Taking the bull by the horns – dehorning rhinos to protect them

by Professor Keith Somerville, ICWS Senior Research Fellow

The large bull rhino, accompanied by a couple of rhino cows, was about a hundred metres away. The jeep carrying the darting team moved closer, there was a popping sound and the bull twitched and moved off with a dart clearly visible sticking in his upper leg. Within two minutes he was down on his knees looking groggy. The dehorning team was out of the jeep and over to him, attaching blinkers to cover his eyes and a group of ranch hands held him down and attached a rope to his back leg.

Things then happened quickly1 but with an assured and rapid routine that was impressive to watch. The vet monitored the rhino’s vital signs – it was sedated but not unconscious and not obviously alarmed or in any pain. The dehorners measured and meticulously recorded the circumference and height of the horn and calculated how much to remove. All the while the rhino was breathing loudly but steadily and made no attempt to get up or even shake off attention.

Once the measurements were taken and recorded, a line was carefully d2rawn around the horns (both the large front and smaller rear ones) leaving about four or five centimetres below the cut line to ensure growth would continue and there would be no damage to the horn bed where it joins the skull. A battery driven saw was then used to cut through the horn, which took little longer than a minute – all the time someone was spraying cold water on to the horn as it was cut to prevent over-heating and burn injuries.

3Then the horn was off. The team cleaned up the edges of the horn stump and brushed off any shaving or horn dust – which all went on to a big plastic sheet under the rhino and was gathered up in sealed and marked bags. The two horns were measured, weighed and marked with indelible ink and their specifications recorded. When a rhino (all of which are tagged and ID chipped) is first dehorned, DNA samples are taken so in future any horn from that rhino can be clearly identified.

From the first rhino I saw dehorned from feet away, the main horn weighed 565g, the smaller horn 67g and the shavings 45g – at the estimated market price in Vietnam and China (the main markets for poached ivory horn) this would be worth about $40,000. The horns and shavings from this rhino, though, would not be bound for the smuggling syndicates and illegal trade but for a safe in a bank or secure depository somewhere (we were not told where) in South Africa.

The two dehornings I saw took place at the huge rhino ranch at Klerksdorp, in South Africa’s North-West province, belonging to the world’s most successful breeder of rhinos, John Hume. His 8,000 hectare property carried 1,405 rhinos (mainly white rhino with just 17 black) and he has successfully bred 951 rhinos over the last 25 years. To give an idea of the importance of this for maintaining rhino numbers, South Africa has 18,796 white rhinos and 1,916 black rhinos (according to Save the Rhino), but 5,424 rhino have been poached in South Africa since 2006, and some feel this may be an underestimate as not all carcasses will have been found. The horn is poached by a variety of different groups – from poor Mozambican peasants to local South Africans to rogue professional hunters and even former vets and senior wildlife officials from the Kruger Park, I was told by Nicholus Funda, the head ranger at Kruger National Park.

4John Hume is a very determined and pugnacious man and since retiring from a successful holiday property has devoted his life and considerable funds to raising rhinos and fighting to find ways of saving them. His ranch is not a national park or sanctuary but a massive breeding operation with more rhino than you’ll see gathered together anywhere else. He told me, though, that it is not like a rhino factory farm with animals squeezed in and he estimates that in the vast rhino bull enclosures, there is just one bull to every 9 hectares and cows have about 8 hectares each. Only at feeding time do they gather in huge numbers – a variety of feedstuffs is brought in to supplement grazing; vital now that South Africa is in the grip of severe drought.

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Hume pays out two to three million rand a month for feed and another three million rand a month on security. He is currently trying to build a radar tower and install sophisticated camera systems to supplement his existing surveillance and patrolling capabilities.

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Hume and other private rhino breeders in South Africa are dehorning their animals to deter poachers. Dehorning doesn’t totally stop poaching as there is still a band of horn left which could be hacked off. But evidence from peer-reviewed studies has shown that dehorning, when widely advertised, does deter poachers, as they will seek to find the most lucrative targets (see Lindsay and Taylor.) and generally avoid farms/ranches with dehorning and good security. Even so, Hume has had attempted incursions by poachers.

The horn grows back on the rhinos and Hume dehorns his every 18 months to two years. The study of dehorning by Lindsay and Taylor suggests there is no long-term impact of dehorning, as long as all rhinos in an area are dehorned. In the wild, though, their study suggests that there could be reduced ability of cows to defend calves from predators like hyenas and lions. But on ranches, there is no obvious change in behaviour or health (Lindsay and Taylor). When I saw the two dehornings there seemed to be no great trauma involved and the rhino were on their feet and walking away in less than 15 minutes and there is no evidence that dehorning carried out every 18 months leads to any side-effects from the sedative.
The horn is made of the same substance as hair and fingernails, keratin. Rhino horn is chemically complex and contains large quantities of sulphur-containing amino acids, particularly cysteine, but also tyrosine, histidine, lysine, and arginine, and the salts calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. It has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia and now is believed, erroneously, in Vietnam to cure both cancer and hangovers.

Currently, the international trade in rhino horn is banned and the booming demand in China and Vietnam has created a huge and lucrative black market with horn fetching $60,000 a kg. This is a major threat to rhino numbers. John Hume believes that in the future only a combination of good security, dehorning at least on private ranches (few national parks and reserves want to dehorn, as Chief Ranger Nicholus Funda of Kruger and anti-poaching head Cedric Coetzee of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal told me) and the development of a regulated and closely monitored legal trade in rhino horn will save the rhino in the wild. This is a view strongly opposed by many conservation and animal rights NGOs and is unlikely in the near future to get sufficient support from governments around the world to end the 39 year old CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) ban on trade. It will be debated at the CITES Conference in Johannesburg at the end of September, when Swaziland applies to be allowed to trade in rhino from legal stocks and natural mortality – but no change is remotely possible at this stage. John Hume and a growing number of rhino breeders and conservationists believe it is the only answer. They have a mountain to climb to prove it can be done. But what is clear, is that dehorning is a very useful tool and one that can reduce the attraction of a rhino to poachers without any ill-effects for the rhino.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches journalism at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent; his book – Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. He is grateful to the Comanis Foundation for funding and organizing his research trip.

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