My experience of dehorning rhino

As I mentioned in my previous blog, in May I was lucky enough to visit South Africa and attend a media trip with Project Rhino to see first hand how much effort is going into the fight against rhino poaching and wildlife crime.

One the methods that I will never forget was the dehorning of white rhino in a game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa.

On Thursday 17th May, we were taken to Somkhanda Game reserve to understand the conservation approach of dehorning rhino. The night before, we sat around a braai and debated the poaching crisis and the pros and cons of different anti-poaching methods.

Dehorning is seen as one of the most extreme and invasive anti-poaching measures and one that I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. However, after learning more about the grave situation rhinos are facing in South Africa, I began to understand this drastic but effective approach.

The next day (after a very early start), the team set off to the location of two white rhino armed with a dart gun in a helicopter and game vehicles packed with chainsaws and equipment.

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Helicopter and vet on the way to the rhino

After the team of dedicated and skilled trackers located the rhino, the very experienced vet, Dr Mike Toft, shot a powerful cocktail of drugs into the rhino’s rump from the helicopter hovering two meters above.

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The helicopter darting the fast moving rhino

After a few nervous minutes, we watched the 2000kg rhino slow, stagger and sink to the ground. I was surprised to see that although immobilised, the rhino was always conscious and continued to breathe heavily from its nostrils and twitch its delicate ears whilst the team prepare it. Blindfolds and earmuffs were placed on its head to reduce the noise and stress during the dehorning activity whilst DNA samples were taken and new trackers were fitted to the rhino’s ankle.

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Dr Toft marking the horn area to be cut off
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Ear muffs and a blindfold on to reduce the stress on the rhino
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The team making sure the rhino is positioned correctly
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Wildlife Act fitting a new ankle tracker to monitor the rhino

After quickly marking up the ideal cutting point, Dr Toft fired up a large chainsaw and cut both horns off in a quick and painless procedure.

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Dr Toft carefully removing the second horn

Despite knowing it was in the animal’s best interest, it was still hard to watch. The procedure was noisy and violent but Dr Toft insisted it is no more painful than trimming your fingernails if done correctly. After all, rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same type of protein that makes up hair and finger nails.

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The rhino following the dehorning procedure, ready to be woken up

The remaining stump was sprayed with purple antibacterial solution and the vet administered the drugs to wake the rhino whilst we all hurried back to the safety of the vehicle to watch what happened next.

It was amazing to see that within minutes the rhino stood up, looked around curiously and began casually grazing like nothing had happened.

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The rhino, surprisingly unfazed, after waking up from sedation
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Calmly strolling off after the dehorning

The whole procedure took under five minutes to be completed. The speed, care and precision of the whole process was hugely impressive.

This was the first of eight rhinos successful dehorned that day by the extremely skilled and hardworking team.

Dr Toft told us he has removed close to 1,800 horns from 900 rhinos in the past three years and all the team acknowledged that dehorning is not a permanent or ideal situation but a desperate measure designed to keep these animals alive.

How chopping off Rhino horns can save their lives

In May 2018, I visited South Africa as a conservation volunteer and I was lucky enough to spend some time with Project Rhino, seeing how much effort is going into the fight against rhino poaching.

Project Rhino is a group of conservation agencies working together to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa. They use a huge range of projects to stop wildlife crime including aerial surveillance, dehorning initiatives, K9 and horse anti-poaching units, ranger training and education and communication programmes.

During my time in South Africa, I took part in a media visit to KwaZulu-Natal province, one of the most historic and beautiful conservation regions in the world. We were shown the anti poaching interventions run by Project Rhino and its members.

Crucially, I learnt why Project Rhino exist and it’s a depressing story…

The poaching crisis

In the past decade more than 7,000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa. The staggering increase in poaching has devastated South African’s rhino population with a total of 1028 rhinos killed for their horns in the last year.

Poaching pressure has increased significantly in KZN. While the Kruger National Park was initially the most severely impacted area, the increased security measures recently being brought into place in the park have pushed the rhino horn syndicates to become more active in KZN. As you can see from the below graph, although generally in South Africa rhino poaching has slightly decreased in recent years, it has significant increased in vulnerable areas such as KZN.

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Rhino poaching in South Africa (KZN in red)

The global situation isn’t much better with fewer than 30,000 rhinos globally and the northern white rhino becoming functionally extinct after the death of the last male, Sudan, in March.

Twitter post by @OlPejeta: It is with great sadness that Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Dvůr Králové Zoo announce that Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19th, 2018 (yesterday).  #SudanForever #TheLoneBachelorGone #Only2Left

Why is this happening?

A persistent human desire for rhino horn, for everything from medicine to hangover cures to status symbols, drives the slaughter of these animals.

The scarcity of rhinos and the limited availability of rhino horn only drives the price of horn higher and higher, intensifying pressure on declining rhino populations. For people whose income is far below the subsistence level, the opportunity to change one’s life by killing an animal that they don’t value is overwhelming.

Poaching is now a threat in all rhino range states, however as South Africa is home to the majority of rhinos in the world, it is being heavily targeted. More than ever, field programmes are having to invest heavily in anti-poaching activities.

Evidence shows that poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. Frequently a tranquiliser gun is used to bring the rhino down, before its horn is hacked off, leaving the rhino to wake up and bleed to death very painfully and slowly. Poachers are often armed with guns themselves, making them very dangerous for the anti-poaching teams who put their lives  at risk everyday to protect rhinos.

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Rhino horn removed during a dehorning procedure –  rhino horn is made up of keratin, a protein found in our own hair and fingernails..!

It is therefore no surprise that that conservations are driven to take drastic steps such as chopping off hundreds of rhino horns before poachers can get their hands on them.

Some thorny issues

Unfortunately we cannot ignore the downsides to dehorning and it is fair to say used in isolation, this is not the only solution to prevent poaching.

  • Not only is the procedure invasive but it’s expensive. Chris Galliers from Project Rhino explained that it costs about £580 to safely dehorn one rhino and this must be repeated every 18-24 months as the horns naturally regrow
  • Due to the issues associated with sedating animals of this size, it can be dangerous to the rhino and, if done incorrectly, can be fatal
  • Dehorning only selected rhino is not an option, as those without horns become more vulnerable in territory fights and it is not always possible to dehorn 100% of the population (some will successfully hide away and you should never dart a pregnant cow)
  • There are also cases where dehorning has proved insufficient to prevent rhinos from falling victim to poachers. Poachers may still kill for the stub of the horn, although much less profitable, the stub is still a target thanks to its high value. Poachers have also been seen to kill dehorned rhinos out of vengeance and to avoid tracking them again

Despite issues, the dehorning strategy, coupled with other anti poaching security efforts, has produced dramatic results in several reserves.

Overall, it is a promising step to help save rhinos

In KZN, nearly a quarter of rhino deaths were on private reserves such as Somkhanda. However, over the past two years, coinciding with intensive dehorning, that has dropped to 5%.

Although it’s heartbreaking that such drastic measures must be taken to protect rhinos, it’s promising that these steps are working and many wildlife mangers believe we should do whatever it takes to save rhinos. With the poachers’ prize removed, there is no doubt that the risk to the animals is greatly reduced.

YOU CAN HELP

In September, I will be taking part in my first Olympic Triathlon to raise money for Project Rhino. Please click here if you can help – https://www.givengain.com/ap/swimbikerunforrhinos/

Any donation will be hugely appreciated and directly support crucial operations on the ground in South Africa – helping to save the lives of African rhinos and ensuring that these beautiful yet endangered animals continue to survive.

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A white rhino successfully dehorned by Project Rhino in KZN

To learn more about dehorning, read my own experience of dehorning white rhino in KZN or for further reading;

Click here to read the Endangered Wildlife Trust 2011 study on the dehorning of African rhinoceros as a tool to reduce the risk of poaching

Click here to read a 2013 paper by Raoul Du Toit and Natasha Anderson from the Lowveld Rhino Trust, whose research challenges some of the supposed consequences of dehorning

Click here to read ‘Caught in the Crosshairs’ a scienceline article investigating the dehorning debate