Recent criticism of horn devaluation/infusion (30 August 2014)

“Science is facts; just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts. But a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science”

- Henri Poincaré

The horn devaluation work of Rhino Rescue Project (RRP) has been attacked aggressively on this platform and others over the course of the past few months. These attacks have been based, by and large, on expectations created in the press about a research paper denouncing horn devaluation produced by SANParks. The Article, titled: Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?” by Sam Ferreira, Markus Hofmeyr, Danie Pienaar and Dave Cooper was circulated to the public by the authors. RRP was asked for comment by Carte Blanche.

In the current climate, where SANParks’ dubious actions in “securing” South Africa’s national herd of rhinos from poaching are simultaneously confirmed and denied by a seemingly endless supply of spokespeople (almost) on a daily basis, the desperation with which many still cling to their words is puzzling. The truth is that (to quote Aldous Huxley) facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. The facts are that, due to circumstances largely beyond our control, RRP (quite unintentionally) stood in the way of SANParks selling its horn stockpiles and/or its live rhinos. Instead of exhibiting a willingness to collaborate, SANParks chose to deal with this problem by discrediting RRP. And so, a promising research project that could have contributed greatly towards South Africa’s anti-poaching efforts has been interrupted before we could reach definitive conclusions – and lambasted for a lack of definitive conclusions. That’s like walking out of a theatre in the middle of a movie, and then criticizing it for only being half a movie.

One has to wonder whether the legendary Dr. Chris Barnard would ever have managed to perform the first successful heart transplant (without any existing literature from a “previous” transplant available to him) had he tried to accomplish this feat in the era of social media…! RRP have always made it clear that the treatment of rhino horn is part of and ongoing experiment and trial. Despite this, the authors’ greatest criticism of RRP’s methods is that they are, supposedly, “unscientific”. Yet the same detractors appear unperturbed by the fact that a VISUAL test for an INVISIBLE toxin cannot possibly yield a “scientific” result.

Since the authors of the Article have made no attempt to manage public expectations about its content, RRP has little choice but to make the following information available (including the abridged CV and expert opinion of chemistry expert. Dr. HF Strauss), which debunks the myth that the Article contains, or is based on, any form of laboratory testing or chemical analysis of horn samples. Despite earlier claims in the media alluding to such tests, the Article in actual fact, contains no reference to “robust testing of samples” whatsoever.

It is quite clear that SANParks has cherry-picked facts to make a case against horn infusion, but regardless of how you stack them, these stones simply do not add up to a house.



Noseweek 179 (September 2014)

(Noseweek 179 – September 2014)

SANParks is allegedly rubbishing an anti-poaching measure so it can cash in on legalised trade.

By Sipho Mwanza

With three rhinos being killed in South Africa every day (1,004 in 2013), you’d think those responsible for preserving our wildlife would be waging a war on poaching. Instead they seem to be waging a propaganda war. And, as is so often the case, there’s big money at stake.

South Africa’s vast stockpiles are estimated to stand at 20 tonnes, which, at a price of US$60,000 a kilogramme, could raise R11 billion.

That, no doubt, is why the government makes little effort to hide its preference for the so-called “pro-trade” camp. Although the Department of Environmental Affairs, has invited people to participate in a “Rhino Horn Trade Feasibility” forum, this press statement of 6 June 2014 suggests it is little more than window dressing: “South Africa believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn will in no way contribute to increased poaching.”

One mooted remedy for poaching is “horn devaluation” through horn infusion, whereby rhino horns are injected with a combination of dye and toxin (an ecto-parasiticide), rendering the horn highly toxic to anyone ingesting it.

The organisation behind horn infusion, Rhino Rescue Project (RRP), says it backs infusion rather than de-horning because “no-one comes to South Africa to see the Big Four-and-a half”.

Rhino Rescue had lengthy discussions about horn infusion with some of the custodians of our wildlife – Peace Parks Foundation, SANParks and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (EKZNW) – with a view to working together. But the relationship soured.

Soon afterwards three of these custodians produced and publicised an article rubbishing infusion. “Are chemical rhino horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?” was written by Sam Ferreira, Markus Hofmeyr and Danie Pienaar – all from SANParks – together with an EKZNW official, Dave Cooper. Although their article was to appear in a publication called Pachyderm Journal, that hasn’t happened yet. It has, however, been leaked to the media – The Witness broke the story on 13 May. It says: “Our assessment contests the efficacy of this technique on conceptual and logistical grounds, especially when dealing with relatively large populations. We argue that conservationists should not use this technique when dealing with the rhino poaching threat.”

For an academic article, it is surprisingly short, 11 pages, and though it contains some science, it also deals with economic issues – one argument against treating horn is that it decreases the supply of – and increases demand for – untreated horn. If South Africa were to embrace horn infusion, it says, parties like SANParks would be at risk of being sued by end-users who get ill. (Yes, they seriously said that!)

Even more outlandish, it suggests there might be “cultural rights dilemmas” as “key stakeholders within countries with the highest number of consumers expect the global community to respect their specific cultural traditions”.

It argues that there are health risks associated with the immobilisation of rhinos – at least one “treated” rhino had died from the anaesthesia – and says multiple captures can cause stress for rhinos (the horn-infusion treatment needing to be repeated every three-to-four years).

The authors say there’s no evidence as to whether the treatment affects the health of rhinos and make quite a fuss that there’s very little literature or research data on horn infusion. They are also critical of the cost, saying that, at $1,000 (R10,600) a pop, it won’t be possible to reach the critical mass of rhinos to make infusion successful.

But the authors’ most serious argument that no infusion should take place, is that the treatment simply doesn’t work; the dye and toxin do not penetrate. “All evidence indicates wide-scale failure of application efficiency.”

Carte Blanche decided to make an episode based on the article and asked Rhino Rescue for an interview. RRP was concerned that Carte Blanche did not have the full story and asked for a pre-interview meeting, which was refused, although the programme makers agreed to accept a memorandum that RRP would prepare in advance of the interview. But during the interview, it became apparent to them that the memo either had not been read, or hadn’t been understood. (At the time of writing, the Carte Blanche piece had not yet been aired).

The memo was written by Rhino Rescue Project’s Dr Charles van Niekerk, a wildlife veterinarian, and Lorinda Hern. It is scathing about the legal liability argument, saying it overlooks the fact that rhino horn cannot be bought legally in any of the major end-user countries, with the result that anyone suing SANParks would be guilty of criminality – lawyers call this the par delictum rule.

As for the cultural rights thing, the authors can barely disguise their incredulity: “It seems to imply that South Africans should indulge foreign cultural customs [that fuel the illegal trade] with ‘clean’ rhino horn for poachers at the expense of this flagship species.”

As for the economics, RRP says it fails to understand how, having two types of rhino horn is any different from having rangers in some reserves but not in others. They can’t resist the obvious dig: “It is not apparent how the authors of this article are qualified to introduce and rely on these complex economic arguments.”

RRP’s memo is critical of the quality of the article authors’ research, citing “cursory inspections, supposition and outdated literature”. It claims that no chemical analysis was carried out on horns that had already been dissected and examined.

Says analytical chemist Dr Hein Strauss: “The Ferreira study is being forwarded as a scientific paper and the reader would expect some scientific evidence to corroborate the rather subjective judgement of a visual inspection.”

“It is absurd to say in one breath that the effectiveness of horn treatment is ‘unknown’, then to label it ‘ineffective’. Or to describe horn infusion as an ‘unnecessary deception’, while admitting that the risk of bagging treated horn may deter poachers.”

The memo says of the health-risk that only two out of 276 rhinos have died from the anaesthesia, whereas the claim about stress is nonsensical, the alternative – de-horning – needs to be repeated every 12-18 months. As for cost, it is not $1,000, (R10,600) but R6,500 per rhino.

Rhino Rescue defends its record, saying that, in four years, only seven of the 276 treated rhinos have died – ­either from poaching or natural causes. It claims that a survey it carried out last year showed that 90% of users felt it was an effective deterrent, and that their animals had not undergone any negative change. And RRP claims its research shows that the rate of poaching among treated rhinos is significantly lower than among untreated rhinos.

The memo is critical of SANParks’ attitude, claiming it has consistently refused to allow RRP access to research data on horns that it has examined. It says SANParks has always known that horn infusion was a work in progress that was rolled out quickly in order to deal with an emergency situation, the idea being that it would be refined over time – cooperation rather than criticism would be appropriate. And, if indeed a critical mass of rhinos needs to be treated in order for this to be successful, why doesn’t SANParks use its considerable resources to make it work, rather than complain about logistics and expense?

The memo explains that horn devaluation deals with more than just science, and that conservation psychology comes into play with horn infusion having “a powerful psychological and perceptual impact too”. The strategy, it says, is to foster health fears in the end-user groups. A letter from a safari company that uses horn infusion says that they made sure the infusions were done in the presence of their staff and contractors because poachers act on the basis of inside information.

The memo questions the motives of the article’s authors, in saying SANParks has always been anti-horn infusion, and some other astonishing claims: that SANParks felt poaching was not the crisis it is made out to be; that SANParks was concerned “about the effect of horn devaluation on the secondary economy” (from rhino poaching) that has mushroomed on the Kruger/Mozambique border.

The memo suggests it is no coincidence that the article was leaked to the press: “This one-sided critique… appears to be driven by those with a pro-trade agenda… We have been told directly by SANParks that ‘poisoning’ horns could tarnish the reputation of South African rhino horn in the minds of end consumers.”

South Africa wants to sell its vast stockpiles. But it won’t be able to do so if the world believes the horn is contaminated, so it wants to shoot down the idea quickly. What better way than have their experts denounce it?

A dangerous ploy says the memo – not only is the issue of legitimising the sale of rhino horn contentious, but there’s a long way to go before it can happen because South Africa needs a two-thirds vote in favour of legalisation at the next meeting of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 2016.

In the meantime an awful lot of rhinos will be killed.


Did the guardians of South Africa’s wildlife use deception to get major funding from the Netherlands? In April last year, Peace Parks approached the Rhino Rescue Project (RRP) with a view to getting horn infusion going in the Kruger National Park, seemingly in response to calls to re-erect the fence dividing it from the other half of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, the Limpopo National Park – in the process, making a mockery of the notion of a transfrontier reserve.

This led to discussions between Rhino Rescue and SANParks but no agreement was reached, although RRP eventually ran a successful pilot project at two reserves, Tembe and Ndumo – both EKZNW parks. Not only were certain SANParks people – including two of the authors of the anti-infusion article – hostile to the idea of horn infusion, but there were issues around price and intellectual property. SANParks wanted the RRP’s intellectual property on the chemical composition and the process involved to be transferred as part of any deal.

In August, Peace Parks applied for funding from the Dutch Postcode Lottery (Half their gross proceeds “support organisations working for a fairer, greener world”). The funding was for rhino conservation, with the emphasis on horn infusion (despite the fact that SANParks clearly wasn’t interested). The application made much of RRP and the individuals behind it. Attached were photos of the successful EKZNW pilot project. The application was endorsed by the DEA, EKZNW and SANParks, which said they supported the idea of “adulteration” of rhino horn and that further research was required.

The people from RRP were not allowed to attend the presentation in the Netherlands because the party was “already far too large” (civil servants, foreign trip, you know how these things go) but a video of the EKZNW pilot was shown at the presentation. It did the trick. A €14.4 million grant was made to Peace Parks and WWF.

No sooner had this happened than Rhino Rescue heard there wouldn’t be a deal with Peace Parks – or any of the others. But in January there was an apparent change of heart and Rhino Rescue was asked to do a horn infusion demo for the Dutch, who would be coming to South Africa to see where their money would be going. RRP obliged, perhaps in the hope of salvaging the deal, but it did not happen.

There are two very different versions of what occurred. One is that the funding application was amended to take the emphasis off horn infusion (claiming it needed improvement) and suggesting that other exciting possibilities were being considered. These involved the use of a cellular dye; irradiation of the horn; and the insertion of a radio frequency ID tag into the horn.

The other story goes like this: RRP and horn infusion were not only very much part of the Dutch presentation in November last year but also part of a gala dinner, the “Goed Geld Gala”, in Amsterdam in February, shortly before the money was actually paid over. At this gala, which was attended by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the talk was all about horn infusion and RRP’s video was again shown. The second story seems the more likely, given that Rhino Rescue was required to do a demo after the initial presentation.

Either way, horn infusion is now clearly off the South African agenda, which suggests the Dutch may well have been misled.

A Rhino Protection Programme steering committee comprising people from the DEA, Peace Parks, SANParks and EKZNW has been formed to decide where the money will go. From the documentation, it seems very little, if any, will be going to horn infusion or, indeed, horn devaluation.

Copyright © 2014