Black rhino (Dreamstime)
Interview Words : Graeme Green | 19 September

Is it too late to save the world’s rhinos from extinction?

Everyone wants to save rhinos, but agreeing how to do it is a different matter. Ahead of World Rhino Day (Sept 22), Cathy Dean, director of Save The Rhino, grabs the issue by the horn

How desperate is the current situation facing the world’s rhinos?

If we don’t stop the current poaching crisis, which has seen Africa lose over 6,000 rhinos to poachers since 2006, there’s a very real chance that in 10 years time we’ll be down to just a few populations of rhinos in heavily fortified sanctuaries. That isn’t anyone’s vision of ‘wild Africa.’ 

The current poaching crisis is a new phenomenon. Since 2006, Vietnam has had an economic boom and a new business elite has sprung up. Rhino horn’s become a status symbol to own and display, but also to consume, often during business deals and social settings. It’s a bit like taking a party drug. China’s the other main destination for rhino horn, driven by traditional Chinese medicine, a taste for ornate carvings, and perhaps as an investment opportunity.

The most common method of poaching is straightforward: using a gun to shoot the animal and an axe to hack off the horn from the rhino’s head, sometimes even killing calves for the tiny nub of horn. Some animals survive these attacks and face months of speculative surgery to try to repair the hideous wounds. It’s horrific. 

The other main threat to rhinos’ survival is the loss of habitat. Give rhinos enough space, food and water and they’ll get on just fine. But with human population growth and the conversion of savannah and forests into farms, wild reserves are becoming fragmented. You need a critical mass of rhinos to get the best breeding rates.

There are five species of rhino: two in Africa (white and black) and three in Asia, which are the Javan and Sumatran in Indonesia, and the Greater one-horned rhinos of India and Nepal. Three of these five are classed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by conservationists, and time is running out. The Javan rhino is so rare – just 58-61 individuals surviving in one national park in Java – that very few people have ever seen a live animal.


Infant rhino (Dreamstime)

Swaziland have proposed legalising the horn trade, so that African countries can make money, but also as a proposed strategy to protect rhinos. What do you think of that idea? 

South Africa decided not to table a proposal to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to legalise international rhino horn trade: a decision that attracted little media attention in the UK but one that was met with disbelief in Swaziland, who then tabled an eleventh hour proposal. But Swaziland’s proposal is light on detail. Who would it trade with? How would it ensure that legal and illegal horn is differentiated? The consensus of opinion is that Swaziland doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting its proposal approved at the CITES conference later this month.

As a pro-sustainable use organisation, we wouldn’t rule out an eventual legalised trade. But clearly the South African experts felt that the time isn’t yet right, that the necessary conditions aren’t in place. 

Even if CITES were to authorise a legalised trade at the next conference in three years’ time, or later still, that won’t solve the poaching crisis on its own. We’ll still need law enforcement on the ground, and to distinguish between legal and illegal horn in the consumer countries. Criminal syndicates will continue to focus on rhino horn as long as they can make their margin. We’ll still need to ensure that local communities benefit from wildlife. We’ll still need education campaigns.


STR director Cathy Dean with a rhino (Save The Rhino)


Swaziland and other countries argue that you can’t stop the trade without stopping the demand. Have attempts to stop the demand for rhino horn have failed?

It’s true that demand for rhino horn from China and Vietnam hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet. Since the crisis began in 2006, poaching’s continued to escalate. But the international community hasn’t yet fully harnessed the power of modern research and marketing. Our collective approach to reducing the demand for rhino horn has been patchy.

In today’s world, we have more data and insight than ever before on why people buy certain products or what they aspire to. But I don’t think that we conservationists have really used the available research to devise the best behaviour-change campaigns.

We know perfectly well that simply presenting the facts or trying to shame someone about their life choices doesn’t mean they’ll change what they do. I know I should exercise more and drink less alcohol, but after a day in the office, I always fancy a cold beer or a glass of red wine much more than the thought of going for a 10-kilometre run. You can throw as many statistics at me as you like, but what will really make me become healthier in the long-term?

We need to put ourselves in the shoes of a Vietnamese businessman wanting to impress his peers. What would change his mind? Only then will we know what message to promote, via what channels and which influencers.


 African black rhino (Dreamstime)

With rhino horn worth so much money, is it really possible to stop poachers? And is this battle likely to involve the deaths of more poachers and rangers? 

We all know that the time when poaching stops for good will be when customers in Asia turn their backs on rhino horn products. But that time won’t come tomorrow, and it probably won’t come in the next year. How do we buy more time? We need to do more of the same, but do it better.

That means giving the rangers on the ground the right equipment, training and leadership. It means recruiting for vacant posts. It means turning the paper international Memoranda of Understanding into actual action; making sure that DNA samples from all horn seizures in transit or consumer countries are sent for forensic analysis, and quickly; bringing wildlife legislation up-to-date with deterrent mandatory sentences, and then ensuring that magistrates and prosecutors wield the full weight of the law. 

I get fed up with the ‘miracle solutions’ touted by an unlikely mix of people, many of whom seem to want to create a business opportunity out of a poaching crisis. Silicon Valley bio-tech companies are busy patenting methods of creating synthetic or bio-fabricated rhino horn, drone manufacturers are two-a-penny, and there was a widely publicised ‘rhino cam’, a camera embedded in rhino’s horns to take incriminating photographs of poachers - after the animal had been shot anyway.

But the bio-tech people haven’t figured out their routes to market, the drone people drone on, and the rhino-cam inventors need to come up with a windscreen-wiper that can cope with rhinos’ love of wallowing. These are irritating distractions. When it comes to madcap ideas, we’ve heard them all. To anyone who wants to fund something that actually works, forget the sexy stuff and help us get the basics right.


 Black rhino (Save The Rhino)

It seems difficult to find a solution everyone agrees on. What would you like to see happen to stop rhinos becoming extinct? And do you think it’s possible to save them? 

If you were a ranger, out on the savannah during a full moon, armed and listening out for poachers, what would you want? You’d want to feel prepared, properly trained and with good equipment. You’d also want to know that every time you do your job well and catch a poacher – saving another rhino’s life in the process – the poacher you detain will be formally arrested and go to trial.

Too many poachers are simply released on bail and vanish across porous borders, or turn up again beside another rhino carcass. For every poacher caught and arrested, another one will fill his place, as long as the kingpins of the international trade remain at large and with impunity. We’re talking about transnational criminal syndicates that don’t just traffic rhino horn but are often involved in other illegal activities from people trafficking to narcotics. These are the real bad guys.

What can bring the global rhino horn racketeers to their knees? Government crackdowns. Intelligence-led investigations. Tough legislation and tougher enforcement. At CITES, governments can do just that and impose trade sanctions on countries that are turning a blind eye. The question is: will CITES get tough?


Save the Rhino International’s vision is for all five rhino species to thrive in the wild for future generations. Find out more at, and at and

Main image: Black rhino (Dreamstime)