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Rhino-poaching has been rising for the past few years. In South Africa, Zimbabwe and other places where rhinos run, poachers have been killing or darting the rhinos for their horns - not as trophies, but to be ground up into medicines, mostly sold in Southeast Asia. A possible solution to the problem of poaching may be rhino ranches, where the horns are harvested for sale and the animals are allowed to grown new ones.

Peter Gwin writes about the rhino trade, both legal and illegal, in the March issue of National Geographic magazine. He's a staff writer there, joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER GWIN: My pleasure.

SIMON: First thing you see when you open this article is this heart-wrenching picture of a rhino with its horn cut out. Is that what you read of this story?

GWIN: Yeah, I mean, that's pretty much it. The poachers had darted her with a tranquilizing drug, and then just sawed off her horn and left her die, but she somehow recovered. You know, the poachers sneak right up on top of them. I went to one crime scene where there was a male and a female killed within just a couple meters of each other. And they use silencers so, you know, they don't even hear the mate go down. And that - it makes you angry, just like I hope when people see that first picture in the magazine, it makes a lot of people have a visceral reaction to that.

SIMON: Help us appreciate - how dangerous is it to be a rhino?

GWIN: Right now, it's incredibly dangerous. Last year, there were 448 confirmed rhinos poached. You know, last year was a record for South Africa. The previous year was a record, and the year before that was way off the charts. You know, what's driving this is that the price for rhino horn in Asia - specifically, in the Vietnamese market - is just going through the roof.

SIMON: Well, what makes rhino horn so precious, so dear?

GWIN: You know, one of the misconceptions is that it's an aphrodisiac. For the purposes of the market that we're looking at now, that's not the case. But it's long been believed, in traditional medicine in Asia that the rhino horn was a cure-all for many, many things; I mean, everything from, you know, nightmares to typhoid to carbuncles, and all sorts of things.

But what seems to be driving this in Vietnam is around 2007, there was a rumor that a high-ranking Vietnamese official cured his cancer using rhino horn. And the very next year, poaching went up out - of the roof in South Africa, and it's continued ever since.

Now, I've talked to a lot of scientists, people in medicine, about - you know, is there any sort of effect from rhino horn? And the truth of the matter is, the science on this is really, really thin; that there haven't been substantial studies on any sort of effects for rhino horn.

SIMON: Let me get you to enter the difficult debate over whether or not there should be rhino farming; whether the effect of pruning, harvesting, cutting off the horn of a rhino to turn it into substances that can be openly sold, has the effect of actually saving rhinos.

GWIN: Well, I tell you, it is highly unpopular among many traditional conservation lobbies. I think a lot of people conflate the idea of ivory with the idea of rhino horns. A rhino is completely different. In the horn itself - it's a keratin, so you can cut it off. If you cut it off about two inches above the base of the snout, it doesn't feel pain when this happens. It'll grow back in two years.

SIMON: The whole commercial logic - and even conservation logic, for those who accept it of rhino farming - would be if you have a legal trade, that will depress the incentive for poachers.

GWIN: Right. So you're raising the amount that's available, which should - hopefully - drive the price down. And then take out the speculators out of the market, and many of the poachers who are looking for a quick, high payday. The other question is, is what is the true size of the demand? Once you start feeding this, possibly - some people argue - the demand could grow and outstrip what you could actually harvest sustainably.

SIMON: You will appreciate that people have a hard time getting their head around the idea that rhinos are in some danger of disappearing because people want to get their horns and therefore, the solution to that must be, we'll create a legal market for their horns.

GWIN: A lot of times, the same ideas are applied to the same species. You know, poaching is bad. We have to go after poaching in these traditional ways. John Hume, the game farmer that I interviewed in South Africa, he explains - he says look, people come here and you can legally hunt rhinos; but the South African law, the way it's written for these hunts, requires the animal be killed and the trophy be taken.

He raises the question, you know, why is it OK for our culture to value the idea that we kill an animal, we cut off its head, we put it up on our wall and it's a trophy - and that's, in some places, lauded. But if you were to dart the thing, cut off its horn, and take it home and use it for medicine, that's abominable. And then it becomes a question of, you know, is this cultural bias that we're seeing?

SIMON: And that cultural bias, because we don't accept that rhino horn is medicinal, genuinely, in the West.

GWIN: Well, what I finally came away with was, I talked to several doctors, and they felt like we're headed for a hybrid in our culture. Science-based medicine, but we'll also have some traditional treatments. And we see that here in the United States.

SIMON: Yeah. Peter Gwin, a staff writer for National Geographic. His article "Rhino Wars" appears in their March issue. He's also the author of an upcoming eBook, "Rhino Wars: The Violent Underworld of Poachers and Black Market Medicine."

Thanks so much for being with us.

GWIN: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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