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South African Conservationists Use Poison to Save Rhinos

  • Zlatica Hoke

South Africa – home to most of the world’s rhinoceros - continues to struggle with effective means to curb poaching, which has reached alarming rates in recent years. Government and private game reserves are employing a variety of methods, including armed patrols and cutting off Rhino horns or poisoning them to make them worthless on the black market. Several hundred rhino horns have been injected with poison so far this year, in the hopes that it will make some difference in the fight to save the animal from extinction

Rhinos are targeted primarily for their horns, which can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market in Asia. The ground up horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine, while the eyes and the tail are sometimes used in witchcraft.

Graham Shipway, the general manager of a lodge in the Plumari Africa Game Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa, has found at least two dead rhinos in recent weeks.

"[The poachers used] a heavy caliber bullet. They hacked off her horn… gouged out her eyes… and they cut off her tail. All for two kilograms of horn," said Shipway, discussing one of the dead rhinos he found.

It is estimated that nearly 800 rhinos have been poached in South Africa so far this year -- more than 3 percent of the country's total rhino population.

Game farm owners have been hiring armed security guards to patrol their reserves, which can be a dangerous job. Now, they are trying a new tactic: they poison the rhinos' horns.

The rhino is injected with an anaesthetic, so that it's paralyzed but conscious. Then a hole is drilled into its horn, which is injected with a poison that's dyed red. Conservationist Lorinda Hern says the substance is safe for rhinos, but harmful to humans who ingest it. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, nerve damage and even death in extreme cases.

"If you buy a horn and it's [a red] kind of color, you obviously know that it's been tampered with and that it's not safe for human consumption. So, yeah, 60,000 U.S. dollars per kilo versus zero," said Hern, showing how the poison changes the horn’s hue.

Once the procedure is complete, the rhino wakes up groggy but unharmed.

"It is a little bit sore, hard sore, but I'm happy in the fact that I now know that she is potentially very, very safe," said Shipway.

Conservationists hope to save hundreds of rhinos each year by making their horns worthless to poachers.
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