Rhino Poaching in South Africa

Wild Inside Adventures
12 min readFeb 3, 2021
A rhino carcass left behind after the horn was taken by poachers.

I am a registered veterinary nurse from the UK and moved to the Eastern Cape of South Africa five years ago for a job opportunity working on a veterinary programme, teaching pre-vet students from overseas. As part of the programme I was working with African wildlife, including rhinos.

In the first three days, before the foreign students started to arrive, I was offered the chance to get involved with the dehorning of a herd of local rhino at a nearby game farm with the local wildlife vet, Luis Amaral. Before arriving in South Africa I was aware of rhino poaching … like everybody else I had heard of it, had seen adverts on television for charities such as ‘Save the Rhino’, and watched London marathon runners sweating in giant rhino suits to raise money.

But I was completely unprepared for just how bad this crisis is.

As we arrived at the property I was told that the owner started out with a herd of 33 rhino, which had dwindled down to 12 over the last three years due to poaching. A difficult decision had been made to remove the horns from the remaining rhino in an attempt to prevent them meeting the same fate.

Rhino dehorning is seen as a temporary measure to prevent a rhino being killed by poachers for its horn. It is an ongoing process, as the horn is made from keratin it regrows after removal, and can grow back to full size after three years.

Dehorning involves the animal being darted, and when the animal is safely sedated the horn is removed with a chainsaw. The eyes and ears are covered to prevent stress to the animal through sight and noise, and to protect from any horn sawdust as the sawing takes place. The stump is filed down to remove excess horn at the base, then smoothed and covered with Stockholm tar to prevent cracking and drying. A small stump is left behind as, just like our fingernails, the bottom 5-7 cm contains nerves and blood supply. Removing the last few centimetres would be incredibly painful for the rhino, and may also damage the horn base, preventing the horn from growing back.

Filing the horn down after removal.

This procedure seems both drastic and incredibly brutal, and is not a nice thing to watch. But when done well it is painless for the rhino and it has become a case of ‘lose the horn or lose the rhino’s life’.

The property we were to be dehorning at was huge. At 36,000 hectares it had been difficult for the elderly owner to monitor the rhino’s whereabouts on a day to day basis and he informed us we may have a job to find them. As we set off in the helicopter to locate the rhino my heart started to drop… as we found one carcass after another. Out of the twelve rhino he had counted just a few weeks ago, we only found four remaining survivors. The rest of the herd had become bodies in the bush. As one cow was immobilised we discovered her side was peppered with bullet wounds from poaching attempts.

I also learnt that poachers often kill rhino in incredibly brutal ways. Many poachers, as in this case, are on foot and will sometimes even stay inside a reserve for days or weeks, getting to know the layout, tracking rhino, and hiding out during the day. Poachers will shoot the rhino with random fire to the head and chest area, as well as the legs in order to immobilize the animal. They will then remove the horn as quick as possible, very roughly, using an axe. A section of horn is embedded under the rhinos skin, and so the poachers often hack in to the rhino’s face and skull.

Rhino are often not dead when poachers take off with the horn, and they are left in agony, butchered, and slowly bleed to death. Rhino calves are often left fretting by the side of their mother, desperately trying to get her to stand up.

In 2019 there were 594 rhino killed for their horns is South Africa, which may not sound like a startling number, but this equates to one rhino every fifteen hours. (Statistics taken from savetherhino.org). In the last decade, just under 9,000 rhino in Africa have been poached.

A female white rhino only becomes starts to reproduce at 6–7 years old and has a gestation period of 16–18 months, meaning that the rate at which they can repopulate does not even come close to the rate at which they are disappearing. At the current poaching rate it is predicted that the rhino could go extinct within our lifetime, as soon as 2025.

In March 2018, the last male Northern white rhino died, leaving only two females left in the world. This subspecies is now facing extinction.

I left this experience with my eyes well and truly opened, wondering why I knew so little about poaching, and desperate to know more.

Why are rhino killed for their horn?

Rhino horn is in great demand in Asian countries, from Malaysia and South Korea to India and China, where it is predominantly used in traditional medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. It is also increasingly being used as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

Rhino horn prices have been elevated to new levels, fetching prices as high as $60,000 per kg. (An average sized front horn from a white rhino is around 4kg).

The trade of rhino horn internationally is illegal, but the demand is showing no signs of waning, meaning rhino horn is sold at extortionate prices on the black market.

Rhino Horns

What is Being Done to Prevent Rhino Poaching?

Rhino poaching is a huge problem in South Africa, and there is no easy solution. The illegal trade of horn is a lucrative business and, as a result, corruption impacts the crisis further.

Poaching is often an inside job, with poachers being ‘tipped off’ by employees within game reserves for a fee or bribe. Rangers may turn poacher themselves as the temptation of such large sums of money becomes to great, or they provide inside information to poaching gangs.

Poachers are often supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. At the high end of this spectrum, poachers may have access and use of tranquilliser guns, veterinary drugs, high caliber weapons and even helicopters.

Many of the poachers seem to have had military training, and sadly, the fact that controlled veterinary drugs are in circulation within poaching gangs, indicates the involvement of rogue veterinarians.

Corrupt members of the wildlife industry are also involved in the rhino horn trade, with increasing numbers of arrests of professional hunters, game farm owners and safari operators.

Dehorning:

As discussed above, dehorning rhino is one method used to discourage poachers from killing rhino for their horn. However, this is not a foolproof method and has varying results. All four rhino that I was involved with dehorning were poached within the next four months. Meaning that the owner of the property went down from a herd of 33, to having no remaining rhino in around three years.

Poachers will still come after the rhino for the small stump that is left behind, and the small section of horn that is under the skin. Horn is so valuable that even a salvaged 100g of horn can be worth the risk.

Poachers may also kill the rhino out of vengeance after they are dehorned, or to prevent themselves from wasting time by tracking the rhino again. It is also thought that poachers may not know a rhino has been dehorned while tracking them in the dark or thick bush, and only realise after the rhino has been shot.

Dehorning can be successful alongside other methods of anti-poaching security and extensive monitoring. The herd we were sent to dehorn were in a huge area, with no extra anti-poaching security, making it easy for poachers to enter the property and track the rhino unnoticed. Dehorning followed by a publicity drive to alert poachers to the fact that the rhino have had their horns removed may also help.

Dehorning, if performed, needs to include the entire resident herd of rhino. Rhino use their horn for defense, and to fight for dominance. Leaving some rhino with horns and not others can lead to bullying and injuries as the dehorned rhino are unable to defend themselves.

Dehorning also comes with a risk to the animal, in the form of complications during immobilisation, and also comes at a cost. Dehorning one rhino costs around $600 — $1000. (Figure from savetherhino.org).

Anti-Poaching Units:

Many reserves now have permanent anti-poaching units in force. This can be in the form of already existing rangers in employment, or specialised anti-poaching teams can be called in. Patrols, surveillance and tracking the rhino all play a part in keeping them safe. Canine units are also becoming important, and proving to be successful, for detecting and tracking poachers.

Poaching prevention measures can quickly become expensive, involving paramilitary training techniques, and going as far as night vision helicopter surveillance, electronic tracking equipment and intelligence gathering.

Anti-poaching teams work at huge risk as poachers are often armed with guns themselves, and will open fire to defend themselves if discovered. More than 1000 rangers lost their lives in the last ten years protecting rhino throughout the world. (Figure taken from savetherhino.org).

Some reserves are simply too big for anti-poaching units to cover effectively with the funding available, leaving poachers able to slip through the net.

Poisoning The Horn:

Poisoning of rhino horn was started by the owner of a rhino reserve near Johannesburg, Ed Horn. He planned to inject the rhinos horn with poison to may the horn unfit for consumption, and so deter poachers.

Holes are drilled in to the horn and injected or infused with a toxic parasiticide, harmful to humans. The project also involved injecting a dye in to the horn to alert poachers of the fact the horn had been poisoned. The poison is harmless to the rhino as the horn does not have a supply to the rhino’s bloodstream in order for it to be absorbed.

Although this seems like the perfect solution, rhino were still targeted by poachers. The reason being that they can still sell the horn, and simply not tell the buyer the horn has been poisoned. Even if the horn has been dyed, horns get scuffed and stained as rhinos spend their time in the bush and dye can fade until it is undetectable.

It is also impossible to poison the horns of every single rhinos, due to the funding this would require, meaning that this method merely deflects poachers to other areas. It is also thought that poisoning horn may drive up the price as consumers start to demand ‘pure’ un-poisoned horn, in turn increasing poaching.

The use of poison also has little impact on those buying rhino horn for ornamental use or as a status symbol.

Charities:

Many charities are involved with protecting rhino, and help to raise funds for protective measures to be put in place. One charity that I closely follow is Saving the Survivors.

Saving the Survivors consists of a team of vets who attend to rhino that have fallen victim to poachers. As mentioned previously, rhino are often left by poachers with chunks of their face hacked away, trying to breathe out of the holes left behind, and bleeding out. Saving the survivors have done some really groundbreaking work in repairing rhino’s faces and rehabilitating them. Every rhino’s life is extremely valuable with the current poaching crisis and I find their work fascinating.

Thanks to the increase in attempts to prevent rhino poaching in South Africa, figures have dropped from 1349 rhinos poached in 2015 to 892 in 2018. (Figures taken from savetherhino.org). Progress has been made, however this still leaves the rhino in a daunting position and they are definitely not out of the woods yet.

Is there a Solution?

Changing Attitudes:

In an ideal world, we would be able to change attitudes towards the use of rhino horn in both traditional medicine and as a status symbol in the consumer market. This is ultimately the biggest aim in the war against rhino poaching. However, rhino horn has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for around 2000 years, and attitudes are unlikely to be changed overnight. It is likely that the rhino will go extinct before attitudes towards the use of the horn undergo any major changes.

Making the Trade of Rhino Horn Legal:

One of the main arguments currently as a solution to poaching is the legalisation of international trade of horn. There is a huge divide in opinions on this matter, with arguments for and against the legal trade of horn.

Arguments for the legalisation of rhino horn are that rhino horn can then be ‘harvested’ and sold, rather than the rhino being poached and losing it’s life. This is definitely not an ideal situation, and ‘farming’ rhino for their horn raises some ethical questions. But this idea may be the lesser of two evils and raises the question of ‘is it better to harvest the horn than eventually lose the rhino’?

Advocates for the legal trade of horn argue that the money from selling horn could then be put back into rhino conservation, and help increase numbers. This seems like a preferable option to huge sums of money going to criminals, as is the current case with poaching. However, would the money actually go back in to conservation, or would the owners of rhino just fill their pockets with the profits of trading horn?

Some rhino owners are dis-investing from keeping rhino, as the cost of security surrounding keeping them safe is just to great. Especially in the private sector, donated funding can be limited. If the ban on the trade of horn was lifted, would more people be attracted to keeping their rhino, in turn assisting conservation efforts?

Many individuals also argue that after the initial lift of the trade ban, the market would be flooded with all of the horn currently in storage in South Africa, dropping prices and taking pressure of the rhino initially.

Although this seems like a great solution, there are some concerns surrounding this theory.

Many feel that lifting the ban on trade will be detrimental in changing the beliefs surrounding the use of rhino horn in Asian countries. Will beliefs about it’s use in traditional medicine ever change if buying horn is legal? Or will this rather reinforce them? The size of the market in these countries is also not clearly understood, and there is a concern that supply may not actually be able to meet demand.

There is also concerns, particularly from animal rights organisations, surrounding the use of any form of animal products. There are moral and ethical concerns about harvesting rhino horn, which is an invasive procedure, requiring immobilisation and risks to the animals health. Concerns are also felt that it may encourage rhino to be bred in captive or semi-captive situations, in order to maximise the sale of horn.

There is no easy solution to the rhino poaching crisis, and it seems that we are in for a long battle.

I personally cannot imagine Africa without the rhino. There is something magical about these giant, prehistoric looking creatures, and it will be a very sad world if the only rhino left are those captive in a zoo.

What Can You Do?

If, like me, you have had your eyes opened to the plight of the rhino and would like to do something to help, here is a list of some things you can do:

  1. Raise awareness.

This may sound simple, but the more people you inform about the rhino poaching crisis, the more people there will be that may be willing to help. Not everyone can afford to donate money or book flights to South Africa to rescue rhino, but knowledge can be a very powerful tool. Most individuals, like me, are aware of rhino poaching, but have no idea how bad the situation is. Make it your mission to research this crisis and inform as many people as you can. If people do not know then they cannot be expected to care.

2. Donate to charity.

Funding is so important in the fight to protect the rhino. Funds are constantly needed for dehorning, veterinary treatment for survivors, training of anti-poaching dogs, and equipment for anti-poaching units. Just make sure you do your research before you donate and that you know what your money will be spent on.

3. Fundraisers

If you feel very strongly about helping, why not organise a fund raiser? This could be an organised event, or something as simple as a go-fund me page, with the proceeds going towards the charity of your choice.

Author: Kim Houghton RVN

Further Reading:

savetherhino.org

africa-wildife-detective.com

teamrhino.org

savingthesurvivors.org

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