Skin and Bones

NOTICE: S&B is taking a break. We will be back with a revamp mid 2019! Unravelling the Illegal and controversial industry that threatens global biodiversity.

Poisoning rhinos to save them - the debate.

It sounds contradictory, but it has been suggested that inserting the horn of these animals with a toxin, in the form of an ectoparasiticide, may be the solution to stop poaching incidents. The idea behind the project from the Rhino Rescue Project is that no one wants to consume a product that may be potentially deadly. (Although it is 100% safe to the rhino as their horn is not connected to their blood stream, you can read exactly how it works on their website).

In an interview from Huffington Post , Lorinda Hern, co-founder of the project, explains that 90% of poaching incidents occur because of inside information (implying a certain level of corruption). The strategy the project takes is to highly publicize their efforts and relying on local communities to help spread the word to poachers. Apparently a success as poaching rates has dramatically decreased in the two reserves bordering Mozambique. 

Credit: Speak up for the Voiceless

Credit: Speak up for the Voiceless

'Devalue horns from the consumer perspective'. 


But, is this proactive solution all it's cracked up to be? 

Organizations, conservationists and journalists have all highlighted the potential concerns of the project. A research paper Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?" co-written by four South African leading wildlife scientists and veterinarians, examines the efficacy and implications of poisoning rhino horns. They found that unfortunately infusion into the horn does not work, dyes and chemicals cannot penetrate the horn as claimed by the Rhino Rescue Project.

But what about just the idea, the threat of poisoning? As some have put it 'the benefit of the bluff'?

The organization Save the Rhino addressed this thorny issue, stemming from the assumptions that poisoning horns will deter poachers and consumers.  

Kruger National Park Credit:  (Paolo)    

Kruger National Park Credit: (Paolo)


They came to the conclusion that some rhino poachers simply do not care whether the horn is poisoned or not, so long as they can still sell it onto a middleman for a large sum of money. They draw from an example in Sabi Sands (a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park) that still saw rhinos being poached regardless of the widely advertised fact that their horns had been poisoned. 

With limited publicity in Asia, it is almost impossible to tell whether poisoning horns will deter consumers. STR also implies that the method may backfire as those consuming poisoned horn follow the interesting philosophy 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'. The fact that if someone consumed poisoned rhino horn and survived, the medicinal properties of the horn do work and that person is stronger for consuming it. 

The project has also been picked apart by moral issues (is it ethical to poison potential consumers in far away countries?) A valid point but this is something I am not going to go into here. If we are debating ethics, the whole wildlife trade industry is plagued with moral issues, this effort to protect wildlife and stop poaching on private property is not where to start.

As much as the creators may have wanted this to be a 'magic bullet' in the war against poaching, a conservation initiative that can save a species. The tidal wave of doubt is just to large.  It is a unique idea, albeit an extreme and expensive one, and in the short term it may save some individual rhinos.  But ultimately behaviour of consumers, poachers, criminal syndicates and prosecutors needs to change in the long term. As stated by STR, resources must focus on 'anti-poaching and rhino monitoring teams; training of the judiciary so that they understand the seriousness of wildlife crime and impose commensurate sentences; and improved law enforcement and cross-border co-operation by Interpol, national police forces and illegal trade investigators' to save the entire species. 

To explore more on this issue delve into:

The Rhino Rescue Projects work

The Save the Rhino article.

Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?" Research paper


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