A shocking, but not surprising accident was reported a few weeks ago. A rhinoceros at Thoiry Zoo (Château et parc de Thoiry) was shot and its horn was harvested by poachers with a chainsaw.
The market for rhino horn has reached an all-time high, driven primarily by markets in Vietnam and China. Horn is seen as a status symbol, and is used in traditional Asian medicine, despite the lack of evidence that proves its medicinal value. So rhino horn has reached twice the value of gold. Due to poaching the number of rhinos in the wild is plummeting globally. Protection of these species in the wild increases. Therefore the criminal networks behind the poaching activities found easier targets, already about six years ago. They began targeting rhino specimens in European museums, followed by living rhinos in zoos. In 2013 the police in Kent, United Kingdom, had an anonymous tip-off that the black rhinos of two zoos near Canterbury could be targeted by poachers. Fortunately, nothing happened. Perhaps because of the increased vigilance that was established by the Aspinall Foundation, the zoos’ owner, with night-time patrols.
So, it was not a surprise that Vince the rhino at Thoiry Zoo lost his life to meet the demands of those ill-informed growing crowd of affluent Asian people. It was about to happen sometime.
Action is being taken: for instance in at least two zoos, in Belgium and the Czech Republic respectively, the horns of their rhinos are removed as a preventive measure.
But why only rhinos? People are craving for exotic stuff such as ivory, tiger balls, leopard skin, tortoiseshell, pelican eggs, hornbills, penguins and rare monkeys. Either for medicinal purpose, for souvenirs, for their personal animal collection, or just for satisfying their greed, and sadism. And why not for an exclusive dish with meat of an almost extinct species. All available at the local zoo.
What kind of measures should be taken to protect vulnerable zoo animals from being poached? What do we need to do to make zoos less attractive as easy hunting grounds for ruthless poachers and gold diggers? Conservation of threatened species is part of the mission of every modern and reputable zoo. Which means that support is given to conservation projects that protect those species in the wild, next to captive breeding programmes and education to the general public. But now it appears that the ex-situ conservation should comprise protection of the animals from poachers as well. Therefore, such threats have made the list of examples that the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity, use to question the safety of zoo animals.
Good fencing and good locks is what comes to my mind first, together with improved security. Moreover, taking away the enticement — for instance by removing the rhinos’ horns, stop creating walk-through exhibits, and avoiding close encounter opportunities — is what needs to be done. But sawing off a rhino’s horn is a major operation which impairs the animal’s welfare, while it has to be repeated over and over again. And altering the modern enclosure design deprives the visitor of the experience, zoos think is needed, to get across the message about the necessity of nature conservation. The latter is still under debate though.
The conditions of most captive breeding programmes are such that they will never succeed in returning captive-bred predator species in the wild — and especially apex predators are important for the resilience of the food chain and the ecosystem health. But when captive breeding is useless, the mission of zoos consists only of education, in-situ conservation projects and entertainment. In my opinion this doesn’t require zoos to have living animals on display.
So, why not turn zoos into infotainment facilities based on nature documentaries in 3D IMAX quality, starring all those threatened species we need to protect in the wild. Such motion pictures provide the necessary experience, and when accompanied by the right kind of education it can even be more effective than the current visit to a zoo with living animals, don’t you think?