Clever strategy to protect rhino

Guy Rogers

A RHINO protection agency is offering to treat any rhinos for free with their radical anti-poaching method which destroys the economic value of the horn.

The special mixture makes the horn detectable on X-ray, so it cannot easily be smuggled. It also makes it inedible – and therefore useless to the end-user market in Asia, where it is consumed as a traditional medicine.

The treatment has been developed by Rhino Protect, under the motto, “saving the rhino one horn at a time”. Donations accumulated in the Caleo Foundation, a non-profit organisation, will be used to fund this work.

Rhino Protect head Damien Vergnaud said yesterday the treatment had so far been administered to 45 rhinos across Southern Africa. It started with the three rhinos on his Inverdoorn Game Reserve in the Western Cape, at the height of poaching activity in the area, he said.

“December 15 to 25 last year, every night we faced the threat of poacher attacks, and the only way to protect our rhinos was to patrol with four vehicles and armed rangers, 24-7. Our team stood in front of the rhinos, protecting them with our own lives.”

Despite the support of the police and the nature conservation authority, this strategy was stretching their financial and manpower capability to the limit.

They took the decision to treat the horns of each of their three rhinos instead, he said. “Since then, the reserve is quiet, and our rhinos live their lives in peace, untouched by the poachers.”

Formulating the treatment, they had looked at other poaching prevention methods. “We felt we had to do something different, because other ways were failing.”

The treatment is a mixture injected into the horn. It is made of red dye, barium and “a little secret toxic touch”, he said.

“This last makes it extremely bitter, in a way that it would be impossible for anyone to eat.”

But it is not lethal. The dye stains the inside of the horn so it can not be used to make ornamental dagger handles, which is the alternate market for rhino horn in Yemen. The barium makes it detectable by X-ray, so it cannot be smuggled in other luggage through customs.

“We think the treatment should last two to three years, but one of the Inverdoorn rhinos will be X-rayed in a year to make sure.”

“At no point in the treatment or checking process is there any pain or risk for the animal and he gets to keep his horn, which is at once a tool for defence and aggression, an implement to dig and break branches and for social interaction, he said.

Dehorning the rhinos had been rejected because it dramatically affected the natural social behaviour of rhinos, and sometimes females did not give birth after it, he said. “Because rhino horns grow, dehorning has to be done every three to four years and this is a very painful operation.

“Also, we live in harmony with our animals and they interpret our company and tourist activity as safe. It took years to gain this trust. We did not want to break it .

“We still have 24-hour surveillance and boards all around the reserve indicating that the horns have been treated and are toxic.”

Mike Cantor, co-owner of Port Elizabeth’s Kragga Kamma Game Park, which was forced last year to dehorn its rhino, said the treatment sounded “promising”.

“But I would like to know more about the process and the science behind it.”

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