In the dead of night on February 15th, 2017, gunshots blasted the guards into action in India’s Kaziranga National Park. Rangers stationed in a nearby camp quickly spread out, searching for the shooters under the light of a nearly full moon — to no avail.
By morning, they’d located the victim, the park’s first poaching casualty of 2017: a female Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis). They inspected her 3,500-pound body, which was riddled with bullet holes and collected 11 spent cartridges from an AK-47 assault rifle. The gouged wound on her nose marked the spot where her horn had been hacked off.
Welcome to the rhino wars.
The last stronghold
Indian (or greater one-horned) rhinos once lived across the subcontinent from Pakistan to Bangladesh. Today they hang on in just a handful of sites in Nepal and India. Kaziranga, in the northeast state of Assam, is the last real stronghold for this massive, prehistoric-looking animal — home to about two-thirds of the 3,500 that remain.
It’s a precarious situation. According to the IUCN, “any catastrophic event in Kaziranga (such as disease, civil disorder, poaching, habitat loss, etc.) would have a devastating impact on the status of this species.”
One of those threats is ever-present. Aron White, a wildlife expert with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), says that “poaching is the main threat to the survival of rhinos today, driven by demand for their horns.”
For centuries, that horn has been used to treat a host of maladies, though there is no proven medical benefit. Over the last decade, skyrocketing demand in Vietnam and China has made rhino horns one of the world’s most valuable illegal commodities. It’s now worth more than cocaine on the black market.
A 2008 report to the United States Congress called the trade in endangered species “the wildlife version of blood diamonds.” Well over a thousand rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in Africa and Asia each year. The problem has even reached Europe: In March, a white rhino named “Vince” was poached from a zoo near Paris, shot in the head, his horn removed with a chainsaw.
The traffickers are international crime syndicates that move rhino horns and other endangered species products across the globe, says Rahul Dutta, a consultant on wildlife trade for the International Rhino Foundation. Because it’s a low-risk, high profit business, he says, “people who were involved in the drug trade or arms mafias have shifted their efforts to wildlife crime.” The United Nations estimates the global illegal wildlife trade at $19 billion a year.
Transnational commerce in rhino horns is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty regulating that trade signed by 183 nations, though shadowy networks still thrive across Africa and Asia.