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China's reverse of rhino horn ban reverberates in Kenya

Thelma Mwadzaya
November 6, 2018

At a little-known but aptly named primary school in Kenya's capital, pupils have taken it upon themselves to become ambassadors for the endangered rhino, or kifaru in Swahili.

Two black rhinos peek out from the long grass
Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library/Ardea/M. Iijima

A massive mural of a rhino welcomes you at Kifaru Primary School in Nairobi's Umoja Estate, where the pupils are settling down after their lunch break in the school yard.

A few hours earlier, and more than 9,000 kilometers (5,590 miles) away, the Chinese government had announced a reversal of its 25-year ban on the use of rhino horn in traditional medicine.

Read more: China ends 25-year ban on rhino horn trade

The news came as a blow to pupils and staff at the school that prides itself on working to save the mighty herbivorous mammals that are native to Africa and some parts of Asia.

Children in blue uniforms gathered in a school yard in Nairobi
At a school called Kifaru, or "rhino," saving the mighty beast seemed a natural thing for the pupils to want to do. Image: DW/T. Mwadzaya

Pupils and rhinos meet

"It's the wrong step towards the environment. Rhinos are rare animals in most countries in Africa and the world at large. If we keep on poaching rhinos then the next generation will have nothing," Moses Kuol Malual, a former pupil at Kifaru Primary told DW.

"Most countries in Africa depend on tourism for their income."

In 2011, environmental activist Sam Dindi began working to raise awareness at schools in Nairobi and Kisumu, a port city on Lake Victoria, about the plight of the endangered species.

Dindi found Kifaru Primary a perfect model for his rhino education platform because of its name. "I first began by taking the students to Nairobi National Park. This is because some of the students had never seen a real rhino," Dindi says.

"I told them to be ambassadors of the animal when they return to school. They now understand what a rhino is and its importance."

The park, located a few kilometers from central Nairobi, includes one of Kenya's key rhino sanctuaries. Rhinos can be seen roaming an area of the 29,000-acre (11,700-hectare) park. At the end of 2017, Kenya was home to 1,258 rhinos, including 745 black rhinos, 510 southern white rhinos and three northern white rhinos. 

The carcass of a rhino in South Africa's Kruger National Park
Rhinos are often killed for their horns, which buyers believe contain medicinal qualities although it consists primarily of keratin – a substance found in human hair and nails.Image: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Critically endangered

Three of the five species of rhino are listed as critically endangered. Their numbers have been decimated by the poachers who are after rhino horn, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine or as a supposed aphrodisiac.

Read more: Relentless rise in rhino slaughter

Rhino numbers declined in Africa during colonial times, when the animals were hunted for sport and meat. The demand for rhino horn has since shifted to Asia and the Middle East, where one kilogram can fetch up to $60,000 (€52,700) on the black market.

Rhino conservation efforts have seen some spectacular successes, according to the International Rhino Foundation. Ten years ago, roughly 20,800 rhinos roamed the earth, while the number is up to around 29,500 today, it said.

In a policy directive on October 29th, the Chinese government said it would allow the use of rhino horn and tiger bones for "medical research" or "healing." The horn would have to be sourced from rhino raised in captivity, excluding zoos, it noted.

Beijing's lifting of the ban could roll back efforts to save the animals, the Kenyan government and wildlife conservationists have warned.

World's last male northern white rhino dies in Kenya

China could trigger poaching spark

International trade in rhino horn has been illegal since 1977 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

"The pronouncement of China is against the international goodwill to protect endangered species," said Kahindi Lekalhaile, director for public affairs at the Africa Network for Animal Welfare. "Banning the trade of the rhino horn both domestically and internationally was appropriate as a precautionary principle to avert the extinction of any remaining species of rhino in the world."

Lekalhaile warned the move could "actually trigger a poaching spark in Africa and Asian countries."

The head teacher at Kifaru Primary, Rose Mwanga, is adamant that rhinos have to be protected by all means. "They are being killed in large numbers and their numbers do not increase that quickly. Not many people know that."

Safe Haven for Rhinos