Updated: Aug 5, 2018
by Laura Hart, Science Writer
A Short-Term Measure to Defend Against Long-Term Extinctions
Due to the demand for rhino horn in traditional medicines and as a signifier of wealth or status, all five species of rhino are at risk of extinction. Attempts to curtail demand have been far-reaching and varied depending on the location. Demand-reduction campaigns are largely focused on educating children in end-user countries about the horn’s lack of any medicinal benefits and the effects poaching has on rhino populations worldwide. This is intended to not only to prevent a future generation of consumers but to also increase the number of people who care about rhino conservation.
However, there is a growing concern that not all people will be reached, or that by the time these children are old enough to put this education to use, the rhino may be extinct in the wild. As a result, the viability of some more short-term approaches are being discussed such as dehorning.
The threats facing rhinos have increased considerably over the last decade with 1,028 individuals poached in 2017, up from just 13 in 2007. As rhinos become increasingly rare, the horn becomes more valuable which makes poaching more lucrative. This increase in poaching further reduces the total number of rhins. A dangerous cycle arises for an animal which has already been brought back from the edge of extinction once before.
Despite the severe penalties for those found guilty of poaching or aiding poaching, the profit is still high. Rhino horn can fetch $65,000 per kg. With the extreme levels of poverty in the areas surrounding many reserves, it is little wonder that villagers are desperate to do whatever it takes to feed their families. These village will sometimes even risk poaching on behalf of criminal syndicates, despite the potential penalty of 100,000 South African Rand, about $11,255, or up to five years of imprisonment in South Africa, with similar penalties in other rhino range states. Due to this risk, if poachers target rhinos with the largest horns so they can earn as much money as possible relative to the potential punishment
To reduce the risk to their own rhino, many reserve owners are now turning to what appears to be a drastic solution; dehorning these animals. The hope is that by reducing the black market profit available from the rhino, the reservations will reduce the likelihood of poaching events and protect the lives of their rhinos.
Arguments for Dehorning
By reducing the amount of horn available, the rhino is less valuable to poachers. However, the risk to poachers remains the same, making the animals less likely to be targeted by criminal syndicates.
In South Africa, where the horn can be legally traded on the domestic market, the safely cut horns could be used to generate funding for improved security and better equipped anti-poaching units for the reserves meaning even greater protection for their rhinos.
The horn of the African rhino species is not necessary for the animal’s health and is primarily used in territorial dominance battles and courtship as well as for some foraging activities. Female rhinos also use their horns in defense to keep males at bay while nursing their young and to defend them from predators.
Rhino horns grow back within just a few years to the same size as they were before dehorning took place. As most rhino die as a result of poaching, by safely removing the horn under anaesthetic with supervision from veterinarians, the reserve owners argue that there is no need for this loss of life. Once the danger has abated, the dehorned individuals will have their characteristic horns once more within a few years.
Until recently, the widespread usage of dehorning was rare, and so research in to its impacts were subsequently sparse. The research which has been conducted shows few, if any, negative impacts on the animal after dehorning. Provided the animal is healthy and closely monitored during the process, there are no notable changes in behavior and no significant change to in cortisol levels. Most importantly, reproduction and breeding are not affected. However, further studies are needed to understand the potential for any long-term effects.
There are a handful of negative points surrounding this. Firstly, rhino are highly sensitive to anesthetic and require relatively small doses. Therefore, older or sick rhinos run a higher risk of not waking from the anesthetic.
Secondly, the potential for corruption runs the risk of poachers getting more detailed information of the number of rhino present on a reserve. Some vets and conservation officials could be susceptible to bribery and the application for permits to carry out the dehorning process could serve as an access point for poachers.
Thirdly, by protecting these animals, poachers may move on to other rhinos who still have horns, increasing the risk to rhinos on reserves or parks who choose or are not able to dehorn their rhino.
Finally, not dehorning an entire population can also be dangerous to the animals themselves as horned animals may injure dehorned individuals or gain dominance advantages. For some large parks such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park, universal and continuous dehorning is not logistically possible. Moreover, the three Asian species with the smallest small populations are almost entirely wild and are subject to lower levels of protection, limiting the viability of dehorning programs.
By reducing the profit available to poachers, they will begin to seek other activities that don’t require such barbaric attacks on living animals, and the threat to these species will decrease.
Many white rhino are now kept on private reserves, and a substantial number would be better protected through a dehorning program. For a species teetering on the edge of extinction, insuring an increased genetic pool from which to expand future populations is vital to their long-term survival.
Finally, this method buys time for the more permanent solution, education, to take effect. Once the children currently learning about the cost of poaching have grown into adults, the need for anti-poaching methods will decrease and hopefully become obsolete.
A Temporary Solution
Dehorning is not a permanent solution. Even as it shifts the dynamic of poaching in some areas, the costly process is not without its risks. However, the dangers posed by dehorning are vastly outweighed by the catastrophic damage poaching inflicts on these populations. This method reduces the likelihood an animal is lost to poachers and ensures more time for the children to grow into adults conscious of the effects their actions have on these creatures.
With the information available, it seems that, for now, removing the horn may be the best chance to buy enough time for that education to take effect, and the combination of these two approaches is fundamental to ending poaching in the long-run.