Sometime last fall, I logged into an underground message board in the anonymized recesses of the Internet they call the darknet in search of rhinoceros horn.
Once thought to posess magical abilities, and now used primarily for supposed medicinal purposes across Asia, rhino horn is now an incredibly rare commodity that's worth more than cocaine, gold, or platinum. In Southeast Asia, a single horn--ripped from the head of a dead rhinoceros by a poacher working for a crime syndicate--can sell for half a million dollars or more.
After I posted my request, plenty of people wrote back, though it wasn't clear who was trying to sell and who was trying to scam. But one respondent sounded more serious. His email handle was "Keros," the Greek word for horn, and he dismissed my request as amateurish, explaining that the horn trade isn't something to take lightly. "Anyway," he wrote, "my material is black rhino horn pure keratin hunted in Namibia. I have three in the US right now."
As strange as it sounds, the international rhino horn trade has, like everything else, gone digital. Last year, a nationwide law enforcement sting called Operation Crash netted seven individuals, including a Texas rodeo star who'd been making horn deals via Facebook. That bust marked a rising trend for the sale of an item that can fetch $90,000 or more per kilogram. Enforcement has cracked down on overt sales in the U.S., but vendors have taken a cue from the drug trade and moved deeper into the Internet. Alongside heroin and MDMA, rhino horn is now being advertised through the impossible-to-trace connections of the darknet.
The illegal wildlife trade, including the sale of exotic animals and the parts of endangered species, has exploded in recent years to become a massive black market worth some $20 billion a year. Fueled by booming Asian economies and organized crime, African paramilitary groups, and appetites for exotica in the US, the trade is threatening some of the world's rarest and most charismatic species.
That includes tigers and elephants, as well as lesser-known species like pangolins, all of which have seen their numbers decline due in part to poaching. But the growth of the trade is best exemplified by the demand for rhino horn, which is falsely believed to have medicinal and psychoactive properties.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the past twelve months have seen the worst spate of rhino poaching in recent memory. Poachers have become notably more militarized, while rangers, despite the growing use of drones and other surveillance tech, have struggled to catch up. South Africa, which is home to the vast majority of Africa's white rhinoceroses and just under half of black rhinos, saw the bulk of rhino poaching activity.
The increase in poaching, fueled by skyrocketing prices for rhino horn, reflects a preceding increase in demand. Whether they use it for traditional medicine or, more recently, as a party drug, buyers are paying more for horn than ever, and they’re being supplied by organized crime, speculators, and corrupt officials, who have connected through crime rings and the Web to develop a global wildlife trade network.
This black rhino bull was found wandering Zimbabwe's Savé Valley Conservancy after poachers shot it several times and hacked off both its horns. Veterinarians euthanized the animal because its shattered shoulder could no longer support its weight. In the past six years poachers have killed more than a thousand African rhinos for their treasured horns. Photograph by Brent Stirton / National Geographic
A total of 668 rhinos were killed in South Africa in 2012, up nearly 50 percent from 2011. In 2008, only 83 animals were illegally killed. (Rhino hunting is still legal in South Africa, and trophy horns are legal for personal possession, which has complicated enforcement immensely.) Since 2007, poaching in South Africa is up by a staggering 3000 percent.
For both white and black rhinos, the huge increase in poaching threatens to derail what has been an otherwise hopeful narrative about conservation. The IUCN Red List, the leading global assessment of species vulnerability, lists the black rhino as critically endangered, after the wild population declined by an estimated 97.6% since 1960 to a low of 2,410 in 1995. Since then, the population has trended upwards, with an estimated 4,880 individuals in the wild at the end of 2010. That’s still a stunningly low number.
The southern white rhino, one of two white rhinoceros subspecies, was hunted down to a population of only 20-50 individuals by the end of the 19th century, all isolated in South Africa. But aggressive conservation and reintroduction of individuals to former ranges helped boost the wild population to 20,160 in 2010. After South Africa, the rest of the wild population is concentrated mostly in Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
As for the northern subspecies, in 2003 the only confirmed wild population stood at a paltry 30 individuals in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A 2006 survey only confirmed four individuals remained, and by now it’s thought that the subspecies is extinct in the region. (A handful of captive individuals were reintroduced to Kenya in the hopes that wild lands would induce them to mate.) To blame are poachers, who in many cases, especially in the DRC, are militant groups looking to cash in on the lucrative trade.
In both major wildlife trades in Africa, for rhino horn and elephant ivory, militants have begun to take over. It’s a matter of economics; horn and ivory prices are higher than ever, which has lured paramilitary groups into the lucrative slaughter.
On the other side are wildlife rangers, who in Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere are often underfunded, understaffed, and left facing poachers who have evolved from roving packs of hunter bandits into groups who are skilled at navigating the bush and who are also extremely efficient killers.
The New York Times has called ivory the newest conflict resource in Africa, and noted that “some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem.”
While northern white rhinos have disappeared, Garamba National Park is still home to a number of elephants, and because poachers are now often hard-core combatants, rangers have become more heavily armed. While in the US we may envision wildlife rangers as looking something like Ranger Smith, those in Africa are equipped with machine guns and RPGs, and regularly find themselves in deadly confrontations. In Kenya, even civilians have armed themselves to protect elephants.
For South Africa’s rhinos, it’s a similar situation. In November, following a rash of rhino killings in the South African province of North West, an anti-corruption investigative force known as the Hawks arrested a trio of men, including a park ranger, for their involvement in the rhino trade. That incident prompted Thandi Modise, the region’s premier, to request that the South African military step in for technical and staff support in the province’s reserves.
The South African army’s technical support was part of a shift towards the use of surveillance tech in conservation. Drones, which are cheaper than ever thanks to the U.S. military’s decade-plus of development along with a new private drone economy, have become popular in ecology and conservation efforts. Ecologists working with orangutans were notable early adopters, with drones offering the ability to fly over forests for surveys far cheaper than manned flights could ever be.
Drones are making their way into the wildlife trade as well. Google recently gave the WWF $5 million for drones to protect wildlife in Africa and Asia, while a number of other conservation groups have been getting into the drone game. Clive Vivier, a 65 year old rhino farmer and co-founder of the Zululand rhino reserve in South Africa, recently received permission from the U.S. State Department to buy Arcturus T-20 drones, which feature 17-foot wingspans, 16 hour flight times, and which are used by the Navy.
"It can tell whether a man is carrying a shovel or firearm and whether he has his finger on the trigger or not," Vivier told the Guardian. "We can see the poacher but he can't see us. We're good at arresting them when we know where they are. Otherwise it's a needle in a haystack."
Since WWF begun using drones to track poachers in Nepal in 2010, only two rhincerouses have been killed. Before that, one was killed every month on average.
Vivier is still looking for funding. He estimates that two years of flying will cost $300,000 per drone, and wants to slate 10 of the drones for South Africa’s Kruger park, where at least 400 animals were killed last year, with another 20 aircraft spread out amongst the rest of South Africa’s parks.
That would put the bill at around $4.5 million a year, which isn’t anything to sneeze at. But considering how much ground they can cover, they’re magnitudes cheaper than manned surveillance flights or rangers in Land Rovers searching for traces of poachers. As drones get cheaper, nature reserve surveillance is only going to get more high tech.
While the situation in Africa has taken a turn for the worse, the money fueling the trade isn’t coming from locals. Demand for ivory and horn has been fueled largely by Asia, where buyers looking for traditional medicines, hangover cures, and what basically amounts to exotic animal bling are pumping cash into the industry.
While China is still the world’s largest market for wildlife parts, which include the big trio of ivory, horn, and tiger parts, the country has made efforts in recent years to crack down illegal trade and fall into line with international regulations. According to the WWF’s 2012 Wildlife Crime Report Card (PDF), China has made “general progress in key aspects of compliance and enforcement” when it comes to tigers and rhinos, but it failing in some aspects of the ivory trade.
The world’s worst culprit, according to the WWF, is Vietnam. The country is failing or lacking in meeting almost all CITES wildlife conventions and regulations, which means it is more or less a lawless space for wildlife trafficking. Because of that, and efforts by China to crack down on the trade, Vietnam has turned into a global hub for parts coming out of Africa and, in the case of tigers and Asian elephants, the rest of Asia to later be sold region- and worldwide. That huge hole in the enforcement net, matched to a lesser extent by Thailand, is a major reason that the trade can still exist, as the WWF notes in the report:
Major gaps in enforcement at the retail market level are primarily responsible for the failing scores in destination countries, while Egypt, Thailand and Viet Nam fail for key areas of compliance as well. It is critical that demand countries, including China, Thailand and Viet Nam, urgently and dramatically improve enforcement effort to crack down on illegal wildlife trade in their countries... International wildlife crime is demand-driven, and it is recommended that China and Viet Nam, in particular, prioritize the development and implementation of well-researched demand reduction campaigns. Targeted strategies should be developed to influence consumer behaviour around tiger parts, rhino horn, and ivory of illegal origin.
In October, just as poaching levels in South Africa had reached a record high, with 455 rhinos killed since the beginning of the year, eclipsing last year's figure of 448, Vietnam rejected a law-enforcement and biodiversity agreement with South Africa aimed at curbing poaching. Rather than cracking down on the trade, officials in Vietnam are known to be actively partaking. It’s gotten to the point that Vietnamese officials and politicians prefer tiger bone paste and rhino horn to cash bribes.
“Nowadays, bribes for officials are disguised in the forms of not only gifts, luxury vacations and cars, but also rhino horns, bear bile, or tiger bone paste,” Le Nhu Tien, vice chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly’s Committee on Culture, Education, Youth, and Children, told Vietweek in October.
Rhino horn was once sold as a snake oil cancer cure, with customers basically fed false hope and swindled. But horn use has recently become popular among Vietnam’s nouveau riche and political elite as a party drug mixed with wine, or ground up and mixed into a tincture as a hangover cure.
“People actually have rhino horn tonic parties. They will use it to give them a boost,” Crawford Allan, the North American director of WWF's Traffic wildlife trade monitoring network, told me in a phone interview. “I met last fall with the Vietnamese officials responsible for this in their country, and they told me that rhino horn, in the wealthy elite, is being used as a hangover cure. They go out and get drunk every night, and they have to go to work in the morning, so they’ll take a shot of $400 rhino hangover cure, and that helps them through the day.”
Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same as your fingernails, and has absolutely zero medicinal or psychoactive properties. That means people are getting about as high off horn as they would if they snorted ground up $100 bills. The difference is, you can always print more cash.
In short, the trade has ballooned thanks to growing economies in Southeast Asia and China, where the newly wealthy, corrupt officials, and a booming middle class now can afford strange highs and expensive traditional therapies. And just as rising prices have attracted more sophisticated, militant groups to poaching, it’s also attracted organized crime.
Thai horn kingpin Chumlong Lemtongthai posting for his webcam at his home in Thailand. In November, he was jailed for 40 years by a South African court for organizing illegal rhino poaching expeditions. Image: Killing for Profit
If you’ve envisioned the wildlife trade as being similar to the drug trade, you wouldn’t be far off. Organized crime syndicates worldwide now control much of the wildlife trade, and in many cases have parlayed the very trade networks and smuggling techniques developed for drug smuggling into moving animal parts around the globe.
The phenomenon was described in a paper by Elizabeth Bennett of the World Conservation Society, which showed that budgets for enforcement efforts and conservation groups lag far behind the resources available to crime groups. That, combined with the ability of mob groups to bribe and intimidate officials, has left enforcement struggling to keep up with the trade on the sell side.
“We are failing to conserve some of the world’s most beloved and charismatic species,” Bennett said in a statement accompanying the paper. “We are rapidly losing big, spectacular animals to an entirely new type of trade driven by criminalized syndicates. It is deeply alarming, and the world is not yet taking it seriously. When these criminal networks wipe out wildlife, conservation loses, and local people lose the wildlife on which their livelihoods often depend.”
Mob influence extends beyond just the wildlife trade, and is also fueling a huge market in illegal logging that may make up to 30 percent of the global trade in hardwoods. In Laos, cronyism and smuggling by Vietnamese officials is responsible for a huge illegal logging industry, which is robbing Laos of its valuable hardwood resources with little payoff.
But it’s the wildlife trade that’s inflated most rapidly in the last decade. To gain a sense of the size, note that enforcement officials are now recording record busts while simultaneously watching the trade grow beyond what is currently enforceable. And as if the sheer volume of the trade wasn’t enough, the criminals running the trade continue to buy themselves protection.
In fact, enforcement actions and seizures in Southeast Asia have increased 10-fold in six years. On January 5, more than 27 kilos of Rhino horn worth an estimated US$1.4 million were seized by airport officials in Thailand and Vietnam: a 56-year-old Vietnamese man was arrested at Bangkok’s main airport after six pieces of horn, weighing about 10.6 kilos, were found in luggage he left on the baggage carousel after arriving from Ethiopia. The same day in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, customs officers confiscated six pieces of rhino horn weighing some 16.5 kilos from a 33-year-old Vietnamese man who had smuggled the horn from Mozambique via Doha and Bangkok.
But, as is the case with drugs, the Mr. Bigs of the trade continue to evade capture, and in many cases are openly able to take advantage of corruption, as the AP noted last August:
Recently, Lt. Col. Adtaphon Sudsai, a highly regarded, outspoken [Vietnamese police] officer, was instructed to lay off what had seemed an open-and-shut case he cracked four years ago when he penetrated a gang along the Mekong River smuggling pangolin.
This led him to Mrs. Daoreung Chaimas, alleged by conservation groups to be one of Southeast Asia's biggest tiger dealers. Despite being arrested twice, having her own assistants testify against her and DNA testing that showed two cubs were not offsprings from zoo-bred parents as she claimed, Daoreung remains free and the case may never go to the prosecutor's office.
Although they’re home to the highest-profile consumers, it’d be erroneous to think that the trade is limited to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia. In 2011, a gang in Ireland became notorious in 2011 for robbing museums of horns from stuffed rhinos. Known as the Rathkeale Rovers, they sourced horns by targeting auction houses, private dealers and collectors, museums, and even zoos. (In response, a number of museums throughout Europe replaced their stuffed rhinos’ horns with fiberglass replicas, along with signs that said something to the effect of “Don’t steal me, I’m fake.”)
By robbing auction houses and private dealers, the gang has been able to exploit loopholes in international bans on horn trading that, in some circumstances, allow for the sale of antiques and trophy mounts.
“At lot of the time the trade in rhino horn is taking place through auction houses, where they’re selling old trophy mounts, for example,” Allan said. “People who aren’t buying for a trophy, but who are then buying it to smuggle it out of the country to countries like Vietnam, where the demand is so high and the price is so high.”
Kenyan wildlife officials display arms seized from elephant poachers. Via Reuters.
Keeping the global trade connected is–what else?–the Internet. In Asia, it should come as no surprise that as the trade has been legitimized by rampant corruption, it’s also headed online, where sellers can more easily reach buyers. Because demand still outpaces supply, the online marketplace has also helped push prices higher.
“We know certainly in Asia, or in Vietnam for example, the web is rife with advertising offering to sell rhino horn,” Allan said. “There’s very little fear of being prosecuted or detected.”
The U.S. also boasts a massive online trade, which has made enforcement difficult. The Endangered Species Act, which regulates most of the wildlife trade, only prohibits interstate and international commerce. That means that not all possession, or even sales, of banned items is illegal in the US. Pre-internet, selling something as rare as a rhino horn would be done either through auction houses, or through private trade, but putting out an ad in the local paper wasn't exactly going to reach a lot of buyers. Now a huge market is open to sellers, some of whom don't even know what they're doing is illegal, and tracking all of those markets is pretty much impossible.
"You have the issue of the individual seller, who tries to take advantage of Craigslist or eBay, possibly without really being aware that they’re violating laws, depending on what they’re selling," Sandra Cleva of the Fish and Wildlife Service told me. "It makes it easy, and those transactions often happen fairly quickly. The reality of it is that no agency has a large enough enforcement force to track everything that goes on in the internet."
That point was underscored last year by a pair of high-profile busts. First came Operation Cyberwild, a Fish and Wildlife operation in Southern California that netted a dozen arrests for people selling various illegal wildlife products–from turtle boots to live fish–over Craigslist.
“The sale of endangered animals on the Internet has reached an alarming level, with as much as two-thirds of such sales taking place in the United States,” U.S. Attorney André Birotte, Jr. said at the time. “These Internet sales of wildlife fuel poaching and make the killing of protected animals more profitable.”
Around the same time, federal agents from Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Homeland Security, and the IRS were putting the final touches on Operation Crash, named after the term for a group of rhinos. Seven people, including the aforementioned Texas cowboy, were arrested in the first wave, which netted 37 horns (worth $10 million or more) and millions of dollars worth of assets.
"What we’re seeing here in the States with respect to rhino horns are people cashing in on them once they’re already here, because people now have an opportunity to sell them for considerable amounts of money," Cleva said. "And there are those who tend to export their horns overseas to really magnify their profit, which is what the two gentlemen in Los Angeles were doing."
The operation is ongoing, and at last count a total of 12 people have been arrested, including a pair of the Rathkeale Rovers.
Over time, the animal and its horn have been imbued with mystical properties. In 1515, Albrecht Dürer created his famous woodcut of a rhinoceros based on a written description and brief sketch by an unknown artist of an Indian rhinoceros that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year.
Rhino horn is worth more than gold, but it’s still being traded online, so I had to ask: How hard is it really to get? There’s little chance of finding it on Craigslist, and it’d take a real stroke of strange luck for me to end up finding someone who dabbles in horn through Facebook. But it's a numbers game. Cleva told me that Fish and Wildlife has three intelligence analysts who do Internet research, and even with 300, there's simply no way to monitor the entire web for such a rare product.
After trying to scour websites for examples of rhino horn sales, it became rather obvious that I faced the same problem. But there is another option to the regular old Internet: the Tor network, an anonymity service used to access an isolated portion of the Internet that’s more secure and more lawless than the net you’re currently connected to.
Tor stands for The Onion Router, and connects solely to the pseudo-top-level domain .onion, which differs from .com, .net, and all the other regular domain suffixes by not being an official part of the Domain Naming System. So while .onion sites are part of the global network that makes up the Internet, they’re not accessible through Google or any of the rest of the regular web as we know it.
Onion routing works by bouncing your requests all over the world, similar to how that Russian dude in Goldeneye hides his own browsing. While .onion has been around since 2004, the creation of the anonymous currency Bitcoin in 2009 helped give the .onion web a reputation as a marketplace for all kinds of illicit goods. At the forefront is the Silk Road, an online bazaar where you can buy just about any street drug you can think of from anonymous vendors and have it shipped anywhere in the world, along with porn, regular old classifieds, and for a short time, even firearms through the Silk Road’s sister site The Armory.
As enticing as that may sound, navigating the Tor network is a major pain in the ass. Load times are extremely slow, as data get routed all over the world, and .onion addresses forgo names, such as http://silkroad.onion, for complicated and impossible to remember bits of gibberish, like http://kpvz7ki2v5agwt35.onion.
The vast majority of data in the Tor network and deep web is basically just that: data that’s more or less inaccessible because there’s no road map to get to it. The sites and data that are useful, or at least interesting, aren’t easy to stumble upon.
What search engines exist, they don’t have the finesse of Google, and mostly produce gobbledegook for results. The addresses of popular sites like the Silk Road are no secret, and can be easily found on the regular web. But for someone rooting around for something or other, the incredible lag time and purely DIY aesthetic make browsing a brain-numbing chore. And even if you have the right address, it won’t always work.
For a first-timer, there is one go-to source for help, known as the Hidden Wiki. It’s basically just a huge list of links (an old screenshot is available here) to various sites of interest: Blogs and chat rooms for the types of folks you’d expect to be chilling in such a place–revolutionaries, anarchists, anyone that doesn’t dig The Man–along with lists of music repositories, drug outlets, and a number of links to various types of hardcore, and sometimes illegal, porn.
I think that sums up the Tor network best; the Web today, while still filled with porn and gore sites, is relatively clean. Nowhere during your average surf session nowadays, especially as we spend more time clicking on links from social media than randomly browsing, are you going to be a single click away from sites hosting bestiality and jailbait porn. But sites linked to by the Hidden Wiki claim to offer exactly that, although I'm not going to try and confirm.
I wanted to find a source who had at some point dealt in the online horn trade, as I wanted to get a little more insight into how it worked. The Silk Road had, amongst all its other wares, weed and heroin, but no horn and thus no one to talk to.
Outside of the marketplaces, there are two other prominent options: Contact one of various listings for procurement services–people who claim they can get almost anything–as well as message boards that work as free-form classifieds, and which include buy-sell offers for myriad illicit goods.
It’s tough to have much confidence in the procurement services, especially when they’re listed alongside people claiming to be hitmen, but I found one with good reviews whose site loudly proclaimed it was based in Israel and could get anything. I sent them an email via a Tor email account saying that I was looking for information about the horn market, and posted something similar on one of the classifieds boards.
The alleged Israeli service got back to me within a few days, and said that horn was something they could easily get. They said their going rate for a horn picked up in China was $18,000 a kilo, which was (and still is) below market price. I tried to get some more info on why the horn was relatively cheap and how they'd acquire it, but probably because it was clear I wasn't actually interested in buying said horn, they stopped responding.
Soon after I put up the message board post, and in the months since, I’ve occasionally gotten random emails from people saying they've got their hands on horn. Most sound like this first one, which happens to be my favorite:
A “thief” who deals in “exquisite” items! Now that sounds like some intrigue. After emails like that, I figured the search was fruitless. I wasn't a buyer, and it's no surprise that people wouldn't want to talk to someone bumbling about so bluntly. But one guy who’d written to me early on pulled a surprising move: After telling him the procurement service said they could somehow score discount horn, this guy basically said I was being an idiot for thinking that was how the market worked.
Not only that, but he wrote back to tell me how he does business:
Man, this is why i ask this question. You only have to read the news to know, I´m selling right now at almost 62K per kilo intact horns and sections at 72K per kilo (average section is about .52 to .66 kg) I don´t sell powder.
If anyone is trying to sell at this ridiculous price is probably trying to scam you, and i repeat you can search for news in google and you´ll see my prices are the right.
Anyway my material is black rhino horn pure keratin hunted in Namibia. I have three in the US right now:
---82cm (32 inch) and 5.435 kg at 330K US dollars
---52cm (20.3 inch) and 2.918 kg at 180K US dollars
---37.3 cm (14.5 inch) and 2.188 kg at 135K US dollars
I will do sections for the smaller one, and the extra cost is because for me is more difficult to sell it in this way.
I only accept bitcoins, and of course accept full escrow.
I also can work outside full escrow, in 50% upfront and two bitcoins payments, or 20% bitcoins in first, and silver or gold in second.
The horn or section can be shipped to an address or to a drop point. If you are in NY, i suppose you´ll have it in three days tops once the payment is done.
I wrote him back asking how exactly he makes such massive transactions with strangers online, and found that bitcoin escrow services are a real thing, which does open up the possibility for trading ridiculous amounts of bitcoin with at least some sort of guarantee. He never responded to that query, but followed up by saying he had an offer for two of the horns. I lost contact after that.
Was it the real deal? I of course can’t be sure, and my admittedly clumsy way of searching for horn had already filled my inbox with scammers. But the details were right, and talking to Allan, the prices were about what one would expect. "The guy asking $180,000 for a single horn, that may be the real deal," Allan said. "Maybe he does have something real to sell."
Real or not, there are two takeaways: First, the rhino horn trade is indeed popular and lucrative enough that people didn't bat an eye at discussing its sale, regardless of whether they were scammers or not. (For example, I doubt I would have received similarly enthusiastic responses to queries about exotic, illegal fish.) Second is the sheer simplicity of it. Rhino horn is an incredibly rare and exotic material, one that would be pretty much impossible for the average Joe to pick up through offline means. Assuming I had a mountain of bitcoins, an escrow service I could trust, and a desire for horn, attempting a buy through the dark web would be the next easiest thing to going to South Africa and hunting a rhino in person.
There's another facet to the case that's complicating the trade worldwide: While the act of selling the horn through the web is illegal, the guy's possession of it may not be. "Now, the question must be that it may be a legally acquired horn," Allan said. "It might be an antique that’s been held for a hundred years in the U.S. sitting on someone’s wall as a trophy. It may be a legal horn. But once that person starts to sell it and trade it, and goes across state lines, that’s where offenses start to come in if it’s not done through the proper means."
So diving into Tor isn't even necessary. Unlike a guy with a brick of cocaine, someone who's had a horn in the family for years could ostensibly throw it up for sale online without realizing it's illegal, which is an issue authorities regularly have to deal in the wildlife trade, although horn is a much rarer case. But the opposite of that scenario is also realistic: Someone starts reaching out to trophy hunters and the like looking for horn, which had been legally acquired, and buys it up for cheap to sell in Asia. This is what the cowboy on Facebook did.
Forays into the dark web aside, one giant final question remains: How does one stop the trade? Unsurprisingly, shutting down the wildlife trade has been fraught with difficulties, a lack of resources, and various theories about legalization, just like the drug trade it mirrors.
The most basic step to combat the trade is to increase support for awareness and enforcement efforts. That combination truly works, as evidenced online. A few years ago, you might have been able to find elephant ivory on eBay labeled as an antique or as “oxbone,” but efforts from advocacy groups helped push the auction site to crack down on wildlife products. (Oxbone products still aren't banned by eBay, although most of them are fake ivory anyway. But if you search for the highest-priced oxbone listings, you can occasionally find what appears to be ivory, which often is listed as antique even if it's from recently-killed elephants.)
Even Craigslist, which has much more of a hands-off policy on listings, has seen a decline in overt posts for wildlife products thanks to enforcement efforts like Fish and Wildlife's Cyberwild operation.
Of course, the Internet is still a major tool of the trade, and not simply for communication. While not necessarily the case with horn, many people who buy banned wildlife products don’t realize (or are misled by vendors) that they’re buying something illegal. Eliminating products from the surface Web helps cut down on that sector of the trade. In the U.S. and Europe, online enforcement has helped prevent illegal items from being easily found and purchased.
A customs official in Hong Kong displays one of 33 horns netted in a record 2011 bust. Image: Aaron Tam/AFP
In Southeast Asia, online markets are much more lax about vendor restrictions, especially when it comes to wildlife products. Tightening enforcement in that space is key to limiting access to the trade. In the case of rhino horn’s newfound status as a luxury item, pushing the trade further underground can help prevent people from buying into the latest fad.
"There’s the mentality of people that consider consuming endangered wildlife goes against the grain, goes against society’s norms and is something cool and radical to do," Allan said. "That’s obviously just wrong. We know that it’s certainly happening in a few countries in Asia. If it spreads, it’s a much bleaker picture than you would even imagine. We hope that’s not the case."
As the online trade gets pushed deeper into the Web, catching and prosecuting buyers and sellers gets increasingly difficult. And, as we’ve seen with the drug trade, completely preventing people from selling illicit products is impossible. But stepping up enforcement efforts and forcing trade networks as far away from the mainstream as possible can help suck some of the demand out of the wildlife trade bubble that’s encouraging criminal enterprises to get into the business in the first place.
On the supply side, equipping rangers and wildlife managers with better surveillance and monitoring technology goes a long way to solve the age-old problem of poaching: In the vastness of wildlife parks, poachers are tiny, and finding them with limited manpower before they strike is a Herculean task. While 20,000 rhinos living in the wild isn’t a large population from an ecological standpoint–especially if 700 to 1,000 of them are being killed a year–it is a huge number when you’re trying to keep track of them.
The rise of drones in wildlife management is fascinating, as it’s a rather perfect application of the technology. Ranger budgets are chronically underfunded, and time spent trying to track down poachers is costly. Drones are relatively cheap to fly, can cover much more ground, and with military-grade surveillance tools, can search for poachers more effectively than rangers on the ground or on manned flights.
For rhinos specifically, there’s a huge benefit to be found in bringing coherence to the convoluted regulations protecting them. In South Africa, foreigners are still legally able to hunt rhino, as long as their horns are mounted and shipped home as personal trophies.
Proponents argue that the white rhino population in South Africa is large enough to sustainably allow hunts, but the legality of some rhino hunting has opened huge loopholes for poachers.
For example, in November a Thai man was handed a 40-year jail sentence by a South African court for setting up fake hunts to gather horns. According to court documents, the man paid Thai prostitutes around $800 apiece to pose next to dead rhinos with small-caliber (read: not able to kill a rhino) rifles that had been shot by other people at game farms. A total of 26 rhinos were killed, whose horns the man shipped back to Asia, not as personal trophies, but for profit.
Chumlong Lemtongthai, head of the Thai Xaysavang syndicate, employed prostitutes to pose as legal rhino hunters in order to obtain rhino horn trophies to sell in East Asia. Image: Killing for Profit
The quasi-legality of horn has caused incredible trouble for enforcement officials worldwide. Busting someone with a kilo of cocaine is a simple arrest, but someone may be traveling with rhino horn that’s been legally acquired, whether as a personal trophy or an antique mount, that may or may not then be sold.
A standardized licensing system could go a long way to clearing up that confusion, whether serial numbers are etched into horns or ID tags are embedded in legal horns. More importantly, South Africa needs to figure out what, if any, rationale it has for continuing rhino hunts to continue. It’s rather difficult to get tough on poaching as a whole when the hunting and permitting system as it’s set up now is so easily taken advantage of. It wouldn't be the first to ban trophy hunts; Kenya has banned hunting since 1977, and Botswana and Zambia recently announced plans to limit or eliminate trophy hunting of a variety of threatened species.
That lack of horn identification has been a driving force behind tech developments like those of the Rhino Rescue Project, which has designed a comprehensive identification system for horns. First, an x-ray visible dye is injected into the horn of a living rhino, and a trio of ID microchips are inserted into the horn as well as the living animal, and keyed to a DNA sample in a database. The dye is designed to make scanning for horns easier for customs officials, while the ID chips can help pinpoint exactly where a horn came from and what individual animal was poached. Rhino Rescue Project is testing their system now, and expects that one deployed in the field could remain operational for three to four years.
There’s another option, often trumpeted by owners of private rhino reserves in South Africa: Legalize and regulate the trade. One particularly vocal proponent is rhino breeder John Hume, who has nearly 800 individuals on his ranches. Unlike elephant ivory, rhino horn grows back, and thus can be harvested without killing the animal. (While a rhino might get grumpy at losing its fancy horn, they don’t have blood vessels or nerves.)
Hume has millions of dollars’ worth of horn harvested from his animals already stockpiled in banks around South Africa, and as such obviously stands to profit from legalization. But the concept does have merit, at least at first glance: Why kill rhinos for horn when you can just clip it off? There's another potential bonus: Opening up a flow of legal goods could help deflate the price bubble, which would discourage criminals from getting involved in the trade.
"With legalized trade will come increased incentives for rhino breeding operations," Hume said in a lengthy discussion of his proposed plans with Safari Talk. "We have a vast amount of land available throughout rhino range states. The day we reach a point where demand outstrips supply will be the day that the rhino will be doomed anyway. With the status quo and current poaching levels, that day is approaching very fast for rhinos."Conservationists and activists have a straightforward counter: Poaching an animal is a hell of a lot cheaper and easier than farming them. And because horn has been illegal for so long, the trade is already dominated by criminals, not ranchers, and it’s unlikely legalizing horn is going to convince crime bosses in Asia to drop poaching and set up rhino farms in Africa, especially when the trade in its current form is still a relatively low-risk enterprise. In any case, without any sort of standardized licensing system, it would be impossible to sort out which horns were legally harvested or not, which would make smuggling illegal horn even easier than it already is.
As it stands, legalization could be a long-term solution, but in the current environment it would only make cracking down on poaching and crime rings even more difficult. Perhaps if horns themselves were more securely permitted and identified, if rangers were better equipped to crack down on poaching, and if the rampant corruption that allows the Asian side of the trade to go on were eliminated, then a legal rhino trade could flourish. But as it stands, the criminal elements running the trade aren't going to give up poaching and smuggling to set up rhino farms.
Whether it’s legal or not, the most fundamental problem with the rhino horn trade–along with much of the trade in illicit wildlife parts–is that its entire demand is based on one hundred percent pure, unadulterated bullshit. It can’t be repeated enough: Rhino horn is made of an inert biological compound that has zero medicinal or psychoactive effects. Zero.
That means that people are spending $30,000+ a pound to do what amounts to cutting up lines of fingernails, or having someone treat cancer by eating hair. That people are spending so much on horn as medicine is depressing enough in its own right, partly because many users are desperate people who’ve been misled. But it’s nearly impossible to overstate the stupidity of pretending that rhino horn is a party drug or hangover cure. It makes the VIP bottle service crowd dropping tens of thousands of dollars a night on "ultra-premium” liquor marked up 1,000 percent by clubs seem rather practical in comparison.
Cracking down on poaching, smuggling, and corruption is an incredibly important part of limiting the species-threatening effects of the trade. Yet the mind-meltingly insane truth is that all of these efforts, the slaughter of thousands of rhinos (along with tiger farming, bear bile extraction, and so on), and a massive revenue stream for organized crime is all fueled by a giant lie.
Rhino horn has become more valuable than gold despite the fact that it has literally no useful properties. That people worldwide believe otherwise is absurd. If the trade is to be truly stopped, people need to learn that horn doesn’t cure cancer, it doesn’t make you party harder, and it’s certainly not bling.
“We need to see some really radical responses from law enforcement that really put in place some very serious penalties as deterrents, and people need to be campaigning to make the people that do this look foolish,” Allan said. “They need to learn that they’re being conned, and they’re going to have to wise up.”
Killing the trade from a purely enforcement angle is impossible, partly because of the sheer size of the trade, and partly because it’s reactionary. Arresting a guy with a horn doesn’t bring a dead rhino back to life, and if the rhino population declines, that’s a crucial distinction.
Awareness thus needs to take the forefront, especially when it comes to demand. South African citizens have becoming increasingly vocal about protecting their ecological heritage, as have many citizens affected by the trade. (Kenyans, for example, have picked up their own guns to assist rangers in protecting elephants.) South Africa's rhinos were even named the country's top newsmaker by the National Press Club, a decision that was met with controversy.
Building popular support against the trade has been more difficult on the demand side. People need to learn that objectively, horn is worthless, unless you’re the rhino that’s been killed for it. If demand isn’t curbed, the alternative is an economy whose bubble keeps swelling, fueled most worryingly by the obscenely rich along with speculators looking to hoard horn in case rhinos go extinct, which will send the price of horn soaring beyond even the ridiculous heights it’s hit now.
If the growth of the rhino horn market continues at its current pace, extinction does become a valid concern. However, the alternative is equally plausible. Black rhinos face the biggest risk of extinction, but their population growth in recent years offers hope that they could rebound if the pressures of poaching are mitigated. And while South Africa’s white rhinos are firmly in the crosshairs of the trade, they’ve also received a large amount of popular attention in the past few years, which more recently has been converted into action. For all the convoluted parts of the trade, that’s what’s most important, as the only way to completely end the trade is to convince people that trick cures and fake highs aren’t worth throwing away the world’s wildlife.