This is a guest post by Allen Grane, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.
On October 17, Suni, a northern white rhino, was found dead in his enclosure at Old Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Suni who died of natural causes was one of only two breeding males left of his subspecies. He was born in the Czech Republic, and at thirty-four he was the youngest male northern white rhino.
There are now only six northern white rhinos left. Due to extreme difficulties in breeding, it would seem that his death signals the end of the northern white. Unfortunately, this is becoming an all too familiar trend.
In 2011, two different subspecies of rhino were declared extinct: the Javan rhino in Vietnam, and the western black rhino once found throughout central and western Africa. The black rhino, originally consisting of four subspecies, numbered over a million at the beginning of the twentieth century. By 2001, there were only 2,300 left. The black rhino population dropped by 98 percent between 1960 and 1995. Poaching is largely responsible for this drastic decrease in the population.
The blame for this tragic situation is often laid entirely at the feet of China, and the use of ivory from rhino horns in many traditional Chinese medicines (in Asia rhino horn sold for approximately $65,000 per kg last year). However, the United States is not free of guilt, as it is home to a large rhino horn market (it is also the world’s second largest retail market for elephant ivory).
In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued an order aimed at banning the trade of elephant ivory, this law also restricts the trade of items made from rhinos, including rhino horn. However, there is contention that the law is too broad and should not include antiques and animal material used in musical instruments (which affects musicians traveling to the U.S.). To this end, a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in July to loosen the ban on the ivory trade and other animal related items.
On May 15, 2014, the FWS revised the law to allow an exemption on the use of ivory for traveling exhibitions and musicians. The last remaining argument for the legal trade of ivory and rhino horn is that it limits the trade of antiques. However, it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between antiques and new rhino horn/ivory. This often leads to illegal animal items being traded right alongside antiques.
Any legal market for ivory or rhino horn has shown to and will continue to create an incentive for poachers of mega fauna like the northern white rhino. As such it is important that the U.S. government continues to ban the trade of any and all rhino horn/ivory.
Note: The Wildlife Conservation Society has launched a petition to prevent the bill supporting the legal ivory trade from passing. If you are interested in signing this petition, you can find it here.