days in national parks or on private reserves. Come to think of it, what does it mean to own vast tracts of land cut off from the communities surrounding them? This notion of ownership of terrain and its usufruct is at odds with traditional African notions of common ownership of property.
However, traditional African morality does recognise stealing as a crime, particularly in relation to livestock. And the theft and slaughter of cherished symbols of the wild, in order to feed the appetites of cultures on another continent is an even more grave an infringement. Instead of receding, the appetite for rhino horn seems to be growing. Of course one wants to be respectful of other people’s cultures. But these cultures’ unsustainable practices have caused the local extinction of the prized species and now rely on exporting mayhem to other continents. Surely in most moral systems, they cease to warrant respect.