August 2010

Poisoning rhino horns

Ed Hern, owner of the Rhino and Lion Reserve near Johannesburg, made a statement claiming that he was planning to inject the horns of the rhinos on his game reserve with poison in an effort to deter poachers. Ed Hern stated that: “The aim would be to kill, or make seriously ill anyone who consumes the horn”.

Comment from Save the Rhino

A poisoned chalice

Against the background of a 15-year high in rhino poaching (over 150 animals killed in South Africa in the first 7 months of 2010), Ed Hern, owner of the Rhino and Lion Reserve near Johannesburg, plans to inject the horns of his rhino with poison, so that if the rhino is subsequently poached and its horns smuggled to Asia, anyone using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) made with these horns would be killed or seriously injured.

My primary concern would be that poisoning rhino horns, with the stated desire of killing or injuring anyone subsequently ingesting it, must be regarded as attempted murder. Yes, it is illegal to poach rhinos, it is illegal to trade in rhino horn, and China and Vietnam, for example, are signatories to the CITES agreement banning the trade in rhino horn. But that is not the point. In the UK, even if a burglar breaks into your house and threatens you with violence, you are not entitled to kill them. It would be extremely hard to defend a case of murder via poisoned horn, even though the horn would have been acquired / used illegally.

However, if you ignore the ethical and legal issues involved, then there is some validity to the idea.

Firstly, it would be very easy (if expensive) to implant a toxin in rhino horn. You could mix the toxin with something like dental acrylic and drill a lot of holes through the horn and fill them up with the acrylic / toxin mix. There are probably other good ways to do it. Cyanide may not be the best toxin to use; others may be more stable or less toxic to the rhino. Some research would have to be done. Rhinos do rub their horns against trees and rocks, and for the animal’s safety, it would be important that the horn powder, which could be inhaled or ingested by the rhino, does not then kill the rhino. A plant toxin which is relatively non-toxic to rhino but highly toxic to people would probably be a better option. (Black rhino have an ability to ingest some very toxic plants and this may also be applicable to white rhino.) Some poisons remain stable for a period of years, but as horns grow continually, it would be necessary to repeat the treatment occasionally for the deterrent to remain effective. Tranquilising a rhino is expensive, and every time an anaesthetic is used, there is a small risk that the animal might not come round.

Even a tiny amount of some poisons (such as strychnine, 1080, botulism toxin, ricin and anthrax) are incredibly potent and it is conceivable that even the minute amount ingested in TCM remedies could be fatal, or at least cause serious illness.

If it were legal and legitimate to poison the horns, then one should start with all exported trophy heads, i.e., animals that have been legally hunted and for which export licences have been sought and approved. One should also poison all rhino horns held in strong-rooms and museums (there have been several thefts of rhino horn from such venues in the last couple of years) and all those legally sold at auction throughout the world (which must be pre-1947 and “worked”, i.e., carved or mounted).

You’d then need to decide whether to poison rhino horns secretly and arrange for some to be leaked into the illegal trade network so that a few end users became ill or died; or whether to publicise the fact that horns were routinely being poisoned, and perhaps stop the trade by generating a kind of “voodoo” around rhino horns.

The most absurd thing in the whole sorry saga of rhino poaching is that rhino horn does not actually work! It is used by TCM practitioners supposedly to bring down fevers, when an aspirin would do the job and much more cheaply. Some Vietnamese people apparently believe that rhino horn cures cancer. It doesn’t. It’s made of keratin, the same protein that is found on our hair and nails. If you want to try it out, chew someone else’s toenails: don’t poach a rhino.

Ed Hern has made a bold claim and attracted a lot of press coverage. It’s good to see rhino poaching getting media attention. But I think this is a red herring. It distracts us from the real needs: more resources for anti-poaching and rhino monitoring teams; training of the judiciary so that they understand the seriousness of wildlife crime and impose commensurate sentences; a coordinated and better-funded effort by Interpol, national police forces and illegal trade investigators; and trying to reduce the demand for rhino horn in TCM-using countries.

Cathy Dean Director Save the Rhino International

(19) Comments

  • Andrew Attias
    10 June 2012, 17:38

    I agree with everything that Cathy notes here. The unfortunate fact in all this is that the poachers and the syndicates they work for do not use the horn themselves and don't much care about the health of the end users. Poisoned or not, it won't deter poaching and it won't stop Rhino horn from being sold as medicine. Any adverse affects would be put down to other reasons and will not deter users. There are also far too many dangers to the Rhinos and potentially unintended consequences to other wildlife. One wrong doesn't right another wrong. This method is wrong. Education is still the key.

  • Pkunk
    06 April 2013, 13:54

    The situation is so critical that it calls for drastic action.
    Rhino horn should be changed from an item that has high demand and value to something that someone is scared of consuming.
    It's a generational thing. Right now grandpa tells the young ones about the "miraculous" healing powers of Rhino horn. Once enough old farts in Vietnam and China consume Rhino horn and fall seriously ill the word will get about the killing power of Rhino horn.
    The myth will then change to Father warning his son how grandpa fell ill and had to be hospitalized after consuming Horn from a now dead Rhino.
    Serves the Rhino horn consumers right. They deserve it for killing thousands of endangered Rhino's every year just for their horns.

  • Anonymous commenter
    15 April 2013, 17:05

    Anybody stupid enough to think rhino horn will cure them of the flu deserves whatever they get. This is an ENDANGERED SPECIES we are talking about! There are too many stupid people and not enough Rhinos. If they get sick maybe they will stop buying it. I agree that education is the key but there is an urgency to this and rhinos can't wait to be safe.
    We can try boycotting all products from countries who demand illegal animal products too. Don't buy any Korean cars, Chinese products, clothes made in Vietnam. Let them know that civilized people won't support their corrupt mentality any longer. They cook dogs alive in Asia and so obviously have no empathy. But they do love their money.

  • @Anonymous commenter
    25 April 2013, 06:17

    People like you are stupid as well. Way to stick to stereotypes to generalize a whole entire race of people.
    I hope someone like you never gets any form of a spotlight, as you'll just end up doing more bad than good for any public cause.

    Anyway, this is pretty much the same as condoning murder to justify the protection of endangered species. And an idea like this will probably do nothing to stop illegal poaching, let alone I wonder what the effects of the poison would do on the surrounding natural environment if not the rhinos themselves.

  • Anonymous commenter
    27 April 2013, 09:48

    I think much of the concept of justice is underscored by an eye for an eye.
    It is a crucial aspect of the idea of consequences for ones actions.
    The poisoning of the Rhino horns is very much a desperate but necessary measure in a losing battle against tenacious and greedy criminals, as well the very dumb and malicious consumer on the other side. This an act of animal genocide that needs to have the severity of capital punishment by poisoning loom over the heads of those that are perpetrators.
    I am glad the Rangers and Protectors are doing this. I hope they think of ways to do this for all creatures that are being hunted to extinction for bull***t potions in the east.

  • Anonymous commenter
    30 August 2013, 09:21

    Plesae advise if you can direct me to any scientific studies/ evidence , eg that introducing poison into rhino horns results in distribution throughout the horns, or if it is only effective in the spot in which it is placed? does it retain efficacy or does the toxin dissipate? i would appreciate reading the research and facts rather than the theory.

  • Anonymous commenter
    11 September 2013, 07:37

    I am all about saving the rhino but poisining the rhino horn is not the best idea. Legally it is premeditated murder seeing that you are planning on killing someone. Just saying it could turn around and bit you in the ass.

  • Anonymous commenter
    15 September 2013, 19:04

    If you are warned that rhino horn may be poisoned and you still take it then surely that is suicide not murder. Anyhow those who contribute to such cruelty deserve all they get.

    .

  • Anonymous commenter
    18 September 2013, 12:04

    We are told that the main consumers of rhino horn are middle class Asians. These are people that live in a world of technology. One just has to think about how You Tube clips go viral. I think we should stop worrying about the rights of cruel, self-absorbed individuals. If all horns were poisoned and various media organizations around the world were encouraged to spread the word - surely something the WWF could accomplish - there'd be no need for people to die. They would be informed and eventually there'd be no demand. We put far too much time, money and effort into addressing the symptoms of the world's problems and far too little on treating the causes.

  • Anonymous commenter
    20 September 2013, 18:57

    what a fantastic idea, poisoning the rhino horn should be introduced in some way with all endangered specieswith a sign saying ... don't consume the rhino horn it's poisonous ... legal aspect taken care of there

  • mike
    20 September 2013, 19:02

    And what if poison rhino horn is given
    to a baby does the baby deserve to die?

  • Anonymous commenter
    20 September 2013, 22:35

    yes do anything to STOP THIS BARBARIC BEHAVIOUR FOR A SEX POTION...???DISGUSTING...YOU NEED THE AREMY TO SHOOT ANYONE NEAR THE RHINO...JUST KILL THEM NON STOP//if you need bullets the charity will provide....keep the stories in uk/usa/

  • Anonymous commenter
    21 September 2013, 00:04

    Radiating the horn with a source of Alpha radiation may be a simpler and more effective idea. Then Publishing the fact that consuming Rhino horn would cause cancer could help reduce market demand for the horn and reduce poaching. If done correctly the radioactive horn would cause no harm to the animal, only something that consumed the horn itself.

  • Ryan
    18 October 2013, 07:32

    Sad to see such few comments! I say yes to poisoning the rhino horn! Is the a official pettition to have it implemmented? Few points to the artical! - cant claim it to be a crime if you class it as poisoned product, eg someone drinking a bottle of rat poison and dies what would you say? The rat poison company killed them? Crazy! - secondly supply and demand, poachers may not use the product but if there is no demand, there efforts are futile! Basic business!!! Thirdly, hunting of rhino for tropheys should be banned as well and It will cost alot more money on education and passive aggression to a major problem!!!!!! Lets get this poison implemented!!! They are on the brim of extinsion! If we get enough people to vote for this!

  • Ron Stevenson
    10 November 2013, 15:50

    After the failure of the world to protect the Black Rhino, I am beginning to think a measure this extreme may be the only way to save them.

  • hans
    12 December 2013, 14:49

    I'm very much against any strategy that puts peoples' lives in danger because it will only backfire on animal rights movements--however murderous I may feel when seeing certain videos. I think a better thing would be to stage a situation in which a number of poisoned horns draw a lot of public attention--in the media--in china, vietnam etc. together with the scientific evidence that they might as well eats their own nails

  • Steve Stephansen
    12 December 2013, 17:13

    Mike, if someone expects a baby to have an erection, surely let the baby die before he causes havock with that stiffness of his before he turns twelve! If they want to give it to the baby because he has a flu, and are stupid enough to believe thats going to cure the baby, you don't deserve to have children!

  • Anonymous commenter
    13 February 2014, 12:54

    There is another way.

    Use a fleet of armed UAV's to patrol the perimeter of the park. Track the poachers from above. When the poachers get within 2 miles of the endangered species let the UAV's swoop down Shoot the tyres of the vehicle and leave the bastards stranded 30 miles within the park. (If the criminals get injured .... tough)

    With no vehicle to move around in they can't carry their potential quarry and you have time to send the police / army in to arrest them using the UAV's to guide them to the criminals.

    Job Done.

    PS Believe me it might sound complex but a lot of the software to perform these tasks is already available freely as open source software.

  • Anonymous commenter
    07 April 2014, 06:19

    The Chinese use the horns in medicine to fix erectile dysfunction. What the issue here is.... first of all what makes them think they have a problem?? Have they not overpopulated the region? Maybe they should send their women to poachers instead and pay the poachers to do the service.

Add a comment

Your email address will not appear on the site
(Tick to hide your name when this comment appears on the site)
Save the Rhino have recently received a large amount of spam. To check you are a real person, we have had to introduce a human-ness question.
Please wait...