Cut the horn to spite the face – click here
Cut the horn to spite the face
Is dehorning a feasible solution to the problem of rhino poaching in South Africa?
Poachers killed 333 rhinos in South Africa last year. More worrying still are the 25 more cases of rhino poaching that have occurred this year alone – and we’re only half way through March.
While increased security efforts and even the most technologically advanced satellite tracking methods have failed to ensure the safety of our rhino, increasingly drastic measures are being considered.
One of the proposed remedies to this rising scourge is to dehorn the animals as a sort of pre-emptive strike against the poachers. There have been several arguments in favour of the practice, and of the introduction of a new, ‘regulated’ rhino horn trade.
It must be noted however that in 2007, Zimbabwe managed a similar dehorning campaign with limited success. As such, it seems to be a case of cutting off the horn to spite the face, and we should examine both the positive and negative implications of dehorning rhinos.
What is rhino horn used for?
While modern science has failed to prove any medicinal value, in the Eastern market rhino horn is still believed to have several uses:
- An alleged remedy against fever, gout, rheumatism and other non life threatening illnesses
- A cure for cancer
- Decorative use
- An aphrodisiac
The Argument for Dehorning:
The arguments in favour of dehorning are centred on the fact that a rhino’s horn is very similar in composition to a horse’s hoof and can regrow at a rate of about 12cm per year (provided no harm is done to the growth plate).
So, in theory, a rhino’s horn could be removed without hurting the animal and, because of its regenerative properties, can be considered a ‘renewable resource’.
Before we get too excited though, let us not forget that the high demand for rhino horn has meant that poachers have even targeted the small growth nubs of rhino calves. As such, even a small amount of horn regrowth appears to be worth killing for.
So if dehorning does not deter poachers, one must ask- what is the point?
Regulated dehorning could logically lead to a regulated (and legal) trade in harvested horns. This would not only allow for controlled flooding of the global market with ‘rhino-friendly’ horns (horns removed under anesthetic by a veterenarian, rather than poached), thus reducing the costs of rhino horn (and making the acquisition of the horns less appealing to poachers). The legal sale of horn would also (in theory) be a means of generating funds to plough back into the conservation industry and anti-poaching activities. After all there are warehouses packed full of stockpiles of confiscated horns, which could surely be put to better use generating funds for conservation.
It all sounds terribly convenient, and this is no doubt the reason that it has been promoted as a feasible solution. However, there are several very poignant arguments against dehorning:
Firstly, in as far as a regulated trade in rhino horns goes, there are simply not enough animals to meet the demand for their horns. They are not considered endangered for nothing!
Therefore, it can be anticipated that poaching activities will continue in areas not participating in ‘rhino-farming’. Furthermore, a legal trade could very easily provide a front for horns obtained from illegal sources, and few governments have the necessary resources to police a legal trade (which would require the registering and micro-chipping of all horns released into the trade).
Secondly, major changes would have to be made to both local and international trading policies. In 2009 the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism published a national moratorium on the trading of rhino horns or parts.
According to the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) Regulations of 2007, you need to have a valid permit to hunt, capture, kill, import, export, keep a rhino in captivity or even to possess a horn. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) also demands proof of the legal acquisition of rhino horn. This is why the current confiscated stockpiles are not being sold.
Finally, and most importantly, the risk to the rhinos themselves needs to be given priority. While it is true that their horns can be removed with little damage incurred, the risk of damaging the growth plate still exists.
In addition, we have no idea just how painful it is for the rhino and how it may impact the animals’ natural habits and social behaviour.
There are also great risks for the animal when it comes to immobilisation and tranquilasation. Tranquilisation at any time is a life-threatening procedure, and should only be administered by a skilled veterinarian (as should the actual removal of the horn). And this would not be a once off for the rhino, with an average growth of 12cm per year and poachers who are willing to shoot rhino calves for small growth nubs – the horn would have to be removed again as soon as it is long enough for a safe removal to be possible.
There is also the risk of infection setting in when the horn is removed, especially if the horn is cut too close to the skull- which can be extremely painful for the animal and may result in death.
The considerable cost of the vet’s time and drugs, as well as possible air support adds up to a cost of approximately R8 000 per horn – and that’s making no mention of the cost of risking the animal’s life.
Not the solution
It would appear that on the basis of this argument, dehorning is neither a sustainable nor responsible solution to South Africa’s poaching solutions.
It is hardly ethical to put the individual rhinos at considerable risk in order to remove the horn only to make them less appealing targets for poachers.
This is a huge issue across Africa and if we crack down in South Africa, rhinos in other countries will be targeted. The demand for the horn needs to be addressed and the industry needs to be shut down in order to afford our rhinos any long-term safety.
The individual reserve owners can only do so much in terms of active patrolling and anti-poaching units. The issue needs to be addressed by government and international bodies and the repercussions for poachers and the individuals involved in poaching syndicates need to be so severe that potential gains are no longer worth the risk.
To find out more about the costs and benefits of dehorning, see EWT’s comprehensive FAQ on the topic.