TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the world of illegal wildlife trafficking, the most valuable appendage, more valuable than elephant ivory, is the horn of the rhinoceros. Most of the horn comes from South Africa, which is home to nearly 70 percent of the rhinos left on Earth. The most lucrative destination for smugglers are China and Vietnam where many people believe that rhino horn has therapeutic qualities.
My guest Bryan Christy has written an article about this booming illegal trade for the October issue of National Geographic Magazine. He's chief correspondent for The National Geographic Society's Special Investigations Unit. Selling rhino horn was banned in 1977 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species known by its acronym CITES. Christy just returned this week from the latest CITES meeting in South Africa where the ban on the sale of rhino horn was upheld. Just to give you a heads up, this interview includes a brief but disturbing description of how poachers remove rhino horns.
Bryan Christy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I've never met a rhino. You've been face to face with rhinos (laughter). What's it like to see a rhino close up? What are they like?
BRYAN CHRISTY: I wondered what that would be like, too. And I really looked forward to seeing my first rhino in the field. And unfortunately for me, my first rhino was a poached rhino in Mozambique. And, you know, it's...
GROSS: So it was already dead when you saw it.
CHRISTY: Yeah. It was - it was dead. It had been shot by poachers, had its horn hacked off. The body was decomposing, and I learned that a baby was somewhere nearby waiting for its mother. That was my first experience.
GROSS: A baby rhino.
CHRISTY: A baby rhino, yeah. I didn't want my first experience to be a victim, but it was, and it's appropriate as part of the story of what's happening to rhino, that I wasn't deluded even from the very beginning that this is what's going on. It's a brutal, corrupt, violent world.
GROSS: Well, tell us about live rhino.
CHRISTY: Yeah (laughter) live rhino are extraordinary. They're - you know, they're these plated, armored vehicles walking around, these prehistoric animals. And I had heard things about them before starting this project. You know, they don't see well, they're very violent, they're very aggressive. The hunting community counts them as one of the big five, one of the deadly animals of Africa.
And in fact, they're, for the most part, placid. They walk around - the white rhino, the southern white rhino in particular, is an animal you can drive right up to. And I started to hear from biologists all sorts of new information about how rhinos communicate, and they communicate through these squeaks and squeals that's fun to listen to. And they - they're not these solitary, violent, raging animals that I had heard about.
GROSS: So rhinos are an endangered species right now. You're writing about the rhino horn trade. So for those of us in the U.S. who have no contact with rhinos, why do we care?
CHRISTY: Well, I mean, we ought to care - we ought to care because illegal rhino horn trade, like the illegal ivory trade, is something that criminal syndicates are using to finance all sorts of illegal activity. There are human trafficking organizations using rhino horn, drug traffickers, arms traffickers, financed in part by the illegal rhino horn trade.
The illegal wildlife trade destabilizes key governments across Africa. And there is something at work in South Africa that I've never seen anywhere else before. And that is the ranching of wildlife. I was shocked upon arrival in South Africa to learn that rhino aren't roaming around free in South Africa the way I expected as a boy growing up in New Jersey. They are, in fact, ranched like cattle. In fact, the largest operation there is - looks like a dairy farm.
GROSS: So there's a big market for rhino horn, and your article is about the illicit trade in rhino horn. What makes rhino horn seem valuable?
CHRISTY: To a Westerner, it's unbelievable that anyone could pay the prices they do...
GROSS: What kind of prices are we talking?
CHRISTY: Well, the prices are - depend on which country you're in, whether you're on the source side, the African side, or the end user side in South Africa, according to underworld figures I spent time with, it's about $3,000 a pound for rhino horn. That moves up by factors of 10, so you get rhino horn in Vietnam and China for $15,000 a pound, $30,000 a pound. And rhino horn is often sold for - its primary use Asian medicine, so it's often sold by the gram. And if you start breaking it down into gram lots, then the prices just skyrocket from there.
GROSS: What is it supposed to be therapeutic for, for people who believe that it is?
CHRISTY: Yes. Unfortunately, there was a statement a few years ago by a Vietnamese public figure who said rhino horn was good for cancer. And that is one of the main drivers now of rhino horn powder consumption is it can cure cancer. It's believed to cure - there is a - there is a significant industry collecting venomous sea snakes for food, and those who collect those sea snakes, if they're bitten by the snake, rub rhino horn on it believing it will cure them. It's used for hangovers. It's sort of a party drug of the moment.
CHRISTY: Aphrodisiac as well - and in fact, I looked into that. And the aphrodisiac, it's now sold as an aphrodisiac, but that's not because it's traditionally thought of as an aphrodisiac. It's rather that Western media has gotten it wrong for the last several years, claiming that it's an aphrodisiac. And the Vietnamese and Chinese started following that. In other words, they are now selling it even though it wasn't their idea. It was an error in Western media.
GROSS: So rhino horns look like they're bony protuberances, but they're not bone. They're keratin, which is a protein that's in hair and in fingernails. So when somebody cuts off a rhino horn, like, how do they do it? What are they doing? And I should mention here that the horn eventually grows back kind of like your fingernails do.
CHRISTY: Yeah. Yeah, no, that's the - that's the both amazing thing and the sad thing about the rhino is the rhino horn, unlike the tusk of an elephant, which is a tooth, the rhino horn will grow back. If you cut it not too low, not too close to the head, it will grow back. In general, if you're doing it as a farmer of rhino, you drug your rhino and then you use a sawzall, an electric saw to saw the end of the horn off. In the field, poachers will use a machete. And the way the rhino horn attaches to the skull of the rhino is sort of like a wart, I guess. And you can stick the point of your machete under that and pop it off the rhino's face. And when you're doing it quickly in the field, that's one of the ways they do it.
GROSS: There's a photo that the photographer Brent Stirton took for your story of a rhino that had its horn taken off in the way you just described. And there's, like, a hole in his head where the horn used to be. It looks really horrible.
CHRISTY: I've seen some of the worse things man can do to wildlife. And the worst for me is the way they take the horns off or the way a poacher hacks a horn off a rhino's face. These aren't dead rhino most of the time. The way these poachers take out a rhino to do it quickly and most assuredly is they just shoot to break the rhino's front leg. The rhino goes down. It's immobile. You can go up. It doesn't have to be dead.
GROSS: And it's experiencing all the pain.
CHRISTY: All the - all the pain. And in fact, the mother - this becomes difficult. But the mother will keen like a whale, and it will - and a baby that's fled out of fear will come back. And they - the poachers don't shoot that baby. They - they'll hit it in the spine with their machete to paralyze it so that they save a bullet.
GROSS: Why not just let the baby live?
CHRISTY: They want the baby's horn, too.
GROSS: Oh, so there's a little baby horn they can take.
CHRISTY: Yeah. Every ounce.
GROSS: So one of the people you spoke to for your article is a rhino farmer John...
GROSS: John Hume and his argument is - first of all, he owns them. And second of all, this is great for conservation because rather than poaching them and hurting them, you know, he immobilizes them, anesthetizes them, cuts off the horn in a place so that it can still grow back, so that the animal doesn't feel pain and isn't permanently damaged in any way. So he asked what's wrong with that? So what do conservationists have to say in answer to that?
CHRISTY: I think there are two primary concerns. First, in a perfect world, John Hume's absolutely right. The rhino, as he puts it, you know, the rhino can pay for its own protection. You can dart your rhino, cut the horn off, the rhino is fine afterwards and sell the horn. And you can use the money to pay for conservation of that rhino and other rhino around the world. The problem is that we don't live in a perfect world and the level of corruption in these legal systems is extraordinary. And when you open the door to a legal trade, you also open a door to a new level of illegal activity. And that's the fundamental insight for me of this project, the last year I spent in the rhino world - is that the legal systems in place in South Africa are incapable of policing most forms of crime in South Africa, let alone wildlife crime which is a very low priority in general.
GROSS: So right now the rhino horn trade is illegal in South Africa. But what John Hume who is a South African rhino farmer is doing is banking rhino horn. He's hoping and expecting that someday soon, it's going to be legal to sell them. So he has - what? - hundreds and hundreds of horns...
CHRISTY: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...In safe places ready to be sold as soon as it becomes legal to sell them, and how many how horns does he have?
CHRISTY: He's got five tons of horn at least in stockpiles. He has a security service that comes to his farm twice a week to collect the horns that he's cut for that week. And you're right. He's got - if we - the estimated value of his collection at the moment is $45 million in horn banking on the ban on rhino horn trade both in South Africa and internationally - that both those bans will be struck down.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Christy. He's the chief correspondent of National Geographic Society's Special Investigations unit, and his latest investigation is into the illegal trade in rhino horn. And that's his latest story in National Geographic. We're going to take a short break here, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Christy. He's the chief correspondent of the National Geographic Society's Special Investigations Unit and his latest article about the illegal trade in rhinoceros horns.
So one of the people you write about in your investigation into the illegal rhino horn trade is Dawie Groenewald, who's an accused rhino trafficker. And he's been called the butcher of Prachtig. And Prachtig is the name of his rhino hunting property. Why was he given the name of the butcher?
CHRISTY: Dawie Groenewald has two properties. He has a 4,200-acre hunting property in northern South Africa, just below the Zimbabwe border. And on that property, he had been accumulating rhino for quite some time and cutting off their horns, like other rhino ranchers. Except the South African police believed he was trafficking those horns against the law, and they raided his property in 2010. And they discovered pits, these giant pits of body - rhino bodies carcasses that had been burned, and he had apparently been hacking the horns out of these rhino in brutal ways. And he got the nickname butcher Prachtig from that experience. They've associated 439 rhino horns with with his operation there.
GROSS: There's currently a lot of charges against him in South Africa. What are some of those charges?
CHRISTY: Moving a rhino without a permit, cutting the horn off without a permit, selling that horn without a permit. Each - each is a crime and a count. And then he faces more standard organized crime counts for money laundering and the like.
GROSS: So tell me somebody who believes if he owns the animals, like, he owns the rhino that he can kill them, he could dehorn them. He could do whatever they want because they're his property. And in fact, that's how the world works when it comes to farming. If you're farming chicken or pigs or whatever, you can, you know, bring them to slaughter and use them for whatever. So are we talking about a double standard here? Like, why do conservationists say that he's wrong when he says that?
CHRISTY: Well, chickens and cattle aren't endangered. And these are endangered species. And to some degree, they're part of the global commons. They are a global asset. And in any case, the world has agreed to certain standards with respect to how these can be traded and how they can be treated. And Dawie has thumbed his nose at all of that. He - and this is a metaphor for South Africa's approach to wildlife - he says this is mine. If it is on my land, it is mine, and I can do anything I want with it.
GROSS: Somebody else who you write about is involved with the illegal rhino trade is Hugo Ras, who you describe as a luxury safari operator and accused rhino killer. What's he accused of?
CHRISTY: Hugo Ras is considered a potentially more violent version in the rhino horn trade. He is accused of using a veterinary drug called M99 to kill rhino both on properties he controls and on other properties, which would make him a poacher in South Africa. And this is one of the interesting things - in South Africa, if you kill a rhino on your property - people regularly said to me, you know, Dawie's not so bad. They were his rhino. And these are law enforcement, these are veterinarians. They were his rhino. Hugo Ras has been accused of killing other people's rhino. And he - and for that, South Africans condemn him. And he himself - this isn't in the story, but I went to visit Hugo in prison in Pretoria. And Hugo confessed to me, yes, I trafficked horns the way the government says I did, but I did not poach. I am not a poacher. My son - and he started to break down - my son is 7 years old. I do not want him to think my father is a poacher. And that's amazing to me.
CHRISTY: Because you're killing rhino in either case. And it's so much a question in South Africa of what is property. Whose is this? It's my right.
GROSS: So Hugo Ras, who we've been talking about, his hunting clients have included Donald Trump's sons, Donald Jr. and Eric. So what did they do, they went on a Hugo Ras safari?
CHRISTY: Yes. Both sons hunted with Hugo Ras in the early 2000s, 2004, 2005. They hunted a variety of game, including sort of all your plains game. They went on a lion hunt, and Ras described to me their time with him.
GROSS: So for someone like John Hume, who has this huge rhino farm, how do you buy rhino? Like, how do you create a rhino farm?
CHRISTY: South Africa has game auctions. And you can buy rhino the way you would buy cattle in the United States. And again, this is something that was amazing to me that all of the animals you might think of hunting on an African safari are being ranched in South Africa. So you have sable antelope ranches; you have impala ranches; you have rhino ranches. You have a private rhino owners association.
And it's astounding, they have privatized all aspects of what is wild. And this is what is so important to me in the big scheme of things for how we relate to nature as we continue to occupy space. Do we own it, or do we co-exist with it? And South Africans have chosen to own it. And if they don't own it, they don't really care about it.
GROSS: When farmers buy rhino at an auction, like you describe, what is the origin of the rhino? Are the rhino being sold rhino that were farmed? Are they being taken captive from the wild? Where do they come from?
CHRISTY: There's an amazing footnote in the history of the southern white rhino, which is the - which is the most traded rhino - is that at the turn of the last century, they were down to less than 100 rhino in the world. And a group of South Africans began breeding them and moving them and spreading them out. And all white rhino today, all 19,000 or so of them can be traced back to these hundred or so founder rhino. And so the rhino being traded today largely are the offspring of that limited population. And for the most part, they're legally traded. Kruger National Park from time to time considers it has too many rhino, and it will sell rhino. It's sold rhino to Dawie Groenewald, for example, and used the funds - to fund itself.
GROSS: Isn't that an argument for farming rhino? I mean, it was like farming rhino that saved them from extinction in the first place.
CHRISTY: Absolutely. And it's - it would be a great argument if the legal system were up to the task of policing it, and it's clearly not.
GROSS: Bryan Christy, thank you so much for talking with us.
CHRISTY: Thank you, Terry. It's been an honor.
GROSS: Bryan Christy is chief correspondent of the National Geographic Society's Special Investigations Unit. His article about the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn is in the October issue of National Geographic. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead. He has a new album. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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