Washington — Even though medical science has proven that rhino horn does not cure cancer, there are plenty of people with money who believe it does and are willing to pay up to $30,000 to get it. The result: An increase in the slaughter of this endangered animal and an increasingly sophisticated breed of poacher.
Demand for rhino horns, elephant tusks and other wildlife parts has gone up in the last 20 years partly because more people have more money to spend, according to Robert Hormats, under secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the U.S. Department of State.
"If you have more money and you're the poacher, you can buy off more people, you can afford weapons," he said recently at the Washington Foreign Press Center.
Illegal wildlife trade is on the order of $7 billion to $8 billion per year, he said, which is comparable to the money criminals can get in drugs, arms or human trafficking.
And it's not just the animals that are being killed; some 100 wildlife rangers are killed each year in their efforts to protect a precious natural resource, he said.
Public education is crucial to ending this alarming trend, and to that end the United States is working with nongovernmental organizations as well as governments to increase public awareness via social media and other means. Hormats noted as an example his work with Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner for his work in cancer research and the head of the National Cancer Institute at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Varmus did a blog post debunking the myth of rhino horn as a cancer cure that was picked up by some 300 publications.
Many people don't realize, Hormats said, that "you just can't take the rhino horn and grind it up. The rhino is killed to get the horn. ... Animals are killed to provide either ornaments for people, rugs for people, false medicines."
While it is hard to get an accurate number, Hormats said: "At the low end, there are at least 25,000 elephants killed every year illegally, and around 500 rhinos killed every year illegally. "
The United States is supporting programs worldwide to train wildlife judicial experts, border guards, police and court systems in what is needed to protect wildlife, Hormats said.
"No one country can solve this problem. It requires collaboration among a number of countries, and therefore, we want to make sure that it's not aimed at any one country," Hormats said. "So it's not us pointing fingers at other countries; it's demonstrating that we're working with other countries, and that everyone can do a better job and should do a better job in this area."