With the number of rhino’s lost to poaching exceeding 400 in 2011, more than 600 in 2012 and 850 to date in 2013, there is no doubt a solution for rhino poaching needs to be found.
Logically, one permanent solution to poaching is to eliminate the demand for rhino horn altogether. While education would go a long way towards teaching end-user onsumers that rhino horn contains no nutritional or medicinal value, changing a cultural mindset established over hundereds of years will not happen overnight. It is estimated that 3 animals are lost to poaching in South Africa every day. If this is the case, the species faces so-called negative growth in 2016 and extiction by 2030. Very few could argue that immediate results are what we desperately need at this point.
In the weeks immediately following a poaching incident on the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve in Gauteng in May 2010, Rhino Rescue Project (RRP) was founded. As a new anti-poaching initiative, we contemplated many different methods to fight the poaching scourge. The problem we found with all of the alternatives available at the time was that they were largely reactive instead of proactive, and did not necessarily deter poachers from striking again. We considered conventional solutions like microchips and tracking devices, to more extreme measures such as dehorning. The latter was not considered an attractive option to us as we rely on eco-tourism as our primary source of income. After all, no tourist to Africa really wants to see the “Big Four-and-a-Half” instead of the iconic Big Five! Also, we had reservations about potential behavioural changes in rhinos that could be attributed to dehorning. Based on this information, our thought process increasingly centered around ways to devalue rhino horns, by means of infusion or other forms of contamination. Central to our initial research was the need to ascertain whether it would be possible to contaminate or impregnate rhino horns, possibly with either prolific colouring agents or toxins (or both) to render them valueless in the minds of buyers and/or end consumers, in other words, to once again make a live rhino worth more than a dead rhino. To this end, we explored many options and liaised with several researchers, working on a number of different projects, including those centered around the general health of rhinos.
We found no existing research into the devaluation of rhino horns, but of particular interest to us was work being done on the control of ecto‑parasites (ticks etc.) through the treatment of rhino horns with ectoparasiticides. This research hypothesised that the horn could be used as the depot from which an ectoparasiticide could be distributed on to the skin of the animal to alleviate discomfort from natural parasites. Because our rhinos are wild, and we believe strongly in nature being allowed to run its course with human intervention being kept to a minimum, we had not previously considered treating our animals against pests. In smaller reserves without a large population of Ox Peckers to keep parasites under control, however, such measures could prove useful. Upon realising that this treatment could potentially neutralise a dual threat (both poaching and parasites) we decided to proceed with testing and the subsequent treatment. The starting point for this operation was to obtain a sound legal opinion, which can be provided upon request.
The selection of acaricides for inclusion in the treatment compounds was carefully researched and only Ox Pecker and Vulture friendly products were considered to ensure little or no collateral damage to other animals and organisms sharing the rhino’s habitat.
Ectoparasiticides, although safe for use on animals, are not intended for consumption by humans, and are registered as such. The treatment in no way contravenes the products’ classification and registration criteria (as per Act 36 of 1947). Although not lethal in small quantities, ectoparasiticides remain toxic, and symptoms of ingestion may include, but are not limited to nausea, vomiting and convulsions (all dosage dependent). With this in mind, it was crucial that the message about horn treatments on properties be spread far and wide, to avoid accidental or intentional ingestion of treated horns by people. One way to accomplish this was to place signs around the reserve stating that the rhino horns are not fit for human consumption, thus hopefully deterring poachers from entering the property in the first place.
Further, the next step in the project was to introduce an indelible dye, which based on (prelimenary research into the internal structure of rhino horns) should turn the inside of the horn bright pink, thereby indicating that a horn has been treated. The dye, similar to products used in the banking industry to permantently stain stolen bank notes, cannot be removed in any way if successfully infused and is visible on an x-ray scanner even when the horn is ground to a fine powder. Thus airport security checkpoints, for example, are almost certain to pick up the presence of this dye in a treated horn regardless of whether the horn is intact or in powder form. The dye could also discourage the use of rhino horns for ornamental purposes. It was imperative to us that we, at all times, considered the animal’s wellbeing, and great care was taken to ensure that the horn infusion is done in such a way that no compounds cause damage to the horn’s germinal layer or make their way into the animal’s blood stream. All properties on which treatments are done are frequently contacted thereafter for feedback on the condition of their animals and, thus far, all reports have been predominantly positive.
As part of a “multi-pronged” approach to curb rhino poaching, a DNA sample is harvested using a DNA sampling kit called RHODIS while the animal is sedated. This is sent to Onderstepoort so that the information can be added to a national database. The aim of the database is to aid the legal community in securing prosecutions by supplying information on the source of a horn or parts of a horn found on a suspect. Three microchips are also inserted, with information correlating to the same database. Testing and research into improved infusion techniques as well as technological advances to make treatmens more potent, more visible and more effective is ongoing and comprehensive, to ensure that the animals have in no way been harmed by the administration of the treatment. To this end, The University of Pretoria, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) recently joined hands with Rhino Rescue Project as scientific research partners into improved horn devaluation methods. Similarly, the animals on all properties where infusions are performed for part of our ever-growing research sample, and with the property’s permission, the animals are continuously monitored and research data gathered. Based on the anecdotal evidence gathered thus far, it is believed that the treatment should remain effective for approximately three to four years (a full horn growth cycle), after which re-administration would be required.
Rhino Rescue Project rolled out treatments commercially in 2011. From a research persepctive, this roll-out took place sooner than we would have liked, but the alarming rise in poaching incidents since 2010 meant that we simply did not have the luxury of testing this methodology to the n-th degree over a number of years prior to its implementation. The sad reality is that if we HAD, there may not have been enough rhinos left for our findings to matter. We aim to offer rhino owners a proactive, legally recognised anti-poaching measure – the only in South Africa endorsed by the insurance industry. AON Insurance, the largest insurance broker in South Africa, offers rhino owners insurance against poaching at no extra cost (i.e. premiums will remain the same as those paid for ordinary cover against natural mortality) if they have had their animals’ horns treated. From a technical perspective, exciting possibilities into developing improved horn devaluation methods do exist and are actively being explored by ourselves and our research partners.
The aim of the programme is to prevent rhino’s from being poached in the first place. We are hoping that the majority of treated rhino’s will be left alone, their horns intact; so that they can continue with their lives in the same way they have for decades and contribute to the size of the national herd. Horn devaluation is arguably one of the only proactive solutions that does not entail dehorning or farming rhino as livestock nor does it have an adverse effect on the hunting industry or the country’s tourism revenue. It is relatively cost-effective and has no long-term effects since it “grows out” with the horn in time. Horn treatments have always only ever been intended to be an interim solution to be used by owners of rhino populations who do not have the resources available to provide each rhino with an armed guard. Similarly, animals sold on auctions or ones being exported could have their horns treated prior to being sold to ensure that they are not bought by buyers interested solely in their horns.
We realise that this approach is but “one arrow in the quiver” against poaching, and we do not suggest that it be seen as a long-term solution, nor that it be implemented in isolation or as a substitute for other reasonable security measures. Instead, we believe it to be a means to “buy time” for ourselves and our rhino, while we investigate all potential long-term strategies thoroughly. Maybe the most telling information about horn treatments as an effective poachig deterrent can be found in the fact that, of the (approximately) 230 animals treated to date, losses (due to poaching or otherwise) amount to less than 2%, making these infusions a valuable tool in the anti-poaching toolbox, even if there can never be a 100% guarantee against poaching.