Scientists on the horns of a dilemma

Horn of darkness
October 20, 2000

In 1900, there may have been as many as 100,000 black rhinos in sub-Saharan Africa. It has proved a remarkably adaptable species, ranging from the Sahel to South Africa and prospering in habitats from semi-arid zones to moist forests, from montane environments to coastlands. Today, it has been reduced to pocket populations, numbering just a few thousand individuals. Worse, these relict animals are pursued by poachers for the wretched creature's horn, which, because of its phallic symbolism, makes it a supposedly potent aphrodisiac for Asiatic males.

The species is termed black to distinguish it from the so-called white rhino, which has never enjoyed such a wide range nor such large numbers as the black version. The latter is actually battleship grey and shares other features of a battleship. Its great bulk notwithstanding, it can charge at a speed to match the best human sprinters. Its extreme short-sightedness induces it to offer threat displays to whatever stands in its way. But it is not so bellicose that it wantonly attacks elephant herds - this book's assertions to the contrary.

The hyperbolic tendencies of the authors take the edge off this otherwise engaging book on the politics of conservation. If only they had not used a Technicolor style to describe their encounters with rhinos, which arose during a research project in Namibia. Conservationists have tried all manner of strategies to protect rhinos, including corralling them in enclosures. Even this has not kept the rhinos safe from poachers determined to get at the horns, which can sell for thousands of dollars. In desperation, some conservationists have decided to strike at the root cause of the problem by sawing off the horns from temporarily drugged rhinos. This endeavour makes up the story of an informative and readable book.

Horn of Darkness narrates the authors' adventures while pursuing their field project. They are University of Nevada scientists who, accompanied by their baby daughter, spent a long period in the Etosha area of Namibia. They debate with fellow researchers the drawbacks to dehorning: will depleted animals be less successful breeders? They roam around the desert with their camp retinue, their vehicle gets burnt out, they encounter scorpions in their tents. They tangle with government bureaucrats. They negotiate their research needs with park wardens. The book reads more like a diary than a scientific assessment: none the worse for that, but it is more aimed at the lay reader rather than at conservation colleagues. The main message is that rhinos should be left in peace from human depredations - as if humans could ever be left out of the rhino's world.

Therein lies my main reservation. The book is not so much about rhinos, it is about rhinos and people, not only the authors but poachers, wildlife managers, game rangers, conservationists, tourists and sundry others. The story often drifts into accounts of people in relation to people, with rhinos in bit-part roles. If you are looking for an entertaining tale of adventures on safari, plus the frustrations of being wildlife scientists, this book is for you. Do not expect much more.

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, Oxford.

Horn of darkness: Rhinos on the Edge

Author - Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger
ISBN - 0 19 511113 3 and 513880 5
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £14.95 and £9.95
Pages - 246

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