Rhinoceros in the wild will be extinct by 2020 if poachers continue to hunt them unabated at ever-rising numbers, wildlife experts warned at a recent summit in South Africa.
Benson Okita, senior researcher at the Kenya Wildlife Service, presented the warning at the conference "Risk Assessment of Rhino Horn Trade," held last week in Pretoria.
The number of rhino has fallen dramatically from historical levels, with roughly 27,950 rhinos remaining in the wild — down from 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century — said Will Travers, chief executive of conservation group Born Free Foundation.
The poaching of two African species in particular, the white and black rhino, has soared in the last six years. A total of 13 rhinos were believed to have been slaughtered in 2007, and that number spiked to 1,004 in 2013, "representing a 7,000 percent increase," Travers said.
Poaching is the killing or capturing of wildlife in violation of local and international laws. The rhino is prized for its horn, which in some cultures in East Asia — the largest market for the horns — is believed to possess medicinal qualities.
In some places such including Vietnam, the rare and deeply coveted rhino horn also functions as a status symbol, according to Travers.
The recent summit was organized by South African group Outraged South African Citizens against Poaching (OSCAP), and supported by international wildlife groups.
South Africa is home to 83 percent of Africa’s rhinos and 73 percent of all wild rhinos worldwide, according to conservation group Save the Rhino International.
"Without intervention, rhinos will be pretty much extinct from wildlife," Travers told Al Jazeera. "Poaching is generally a low-penalty crime and that has to change. Countries must move poaching into the same kind of arena as money laundering and drug trafficking."
To date only 20,000 white rhinoceros and 5,000 black rhinoceros remain in the wild.
"There may be no free-living rhinos as the remaining rhinos will be held in fortressed military-style compounds that are heavily guarded" in the near future, Travers said. "I'm not sure the world wants to see wildlife kept in fortresses. We need to intervene so that wildlife can indeed live in the wild."
Belief in rhino horn’s medicinal properties is a major factor in the animals’ decline, Travers said.
East Asia is the largest market for the horns.
“There, the rhino horn is used for a variety of purposes in the context of traditional medicine. It's also used as a hangover cure and recreational drug. People now sniff rhino horn to get high, as hard as that is to believe," Travers said.
A major contributor to the recent surge in poaching is tied to a rumor that swept Vietnam in the mid-2000s hailing rhino horn as a cancer cure. "The rumor was based on an unattributable comment by a senior politician in Vietnam who was supposedly cured of his cancer," Travers said, adding that the rumor pushed the value of illicit rhino horn trade to "stratospheric numbers."
In a nation where rates of cancer are rising 20 to 30 percent annually, that rumor has devastated the rhino population. With about 150,000 new cancer cases a year in Vietnam and a long waiting list for radiotherapy, people are desperate for a cure.
Vietnam has a cancer mortality rate of 73 percent, one of the highest in the world, according to Dr. Tran Van Thuan, the deputy director of a hospital in Hanoi.
As of 2010, Vietnam had only 25 radiotherapy machines for a population of 87 million, according to the Atlantic.
Rumors of the rhino horn's curative qualities coupled with surging cancer rates explain why Vietnam lost its fight to save its rare Javan rhinoceros population after poachers killed the country's last animal in 2011.
Only 40 to 60 Javan rhinos now remain in a park in Indonesia. They are the last known living members of the species, with none in captivity.