Can China help save the rhinos?

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Can rhino horn be harvested like sheep’s wool? 

Critics say the plan is cruel, yet cunning: South African rhinos flown to China, penned up at a breeding farm owned by a Chinese medicine company, and their horns harvested regularly with a purpose-built tool — providing a steady supply of a substance worth more than gold.

So far, the rhino horn harvesting scheme hasn’t turned out as planned. Rhinos have fallen ill from poor living conditions, the animals won’t breed, and there is mounting opposition to the use of rhino horn in “traditional medicine” among Chinese animal lovers, a growing force in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

But conservationists fear the secretive scheme may yet go ahead, citing mixed messages from China and a lack of clarity on the company’s operations.

More from GlobalPost: "Flying rhino" video shows dramatic black rhino relocation in South Africa (VIDEO)

The horn harvesting scheme, by Long Hui Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. comes at a time when South Africa’s rhinos are being poached at record rates, their horns trafficked to Vietnam and China to be ground up and used to treat cancer, fever and high blood pressure. Western experts say that rhino horns — made of keratin, like fingernails, beaks and hooves — have absolutely no medicinal value.

The exact status of Long Hui’s operations is unclear. The company has not yet started to sell the horns. In the last few years, the company has imported rhinos from South Africa to farms in Hainan and Yunnan provinces, with the goal of building a “rhino industrial base.” Long Hui has submitted a business plan to the local government for official approval to begin selling the horn. The company even applied for a patent for its specially designed “self-suction living rhinoceros horn-scraping tool.”

But if Beijing were to allow the plan to progress, it would effectively be changing its position on the use of rhino horns, banned by the government in 1993. Under the international agreement on trade in endangered animals, CITES, trade in rhino horns has been illegal since 1976.

Some conservationists fear that rhino horn harvesting could lead to greater demand, and in turn more poaching if supply is not met.

Tom Milliken, rhino horn and ivory trade expert for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, said that if a major company such as Long Hui were to get involved in commercially farming rhino horns for traditional medicine, “this would absolutely turn upside down the process that China went through in 1993.”

But Milliken added that it is unclear what China is doing, with mixed messages being sent at recent CITES meetings. Until China clarifies its intentions, “we’re going to have to wait and see,” he said.

More from GlobalPost: South Africa's rhino war heats up

When Chinese student animal rights activists got wind of Long Hui’s secretive scheme recently, they wrote about it on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site. The post was quickly shared thousands of times by outraged animal lovers, a sign of the growing popularity of animal welfare among China’s youth.

But age-old beliefs in using rare animal parts for medicine are not changing fast enough for South Africa, where the endangered southern white rhino is under serious threat because of the increased demand for its horns.

After the internet uproar earlier this year, a reporter from the Peninsula Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper based in the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, set out to investigate the company’s claims.

What the journalist found was that Long Hui’s breeding base near Sanya, on tropical Hainan island, seems to have been a flop. Most of the rhinos have been transferred to a newer base, also owned by the company, in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

“Starting at the end of 2010, these rhinos suddenly fell ill, and often had diarrhea. It was said their living environment was unsuitable, so they’ve started moving them to Yunnan,” a former worker, who gave his name only as Su, told the reporter.

The arrival of four white rhinos in Yunnan last year was hailed as historic for a province that was once home to other rhino species, including Javan and Indian. The last wild rhino was spotted in Yunnan 22 years ago, in the Xishuangbanna region near the Burma border.

In South Africa, there is anger and disbelief that rhinos would be exported to China at a time of national crisis for the survival of the animal. The exports took place starting in June 2010, with estimates of the number of animals sent to China since then ranging from a few dozen to 200.

More from GlobalPost: Asian rhino horn mania drives extinction

CITES in South Africa issued permits in 2010 after being told the rhinos were going to Hangzhou Zoo for captive breeding. Instead the animals ended up at the Long Hui base in Hainan, owned by the same parent company as the zoo, an arms maker called Hawk Group that is run by a member of China’s National People’s Congress.

Pelham Jones, a leader of the South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association, said it is “repugnant” that animals would be kept in concrete pens and their horns shaved, under the Chinese company’s plan.

The animals must be sedated for the horn shaving procedure, and this can be risky, especially if the animals aren’t in perfect health.

“We are extremely anti the export of live rhino to any community that does not have a credible wildlife protection history,” Jones said.

While recently Vietnam has drawn the most attention as a major consumer of rhino horns, use in China is on the rise, according to Milliken.

“There is some kind of resurgent demand going on in China,” he said.

Long Hui is trying to tap into this latent demand with the horn-scraping plan — which is novel, if nothing else.

“It’s completely out of the box,” Milliken said. “It’s kind of a window onto capitalism in China."

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.