Dvůr Králové Zoo will burn its rhino horn stockpiles. It must be destroyed, not traded

The Dvůr Králové Zoo will again burn its rhino horn stockpiles, three years after it symbolically brought attention to the critical situation of rhino for the first time. This year’s ceremony will take place on the 19th September, the very same day for which a controversial auction of rhino horn in South Africa is planned. Demonstrative burning in Dvůr Králové will be supported by the presence of Richard Leakey, a world-renowned conservationist and anthropologist, Veronica Varekova, a Czech supermodel, and Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan conservationist.

„The slaughter of rhino is driven by trade in rhino horn. I have no doubts that intelligent, educated people world wide recognize that horn from this critically endangered animal is worthless. Burning it and ridiculing those who value it is an excellent idea. And those who try to sell it should be publicly condemned as they deliberately try to make personal profit on extinction of rhinos,“ said Richard Leakey, who was behind significant reduction of poaching in Kenya and initiated the very first rhino horn and ivory burnings in his country in 1989.

As the first zoo in the world, the Dvůr Králové Zoo publicly burned more than 50 kilogrammes of rhino horn in September 2014. The ceremony will be repeated on the 19th September, three days before the World Rhino Day. Under the supervision of the Customs Administration of the Czech Republic, approximately 20 kilogrammes of rhino horn will be burned together with several pieces of ivory. The material was gathered from deceased animals and from individuals whose horns were trimmed for safety reasons.

"It is scientifically proven the rhino horn does not contain any healing properties, however it continues to be highly valued in some of Asian countries, mainly in Vietnam. As a consequence of the demand, more than 1350 rhinos were poached in the year 2015 in Africa – it means almost four animals a day," said Veronica Varekova, former Victoria’s Secret model and Sports Illustrated cover girl, conservationist and Member of the African Wildlife Foundation board of trustees.

International trade in rhino horn has been banned for decades, but its enforcement tends to be insufficient, especially in eastern Asia. On the top of that, the court recently abolished the ban on domestic trade in horn in South Africa, and first rhino horn auctions have currently been held.

However, similar experience with ivory sales suggests that legal sales do not reduce demand, but increase it instead, as the legal trade removes the stigma of ivory or rhino horn that had prevented a part of potential consumers from buying it. Also, in order to gain new customers, vendors tend to praise their goods as much as possible often using false information about the rhino horn or ivory properties or origin. Nevertheless, the legal trade is utilized as a cover for illegal shipments of parts of poached animals and makes it impossible for customs officers and other agents to efficiently intervene against illegal smugglers.

„We regard attempts to sell rhino horn as a big blow below the belt to everyone who means the rhino protection seriously. Altogether, the claim that lifting the ban on the trade in rhino horn will help to protect the animals is as absurd and immoral as if we were trying to sell confiscated drugs – instead of destroying them – in order to get the means to treat drug addicts," says the director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo Přemysl Rabas.

Apart from that, money from the illegal trade in animals flow to criminal gangs and terrorist groups that finance poachers, kill rangers and threat local residents. The whole process also supports the rise in corruption in African regions as well as in consumer and transit countries.

The burning ceremony in Dvůr Králové, moderated by Lejla Abbasová, a Czech moderator with African roots, will start on Tuesday, 19th September at 14.45 in the zoo amphitheatre behind the Neumann´s Villa. Approximately half an hour later, the pile with the rhino horn and several ivory pieces will be ignited. The event is open to the public.

Paul Kahumbu, the CEO of Wildlife Direct NGO in Kenya, who leads the elephant conservation campaign in her country, will light the pile together with Richard Leakey and Veronica Varekova. Among Paula Kahumbu’s organization goals is to bring smuggling cartels to justice. Among the guests will be representatives of the Customs Administration of the Czech Republic, the Ministry of the Environment of the Czech Republic, the Czech Environmental Inspectorate, representatives of embassies as well as representatives of the Hradec Králové Region that is the founding organization of the zoo.

Richard Leakey 

A Kenyan anthropologist, conservationist and politician. He became famous for his paleontological discoveries in East Africa. For nearly twenty years, he served as the director of the National Museums of Kenya. At the end of the 1980s, he became head of the government department, which he rebuilt in the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) dedicated to protecting the Kenyan wilderness. Being the crucial person behind significant reduction of poaching in Kenya, he initiated campaigns to save wildlife and organised the very first ivory and rhino horn burnings in the world. For his whole life, he has been fighting corruption. In 1993, he suffered a serious airplane accident causing his both legs to be amputated. It has never been conclusively confirmed whether this was an attemp to assassinate him or a plane defect. One year after the accident, Leakey resigned from his position at KWS and began to engage in politics, writing and lecturing at universities. He has repeatedly returned to KWS, currently serving as a chairman of the board. He also continues in his anthropological work, lectures at Stony Brook University in the US and is still involved in research at Lake Turkana.

Paula Kahumbu

A Kenyan conservationist. Paula is currently leading the Kenyan NGO Wildlife Direct and the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign that aims at involving local communities in the protection of elephants. Among other activities, her organization in Kenya monitors court trials with persons accused of wildlife crimes. Paula Kahumbu, as well as Richard Leakey, worked for Kenya Wildlife Service. In addition to nature conservation, she divides her time between writing and work for the University of Princeton.

Veronika Vařeková

A world top model of Czech origin, who is dedicated to nature protection in Africa. She is a former Victoria’s Secret model and Sports Illustrated cover girl. At present, Veronica Varekova is a Member of the African Wildlife Foundation board of trustees. The organisation is committed to sustainable development in Africa and she focuses mainly on nature conservation issues. Veronica has been working with the Dvůr Králové Zoo to save rhinos in the wild and to support their return from the zoo back to Africa. In the Czech Republic, she has been active in an SOS village project for families and children in need and became a patron of the Infantry Institute in Olomouc.

Frequently asked questions associated with the horns burning

Why the Dvůr Králové Zoo decided to burn their rhino horns?

It is necessary to show clearly that the situation of rhinos in the wild is critical and that it is the demand for rhino horn what drives them towards extinction.

Burning itself is a symbolic event that calls on everyone to re-consider consequences of her/his behaviour. By buying rhino horn you fund criminal gangs and poachers. As a consequence of smuggling and trading in rhino horn, the rangers are killed, inhabitants of poor African regions are terrorized and beautiful animals are destined to suffer cruel death. All of this despite the fact that rhino horn has no properties that it is believed to have. Its consistency is similar to consistency of human nails or hair.

Has anyone ever burned rhinoceros horns in the past?

Yes. Probably the first public burning was of some 270 horns in Kenya in January 1990, as a symbolic protest against the trade in endangered animal species. This horn-burning, which was organized by famed anthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, took place in the same place where Kenya’s president Daniel arap Moi had burned 12 tons of ivory six months earlier. It was a risky decision, but as a result Kenya was able to convince a majority of the world’s countries to ban the international trade in ivory – a ban that has led to an increase in the number of elephants in Africa. In the case of horns, besides the international ban on the rhino horn trade adopted in the 1970s, an important and major role was played by the later adoption of domestic bans in important consumer countries such as Yemen, Taiwan, and China. In some of these places, the destruction of horns was part of the successful campaign against the rhino horn trade. In 2016, another two protests against the illegal trade in wildlife were organized - so far the largest burning of rhino horns and ivory ever was conducted in Kenya in April and several months later horns were burned and ivory crushed right in the centre of one of the main consumer countries, in Hanoi.

Instead of burning rhinoceros horns, wouldn’t it be better to sell them and to use the earnings for the protection of rhinos in the wild?

The sale of rhinoceros horns is a criminal act, because trading in horns is strictly forbidden. What is more, doing so would completely contradict the mission of zoos and nature reservations, because such sale would only increase demand and thus contribute to the further killing of wild rhinoceroses.

Wouldn’t it help to legalize the trade in rhinoceros horns?

The trade in rhinoceros horns was legal in the past, and that period can only be called a period of slaughter during which thousands and tens of thousands of rhinoceroses were killed. It wasn’t until after the ban on the international rhino horn trade and especially after domestic bans in important consumer countries that the numbers of certain rhinoceros species could be stabilized.

Permitting the trade in rhinoceros horns would not reduce demand, as some people erroneously believe, but would increase demand and thus lead to the even greater killing of rhinoceroses. Merchants and traffickers would try to sell as much as possible, meaning that they would advertise their goods and try to get as many customers as possible to buy them. For instance, in recent years they came up with the entirely unfounded claim that rhinoceros horns are an effective treatment for cancer. What is more, legalization would cause some people to believe that there is nothing wrong in consuming rhinoceros horns.

The domestic ivory trade in China is a clear example that legal sellers are merely a front for the sale of an enormous amount of ivory illegally acquired through poaching, and that legal sales do not reduce demand but increase it. In all likelihood, the legalization of the rhino horn trade would have the same effect – the demand for rhinoceros horns would increase and might result in the eventual extinction of rhinoceroses.

Unlike elephants, rhinoceros horns can be cut off, after which they grow back. Might it not be possible to satisfy demand by legalizing the sale of horns from rhinoceroses raised on farms?

The demand for rhinoceros horns is too great (and would only increase with legalization) to be satisfied through rhinoceroses raised on farms. This would inevitably lead to the legal trade networks being infiltrated by poachers and smugglers who would be able to supply horns from illegally hunted rhinoceroses at a lower price that breeders.

In addition, in the case of legalization, customs officers and other government agencies would find it very difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal rhinoceros horns, and traffickers would find it relatively easy to pass off horns acquired through poaching as legal. In such a situation it would be difficult for the responsible institutions to identify and punish poachers and traffickers.

The first legal rhino horn auction was held in South Africa this August and another one is planned on September the 19th. Could these auctions help rhinos?

This rhino horn auction was initiated by John Hume, the largest private rhino breeder in the world. Presently, he owns and breeds more than 1 500 rhinos. As he regularly dehorns rhinos on his ranch, he has now more than 6 tons of rhino horn in a secure holding. Despite protests of the government and conservationists, he was granted organisation of the auction by the court. Hume argues that the caring for and protecting rhinos against the poachers are too expensive. The sale of his rhino horn is in his opinion a way of raising money. However, conservationists doubt his motivation and tend to regard his action as a mere thirst for profit. They worry that the final destination of the horn would be East Asia. In fact, trade in rhino horn is legal only in South Africa, the country with no demand for it. Moreover, the official website of the Hume’s auction is not only in English, which is the official language in South Africa, but also in Vietnamese and Chinese. Even though the demand for rhino horn is highest in Vietnam and China, the import and trade in rhino horn is illegal in those countries. Thus it seems that new owners will try to smuggle the purchased horn into East – to China and Vietnam.

The argument of auction’s supporters is that by meeting the demand by legal rhino horn stocks from managed rhino ranches, the amount of horn on the black market would increase and so its price would fall. This would lead to reducing the incentive for poachers to kill wild rhinos. However, the amount of rhino horn from ranches cannot be enough to meet the demand at all. So the result could be the very opposite. Sellers would try to find new customers, demand would not fall and the rhinos would be under higher pressure than up to now. Moreover, if the rhinos go extinct the prices would rise to astronomical levels, resulting in private rhino ranch owners turning to billionaires. In short, the increased demand and pushing the rhinos to the brink of extinction could actually bring a great profit for some.

What, then, is the road to saving rhinoceroses?

Above all, we need to limit demand in countries where people buy rhinoceros horns – today, this means China and Vietnam in particular. At the same time, we must put pressure on the countries with the highest consumption of rhino horns to enforce existing laws and to take effective measures to halt the trade in rhinoceros horns. Another important measure is to reduce corruption in the source countries and transit countries, and in the countries where rhino horns are illegally sold.

Why are rhino horns being burned in the Czech Republic? Isn’t this a problem in Africa, China and Vietnam?

Zoological gardens such as the Dvůr Králové Zoo have been successful at keeping rhinoceroses outside of Africa, and have even managed to return bred rhinoceroses to places in Africa where they had previously been hunted to extinction. It is important to us that our work not be in vain.

In addition, citizens of the Czech Republic and other European countries have been involved in the killing of rhinoceroses as well. For instance, Czech hunters go to Africa to kill rhinoceroses as trophies. In the Czech Republic, they then sell the horns to criminal gangs that smuggle them to Asia. This feeds demand, which then leads to the further killing of rhinoceroses in the wild.

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