A group of dedicated American students recently contributed towards the conservation of endangered rhinos by funding a rhino dehorning project. They had come to Africa for an EcoTraining EcoQuest program and partook in the rhino dehorning they had funded. For some of the students, it was their first experience of a rhino in the wild and the first time they had witnessed a dehorning, naturally finding it an emotionally draining experience.
Rhino dehorning is a very expensive and complicated procedure, carried out in five phases:
- The rhino is usually darted from a helicopter, but occasionally from the ground in smaller reserves
- A pen is used to mark the point of removal – usually 7cm from the base of the front horn and 5cm from the base of the back horn
- While the animal is under anaesthesia, a chainsaw or hand-saw is used to cut the horn off horizontally
- The animal’s eyes and ears are covered to minimise the effects of the procedure
- The stump is trimmed to remove excess horn at the base, then smoothed and covered with Stockholm tar to prevent cracking and drying.
The raw reality of an actual dehorning
Eugene Relling, the project coordinator and participant along with the other students, wrote about his experience:
“It’s a difficult task for me to give an account of my personal experience during one of the saddest days of my life, being part of a rhino conservation experience that involved the dehorning of three rhinos. It was my fifth rhino conservation project, but my first that entailed dehorning.
Prior to this day, I felt like I had the best job in the world, being in a position where I could propose an exciting rhino conservation experience to groups, as an additional activity to our courses. After organising the entire program operationally and logistically, I felt privileged to be on the ground and part of it when the actual day arrived.
That feeling of excitement vanished as I remember pressing down hard on the first young rhino bull’s front knee, trying to make him lie down comfortably after being shot with a tranquillizer from the helicopter. Holding the animal was humbling, but equally devastating as I recall my eyes being fixed on the chainsaw that ripped into the horn with some difficulty, not only through this young animal’s horn but also through my very soul.
This is due to what I believe is the protective parental instinct that overwhelmed me that day as I felt helplessness and fear of this young animal and of its mother who was probably close by. Who can imagine being capable of hacking the horn off, sometimes with a blunt axe or panga? I almost felt like a poacher during the procedure, but when the rhino woke up and ran off, my thoughts turned to the future. I knew that although I had arranged a dehorning which degrades the power of this historic beast and denies it of its iconic feature, I have added to the hope that it survives another day in the wild.
There are many different procedures that we can conduct to try and protect our rhinos (and their horns), but statistically, the only procedure with proven results is dehorning. Many people believe that we aren’t winning the war on poaching but I’m of the opinion that if every day we can keep one rhino or more alive, that in itself is a battle won!
With all the heartbroken feelings I’ve felt, I’ve come to realise that it would be selfish of me to stop organising these potentially life-saving conservation projects for our course participants to experience. No matter how much it rips through me, it’s not about me and the tears that I’ll shed at the next one, nor luckily am I facing a potential threat of my face being axed, but it’s about my passion and love for wildlife. I can’t stand for wildlife conservation if I’m not willing to do everything possible to protect this species that is fighting for its life every day.”
Watch this heartwarming, yet saddening video as a rhino gets dehorned:
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