It must have been the New York Times (because really, who else?) but someone ran a piece this week (in January, no less) on the phenomenon of barefoot walkers – people who walk through the cityscape, drive cars, ride trains &c, in their unadorned bare feet until, as one barefootist put it, “my feet are the same thing as rhino horns,” and by which I couldn’t help but wonder: well, would a poacher lop them off and grind them into powder so that a Chinese businessman might snort them as a cure for Lord-only-knows-what?
It is fitting, that specta-commodity culture should have its root in the Neolithic, or more specifically in the hunter-gatherer mode of living, with an emphasis firmly on the ability to gather, stockpile, transmorph, utilize and ingest materials gleaned from the so-called natural world.
But, why rhinos? If the common wisdom (outside of Chinese quackery and Yememi dagger hilting) is that ingesting rhino horn is about as healthful as chewing your own nails – in other words that the horn is essentially a weathered hunk of keratin – why should this particular ancient looking beast be hunted for it?
In the words of Gordon Gecko “there is no sense to a market” – what matters is demand, and nothing increases demand for a commodity more acutely than an intense demand for that commodity (see the whole of the art world for example). That this commodity exists at the tip of a living armored ungulate with few natural predators makes it’s acquirement all the more fanatically necessary to the infirm and impotent irrationalists of virtually unlimited economic means.
old men and their politics…
If rhinoceros numbers have slowly increased in recent years, so has the poaching. Though Reuters reports the South African wild population of rhino still stands at about 20,000, with 443 rhinos poached last year, it’s worth remembering that 2011 was also the year in which the world lost its last western black rhino. Over the past five years the violence has accumulated to a fever-pitch. A few recent examples culled from the news, of the particular commodity-fetishistic madness that the search for any and all rhino horns has left in its wake:
Rhino horn thieves use stun gas in Paris museum raid (BBC)
Thieves have stolen a rhinoceros horn in a raid on a museum in the central Marais district of Paris.
Two people entered the Museum of Hunting and Nature on Tuesday lunchtime and used a “paralysing” gas against museum guards, local media reports say.
The guards were treated in hospital after the attack. 7 December 2011
Thoiry zoo west of Paris has put its three white rhinos under surveillance to protect them from poachers.
Elsewhere in Europe, two horns were stolen in recent months in Vienna, from a taxidermist and an auction room. In Lisbon police arrested two Australians with six horns in their luggage, while in Britain thieves stole two horns from the natural history museum in southern Tring – which were in fact copies.
As Affluence Spreads, so does the trade in Endangered Species (NY Times)
While horns have sold recently for upward of $200,000, the powder, Mr. Lawson said, is reported to fetch £60,000 a kilo (about $45,000 a pound) on the black market — more than gold, heroin or cocaine.
Stricter laws governing the sale of used rhino horns, the kind found mounted on trophies or on rhinos that were long ago killed by big-game hunters and stuffed by taxidermists, have also played a part. This year Britain and other European countries tightened their regulations, making it virtually impossible to export most rhino horns from the European Union legally, thus increasing the value of purloined ones.
The law-enforcement organization Europol says the thefts are believed to be the work of an organized gang of itinerant people known as Irish travelers, who are also involved in drug smuggling, money laundering and the less flamboyant crime of distributing fake power tools. Since January the horn thieves have struck a Czech castle; natural history museums in Belgium, Germany, France and Italy; and other targets in Portugal and Sweden. In Britain rhino horns have also been stolen this year from the Haslemere Educational Museum in Surrey and from Sworders Fine Art Auctioneers in Essex.
In 2009 a rhino skull was stolen from the trophy-display wall of a check-cashing business in Albany, N.Y. But in general the gang seems to be focused on Europe, said Rhishja Larson, the founder of Saving Rhinos, a group based in Petaluma, Calif.
Guy Schooling, Sworders’s managing director, said in an interview that the company thought it had averted trouble when, before an auction in February, it locked up its rhino-horn trophies and hired security guards to patrol the premises. But the thieves were too smart: they arrived after closing but before the guards, wrenching the only rhino artifact not locked up — a mounted head — free from a plaque that had been bolted to the wall.
“I would say, to anybody who’s got a rhino horn of any sort: ‘Do not have it on display. Put a dummy up and booby-trap it,’ ” Mr. Schooling said.