Removing Horns, Saving Rhinos

Written by Thomson Safaris

Black rhino in Serengeti National Park
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, Clarence Wong

One of the greatest tragedies of the widespread poaching on the African continent is how much is lost for so little. An elephant can reach a towering 13 feet tall and weigh up to 14,000 pounds, but it’s killed for less than 200 pounds of ivory—around 1% of its body weight (female elephants, even those that reach an advanced age, average just 20 pounds/tusk). A 3,000 pound rhinoceros has even starker stats; it might die for just 6-8 pounds of horn.

The rest of the animal is often left to rot or to be carried off by scavengers.

But one approach is working to cut off rhino poaching right at the source: the horn.

Rhino dehorning has been around for some time, but interest in the practice has been growing lately, due to the deepening poaching crisis (poaching in South Africa, a stronghold for white rhinoceros, reached an all-time high in 2013).

The procedure involves sedating an animal and surgically removing upwards of 90% of the horn (removing the entire horn would be significantly more invasive and could lead to long-term health issues for the animals). Rhinoceros horns are made of keratin, the same protein in hair and fingernails, and like both of those, the horns grow continuously, at a rate of around an inch per year. Because of this regrowth, experts recommend that dehorning should be repeated every 12-24 months.

In areas where dehorning has been practiced, poaching rates decreased significantly. In several past dehorning campaigns, no dehorned animals were poached.

But for problems as complex and multi-faceted as poaching, there is no such thing as a single simple solution. Dehorned animals are sometimes still hunted; rhino horn commands such high prices that poachers might kill an animal for just the few ounces in the stump. In other instances, poachers might kill an animal out of anger, or in an effort to improve their “odds”; tracking the animals takes time and energy, and killing those that have no horns on offer keeps them from tracking the same hornless animal twice.

That’s why dehorning works best in conjunction with other efforts, including increased monitoring of the rhino populations in question, and publicity campaigns widespread enough to reach potential poachers (presumably if poachers know a certain region or country has dehorned all their animals, they won’t make the efforts to track and kill those animals in the first place).

It’s not a perfect answer, but considering the staggering rates of poaching in recent years, it’s a good start.

So if you spot a rhino who appears to have undergone, well, rhinoplasty on safari, don’t be upset; be happy that it has a better shot at long-term survival.

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African Wildlife Foundation, WildAid, and Virgin Unite team up to fight the demand for rhino horn.
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