2011 was a grim year for rhinos. In November, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared Africa’s western black rhino officially extinct, and indicated that the northern white rhino is “possibly extinct,” as well. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was apparently felled by poachers, and fewer than 50 are estimated to remain in the wild, all in Java. Meanwhile, relentless poaching of rhinos in Africa continued, particularly in South Africa, where a record 443 rhinos were reported killed as of December 28, including 244 slaughtered in Kruger National Park alone. The slaughter took place despite renewed efforts by African governments to stem the killing by increasing the number of park rangers, police and soldiers patrolling the bush; making more arrests of suspected poachers; and handing down stiffer penalties—including jail time—for those convicted of rhino poaching or illegal possession of rhino horns.
The killing spree is directly linked to the rising value of rhino horn (now worth more than gold), largely driven by persistent but unsubstantiated belief in the medicinal value of the keratinous horns—in particular, a claim originating in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer.