Do Rhino Horns and Elephant Tusks Grow Back?

Rhinos and elephants have been hunted for centuries for their horns and tusks. respectively. Poachers often permanently disfigure or kill the animal while removing these items in an effort to fuel an industry that makes over $200 billion a year. Many of the animals caught in this trade die, but those rhinos and elephants that survive are typically left disfigured and disabled.

To counter the rise in poaching, some conservationists have begun cutting the horns off rhinos to protect them, leaving flat stubs where a horn used to be. For those that survive poaching or whose horns are purposefully removed by wildlife protectors, the futures of their horns or tusks aren’t the same. Where rhinos horns grow back, elephants tusks don’t.

Rhino and Elephant Poaching Epidemic

While great strides have been made to improve the lives and safety of rhinos and elephants, these large mammals still remain prime targets for poachers and wildlife traffickers. In 2017, over 1,000 rhinos were poached and nearly 770 were poached in 2018. The decreased amount is something to celebrate, but it could have a negative effect as the decreased supply increases the price.

Africa’s elephants have seen similar recoveries despite their decades of endangerment. Between 1979 and 1989, nearly half of the continent's elephants were killed for the ivory trade. Public outcry led to the destruction of the ivory stockpile. CITES also stepped in to ban all international commercial trade in African elephant ivory, a move that gave the species a chance to recover.

As the fear of losing these species to the illegal wildlife trade spread, government and non-government organizations began work constructing reservations, training rangers, utilizing animal tracking devices, and implementing new laws to further help these animals. Though the efforts have improved the survival rates of elephants and rhinos, they have not stopped poaching in its entirety and hundreds continue to suffer as a result.

What Happens When Protection Fails?

Poachers are forever perfecting and advancing their methods to slip past rangers and law enforcement and reach the animals. When this happens, the animal is either killed, seriously wounded, or sedated. The poachers plan to move quickly to remove the horn or tusks before anyone arrives. This hurry often means they do severe harm to the animal, oftentimes cutting into the animal’s flesh to more easily remove the horn or tusk. For the animal, the experience is traumatizing if not fatal, and some in the world of conservation have begun proposing an alternative.

Why Remove a Rhino’s Horn?

A rhino’s horn is made of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and nails. Just like nails, a rhino’s horn grows back after being cut. It continuously grows throughout the rhino’s life and can be safely filed down without injuring the rhino. Despite this, poachers often kill the rhinos to more easily remove their horn even though leaving the animal alive would both preserve its life and allow it to grow another horn.

In an effort to better protect the animals under their care, some conservationists have begun to safely remove the rhino’s horns themselves. By trimming the horn down to a stub, these conservationists hope to deter poachers from attacking the species and to help protect them long into the future.

The method does not always work, however, as some poachers still seek out the rhino’s stump even without the prize of a full horn. In addition, the process can leave the rhino vulnerable as it no longer has the horn to use in defending its territory, leading its calves, or digging for water. However, even with these complications, it is one method that can help safeguard the species and is one that cannot be successfully utilized in the same way with elephants.

The Trouble with Elephant Tusks

Elephants tusks are fundamentally different from rhino horns. Whereas rhino horns are made of keratin, elephants tusks are composed of ivory which is not dissimilar from human teeth. Elephants tusks are actually a part of an elephant’s dental structure - its incisors, to be exact. The tusk is primarily comprised of dentin and wrapped in enamel to protect it against wear and tear. Nearly all African elephants have tusks as do most male Asian elephants.

In the same way that a human tooth does not grow back if it’s removed, neither does an elephant’s tusk. Once these protruding teeth are removed, an elephant will never grow more. Additionally, there is no safe, feasible way to remove them to protect the animals from poachers. The tusks are embedded into the animals skull with a nerve running down the center of them. Removing them would be painful for the animal and could potentially kill it if done incorrectly.

Methods of Protection

Though dehorning rhinos is a potential option, it is not a long-term solution, and it’s a method not available to elephants and those seeking to defend them. The only true way to ensure the long-term survival of these endangered species is to end the demand for the product. Many people are unaware that elephant tusks don’t grow back. During an International Fund for Wildlife survey, 70% of the Chinese residents surveyed believed that elephants tusks simply fell out like a baby’s tooth. By ending this misconception, we can better protect these animals. In fact, once they learned how ivory was collected, 80% said they would not buy the product in the future.

Education is a vital component of ending demand for the illegal wildlife trade. At Stop Poaching Now!, we work with organizations on the ground to build local resources to defend these animals while spreading awareness through our education programs. The future of these species depends on what we do today. If you’re ready to join in the fight against poaching, join us at SPN!