Monday, August 1

Picking Fights

AK-47. Long range hunting rifles. Grenades and night vision goggles. Khaki uniforms and covert missions. You think of the army, right?

We've all heard of blue and white collar crimes, but how many have heard about "khaki collar" crime?

If I showed you this, would it make more sense?

Four years ago, 33 rhinos were poached in South Africa in an entire year. Fast forward three years later, 333 rhinos were poached in 2010 alone.

One of the biggest problems is that animal parts, in particular those of rare or endangered animals, fetch for extremely high prices on the black market, especially Asian ones. Over the course of many centuries, the Chinese have long cultivated the practice of traditional medicine, a broad range of practices that include 4 disciplines for one end goal, healing: herbs, massage, acupuncture, and diet. These practices spread to neighboring countries, and now much of the trade for animal parts go towards Asia, in particular China.

I personally don't understand why anyone would believe crushed rhino horn tea or tiger penis soup would have any healing effects when it is now widely disproven, but coming from a traditional Chinese background and having lived there for several years, I can see how it is still in practice in China- for other Asian countries, I don't claim knowledge. But when I grew up in Chengdu about 15 years ago, hospitals were dirty, crowded places with doctors that were harangued with an endless number of patients by day and by night, hounded by others with pity stories in hopes of getting an appointment for their loved ones earlier than the usual time of three months or more.

The country was poor. The people were desperate. And so they turned to the power of the lore that graced the scrolls of ancient kingdoms, the legends that coursed through streams of powerful rivers, and the beliefs, like their culture, that ran through their blood.

I remember a friend of a relative that was dying of cancer; the doctors didn't want anything to do with her. But on her bedside was a gorgeously lacquered box. As a child, I curiously unlatched the tortoiseshell cover and examined the contents. Greeted by a strange and strong smell, I remember my grandmother explaining to me the bevy of items in each compartment- one had delicate, almost hollowed out dried worms, purportedly able to soothe the nerves. Another compartment held a few very thinly shaved circles. I was told that those belonged to the antlers of a deer that came from a mountain where Buddha had graced its ground, long ago. Right beside it were large-capped dried mushrooms, unlike anything I had ever seen. Those were to extend life. After we left, my grandmother explained that those healed differently. When I asked how so, she merely replied with one word. Hope.

Later that year, I was able to accompany my grandparents to the traditional medicine store- there were all sorts of items, but what really caught my attention was the wall with items placed on red silk, in glass casing. Many of the items were rare; various grades of legendary ginseng, tree barks, and fungi were on one side, but on the other side were hairs, furs, horns, teeth, and dried bits with price tags that would double or triple the annual salary of the average factory worker. Attached were instructions on how to use and what their miracle-healing properties were. I think a bit of my faith in man died a little bit that day; this store was about half the size of a warehouse and the animal parts ran from one end to the other. Some tables had dried heads and claws; some of the faces were contorted or open.

Since then, China had gone through an amazing bit of westernization. Ivory became illegal to export out of the country, as were some ingredients of traditional medicine. This kind of store doesn't exist anymore; at least, not of that size. Last time I went there in 2006, the store had been reduced to half its size. Many of the items became illegal to sell.

This isn't the store I was talking about, but the looks are very similar.

It's nice to know that China now has some regulation and takes it very seriously (many times though, money and corruption takes precedence). The healthcare system hasn't changed a bit, though the doctors are now harassed by pharmaceutical companies to use their products for monetary profit, while the legends of traditional medicine are still echoed by an older generation, and bought by those who can afford it.

The means to obtaining them is through the black market these days, and the suppliers that drive these markets are often poachers who report directly from African or Southeast Asian countries. These poachers don't joke; they don't hesitate to shoot anyone that gets in their way. The sad, vicious cycle is that many of them are from villages desperate to feed itself. Using the natural resources around them, they can comfortably feed their village for an entire year and in turn, provide a better future for their children. In some African communities, it has become such a way of life that neighboring villages emulate their practices- the money is incredibly easy- a kilo of rhino horn usually fetches the same price as its weight in gold. However, the news that the South Africans are using a new initiative- that of deploying its army to control poachers- is worrying me. It has the potential of guerrilla warfare, and it practically is at this point. In South Africa alone, some 15 individuals have been outright killed so far this year and 64 wounded, with even more arrested. It proves to be a danger to both poachers, their families, and soldiers- each side have not hesitated in firing at the other.

The government has no choice- the rhino has always been endangered, and the fastest way of solving the problem is to aggressively fight back. Some of the villages have sole revenues from poaching, and have become nearly dependent on these practices, thereby fiercely protecting their practices.

The sustainable alternative is to educate these villages to become part of a workforce, and to understand that by killing these natives of the land, they are also killing a part of themselves- their pride and their land. They must understand that when no rhinoceros stand on their land, what will they have to turn to? The lions, the wildebeests? All of the Big Five? If they are gone too, what else would they have?

I can't say this is the best solution, but for now, it has been effective in controlling poaching. The best sustainable practices should be implementing long-term education and training of the adults and children, providing government subsidies, stationing biologist and/or conservationist representatives in each village to monitor the progress and oversee the education of each village. Perhaps even reward for turning in those who were poaching.

The practice of poaching is so cruel and unnecessary- it brings out the worst in man. It turns offspring into orphans. I think it kills the land and something of the people, too, to be able to shoot a magnificent creature that graces the land and legends of the people.

This is an orphaned rhino that was taken in by a village after another had killed its mother.

I think that perhaps, the symbol of hope shouldn't rest on eating or drinking crushed horns or body parts. Hope should be placed in these they are perhaps the individuals that need it the most, as they fight for their own survival from man, encroached territory, dwindling numbers, predators, and environmental conditions. It is a battle they must fight, but it is not a battle they should have to fight alone.

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