Let’s talk Rhino Poaching Prevention

Did you know that "the number of rhinos poached in South Africa since the beginning of this year now stands at 281 with a total of 176 individuals arrested in connection with rhino poaching?" EcoTraining Camp Manager Emma Summers talk to us about Rhino Poaching Prevention.

We should have learnt from our previous mistakes. Approximately 100 years ago the southern white rhino, square-lipped rhinoceros or wide-mouthed rhino (Ceratotherium simum) almost became extinct. Luckily for us, in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi, South Africa’s oldest National Park a handful survived and thanks to Operation Rhino the southern white Rhino’s population managed to make a remarkable recovery.

Rhino conservation should be one of our greatest conservation success stories, instead in the mid-2000s the demand for rhino horn soared. Prior to 2006, South Africa was only losing a handful of rhinos a year to poaching but after 2007 the numbers of rhino lost each year rose steadily. Although the numbers of animals being poached has declined slightly, the amount we are losing is still far too high and it will soon become a reality that the number of deaths will outnumber the births.

Rhino Poaching Prevention - Black vs White Rhino
Rhino Poaching Prevention - Rhino Stats

So, why are rhino poached?

Rhino horn is made up of keratin, with a similar formula to what our fingernails are made up of, this horn is valuable to some cultures. In Asia, it is believed that rhino horn is a cure-all medicine or an aphrodisiac.

In Yemen, they were used to make dagger handles, and it is now also increasingly used as a status symbol, with people using it to show off their wealth by turning the horn into luxury items like jewellery or door handles. Stockpiling the horns for investment purposes is also becoming common so that they will own something of an animal that no longer exists and when the Rhino no longer exists the prices of its horn will soar.

South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos which makes it an incredibly important country for rhino conservation. Poaching, however; is not limited to South Africa. Rhino poaching is increasing across the whole continent and the three Asian Rhino species are also under constant threat. It’s shocking that today, three out of five global species of rhino are Critically Endangered.

Black Rhino Distrobution
Rhino Poaching Prevention - Ecotraining

So, what are the solutions to this current global poaching crisis?

Below are six of the many different ways people are trying to stop it.

1. Dehorning:

The idea is that under controlled conditions, using a chainsaw, a skilled vet and a conservation team, a rhino will be sedated and have its horn safely removed without harming it. The logic being that if a rhino doesn’t have a horn it would be less likely to be poached. All across Africa dehorning rhino is becoming a common practice. In areas where many reserves have dehorned their rhinos’ multiple signs are normally put up advising to would-be poachers that that area is a dehorned zone.

Pros:

  • In high-risk poaching areas not having a horn could save an animal’s life
  • Can use this time take a DNA sample of the animal which can be used for tracking purposes should the Rhino still be poached

Cons:

  • Poachers may kill dehorned rhinos for vengeance as their time was wasted or so that they avoid tracking them again.
  • Its impossible to remove the whole horn. Normally only 90% of the horn is removed. Anyone who has seen brutal photos of poached rhinos will know that that a poacher will hack off part of the rhino’s face to get all of the horn. The sad fact is that poachers will still kill for this last 10% as a horn stub still worth a lot of money.
  • It’s incredibly expensive and logistically difficult. Rhino horns can grow up to 3-4 inches a year which means that the rhino will have to have its horn removed several times during its lifetime.

Dilemma:

What effect is this having on the rhinos, how will these affect their evolution and genetic future? They use their horns for defence, bulls use them for territorial dominance, cows to protect their young from predators and for foraging.  In the future could the rhino face a heavy price from our attempts to save them?

2. Legalise

There are large stockpiles of rhino horns, sitting there in undisclosed locations all over Africa gathering dust.  The idea behind legalising the trade is that you could use these stockpiles to flood the market and provide the end-user with horns that haven’t come from animals that have been killed for their horn.

Pros

  • Will give the reserves extra cash that they can put back into animal conservation.
  • It could reduce the prices and make poaching a less attractive option.
  • With fewer rhinos being killed it will give their numbers a chance to recover.

Cons

  • Once the stockpiles have been used up will there be enough of a supply to meet the demands and keep the prices low?
  • If you are using Rhino horn as an investment what is to stop people from buying up as much Rhino horn as possible, waiting until supply runs short and then make even bigger profits off it.
  • It doesn’t tackle the root cause of the problem. Nobody can predict how legalising Rhino horn trade will affect the behaviour of the end-users. Will doing this just reinforce beliefs and, in the end, simply increase the demand to such an extent that, poaching will become a viable alternative again

Dilemma

Will this lead to full-scale rhino farms where they are treated in a similar manner as other livestock rather than wild animals? While this might help to increase the White Rhino numbers, Black Rhinos are more temperamental so farming them in this manner might not be possible.

3. Conservation Education

The idea of teaching children conservation education is simple. It will help replace myths with facts and help to inspire these children to want to conserve the environment and all that live in it.  Teaching ideally needs to start as young as possible so that we create a generation of people that appreciate and understand the value of protecting all living things and the challenges of creating a sustainable environmental practice.

Pros

  • Africa – teach people that live on the doorsteps of the parks so that they want to conserve the environment and the animals that live in it. In the long run, it could also help to give better job prospects
  • Asia – it will give them an understanding about where rhino horn comes from, what it is made of and that it doesn’t cure all the illness that it is claimed to treat.
  • It could also help create more future tourists who want to go and see the animals they have learnt about, which will help create more jobs
  • Can teach everyone about how to use the environment sustainability, thus creating guardians of the future.

Cons

  • It will have an impact on the future, but this solution will take time

Dilemma

Could you honestly say that if someone you know was dying that you wouldn’t do everything you could to try and save them? Even with all the knowledge in the world if a traditional belief said that something would work to save them would you not be prepared to try it?

4. Poison Dye

The idea behind this approach is simple, under sedation, you drill the horns and inject it with a liquid dye/poison. The idea is that this will devalue the horn and stop poachers.

Pros

  • Surly no one would want a horn that has been poisoned and is no longer fit for human consumption.
  • The dye can be detected by airport scanners, even when the horn has been ground up making it easier to catch the people trying to smuggle it

Cons

  • Rhino horns aren’t porous so the mixture won’t completely penetrate the horns making it fairly easy to remove the poison/dye.
  • Even if a poacher knows a horn might be poisoned will he worry about it? He will still try to sell it and will probably get a large sum of money for it after all has not likely to admit that the horns may have been positioned.
  • Will it drive up the price of rhino horn as consumers will be willing to pay more for pure horn
  • Its expensive and the horn would have to be poisoned every few years as the horn grows.
  • If you are buying the horn as a status symbol you are not likely to worry about if the horn has been poisoned or not.

Dilemma

Could you honestly say that you could live with yourself if the horn of a rhino you had poisoned got consumed by someone and they died?

5. 3D Printing

Thanks to advances in modern technology, biotechnology firms are developing a way to use 3D printers to print a rhino horn that is genetically so like the real thing, that buyers won’t be able to tell the difference.

Pros

  • It is thought that it will help to flood the market thus reducing the cost of rhino horn undercutting the price poachers will get currently for rhino horn.
  • Its hoped that the technology can be used to also replicate body parts from other endangered animals.
  • It’s a different approach to rhino conservation. People won’t know if they are buying the real thing and the printed horns can be used to produce high-quality items like bracelets

Cons

  • It is thought that approximately 90% of “rhino horns” in circulation are fake and come from animals like buffalo, but rhino poaching rates continue to rise.
  • 3D horn trade could easily be used as a cover for selling the real thing
  • Will fake horns really decrease demand for real rhino horn, or will it potentially lead to more poaching as it’s normalising the use of rhino horn and people will want the real thing
  • It’s uncertain whether the synthetic product can be legally sold under current anti-poaching laws and will law enforcers be able to tell the difference?

Dilemma

The companies that make these fake horns will be looking to make a profit. Will a company that has spent a lot of time developing want to keep the profits made for themselves or would they but these profits into rhino conservation.

6. Microchipping

Again, thanks to modern technology tiny microchips can now be inserted into the rhino horns

Pros

  • If a rhino is poached, you can follow the horn. It is hoped that it will provide potential vital information on poaching and smuggling chains thus making it easier to prosecute poachers and trafficker
  • While they are inserting the chip, they can take a DNA sample. If a horn is found anywhere in the world, it can be traced back to the area of the poaching.
  • It will allow authorities to monitor the rhinos more closely

Cons

  • Expensive and time consuming as you must not only buy the microchips, but you also need the person to insert them into a darted rhino
  • Microchips can potentially be removed by poachers
  • To be effective all rhinos would need to be chipped. Countries like Kenya and Uganda are trying to microchip all their rhinos

Dilemma

Kenya have 1000 microchips and five scanners donated, at a cost of 15,000 USD, with African countries being some of the poorest, how will they be able to justify the cost of this technology when there are so many other things they need to spend their money on.

As you can see there is no single solution to the problem.  It’s clear that a combination of approaches is needed to solve this problem. As money and traditional medical belief are the driving force behind rhino poaching the poaching crises probably won’t go away any time soon.  The more you understand about the problem the more you will know. Who knows you may be the person that comes up with the idea that will enable conservationists to save them.

If you want to learn more about rhino, try our EcoTraining Rhino Quiz.