Poisoning rhino horns

It was hailed as a ‘silver bullet’ to protect rhinos from the current poaching epidemic. On the surface, the poisoning of rhinos horns seems like a fantastic idea – surely no one would want to consume rhino horn that is laced with poison and toxic chemicals?!

But if you dig a little deeper you see that the issue is not so simple…

The poisoning of rhino horns first appeared on the conservation scene in 2010, when 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”.

It was hoped that this proactive solution would prevent rhinos being poached in the first place. At the time the method was experimental, and the exact effects of the poison unknown. However, it was known early on that the poison is not damaging to the rhino itself; a rhino’s horn does not have any direct link to its bloodstream. Ed’s initial idea developed into the Rhino Rescue Project, which saw the concept roll out across South Africa.

The poisoning process involves the drilling of holes directly into the rhino’s horns and then infusing them with highly toxic ectoparasiticides, which are also used to control ticks etc., and are safe to other animals. According to the Rhino Rescue Project, although ectoparasiticides are not lethal to humans in small quantities, they remain toxic, and symptoms of ingestion may include, but are not limited to nausea, vomiting and convulsions (all dosage dependent).

In addition to the horn poison, the project began infusing the horns with a bright colour dye, in an attempt to ward of potential poachers. Since then, there have been several high-profile cases of private game reserves and state parks injecting poison and dye into rhino’s horns in an attempt to deter poachers. In most instances, the reserves and parks have used signage to warn potential poachers that the rhinos’ horns have been treated.

So firstly let’s examine the issue IF the poison did work as intended, and then we’ll take a look at the results of a new study into the effectiveness of the infusion method.

Leaving aside the moral issues of poisoning people in a faraway country, there are several drawbacks to the idea. The idea relies on two assumptions: firstly, that the poachers will be deterred from killing rhinos with poisoned horns, and; secondly, that consumers will be deterred from buying rhino horn for fear that they will be poisoned.

Taking a look at the first theory, sadly it seems that poachers simply do not care whether the rhino they are killing has a poisoned horn or not. For example, Sabi Sands (a private game reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park) had poisoned its rhinos’ horns and widely advertised the fact. Yet that didn’t stop poachers from targeting their rhinos. Even if the poacher knows that the horn poisoned, he is likely to shoot the rhino anyway because he’ll probably still be able to sell the horns to a middleman for a large sum of money. The poacher isn’t going to admit to the seller that the horn may have been poisoned.

Those involved in the rhino horn trade are ruthless criminals who slaughter rhinos; they poachers won’t bat an eyelid if they are harming someone living thousands of miles away who they have never met. You may suggest that the middleman will know that the horns have been poisoned or dyed, due to a change in appearance. However, in the wild, horns quickly get scuffed and stained by soil and vegetation and the dye will fade until it has completely disappeared.

If we look at the bigger global picture, poisoned rhino horns already exist outside of Africa, and have been targeted by criminals for several years, proving that the issue of poison doesn’t matter to the syndicates. These ‘poisoned’ rhinos horns are those historical items, such as trophy mounts or antiques, sitting in museums and auction houses across the globe, which have been preserved with a heavy dose of arsenic or other toxic substance. Yet this hasn’t stopped the theft of nearly 100 horns across the UK and Europe destined for Asian markets.

Even if poachers were deterred from killing rhinos with poisoned horns, this would likely deflect them to areas that hadn’t poisoned their rhinos. It is impossible to poison the horns of every single one of Africa’s rhinos. With over 20,000 rhinos to protect on the continent, there is simply neither the funding nor time to infuse them all. In addition, rhino horn grows at a rate of around 4-7cm per year. To continue the technique, a rhino’s horn would need to be re-poisoned around every four years for the substance to remain in the horn. This is not only expensive but is also a particularly invasive technique, and each time a rhino is darted there is a risk from the anaesthetic.

The second assumption is that rhino horn consumers in Asia would be deterred from using rhino horn if they knew there was a risk they would become ill. The technique effectively relies on publicity. However, the exact effect of the poison on consumers is unknown and there is little evidence of consequential illness. For all the talk of poisoned rhino horns, there doesn’t appear to have been any impact on consumer behaviour in Asia. There is little publicity of the concept in Vietnam or China.

Even if the consumers did become aware of the poisoning, this could lead to a dangerous mindset of ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. The initial concept of deterrence could have the exact opposite effect. If person consumes rhino horn and nothing happens to them, they may believe that they have ‘conquered’ the poison, or that the rhino horn is so ‘magical’ that it is counteracted the poison itself, and they will continue to buy rhino horn believing in its curative properties.

A major problem is also that the uses of rhino horn are rapidly changing and Traditional Chinese Medicine is no longer the main driver. Now rhino horn is predominantly being used as a status symbol by wealthy urban businessmen; they may choose to consume the horn, but they will often display the item whole. The use of poison is going to have no impact on those buying rhino horn for ornamental use.

Frighteningly, the poisoning of horns may actually drive up the price of ‘pure’ rhino horns, which could intensify rhino poaching. Those buying rhino horn are incredibly wealthy and will buy their horns through ‘trusted’ networks. If the poisoned rhino horn rumour circulates as intended, then buyers may be willing to pay a premium to the criminals who guarantee they can source un-poisoned rhinos horns. This could then drive the overall price of rhino horn even higher.

With so many game parks and reserves considering whether to poison their horns, South African experts have undertaken a research study, titled ‘Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?", based on the examination of a treated white-rhino horn, as well as available literature and expert opinion. The paper was co-written by four of South Africa’s leading wildlife scientists and veterinary experts: Sam Ferreira and Danie Pienaar of SANParks Scientific Services; Dr Markus Hofmeyer of SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services; and Dr Dave Cooper of Ezemvelo Wildlife Services. The paper, due to be published in the journal Pachyderm in July, examines the efficacy, risks, legal and ethical implications of poisoning rhino horn through chemical infusions.

The paper's conclusion? Conservationists should not use the infusion technique when dealing with the rhino poaching threat. The main reason against the poisoning of rhino horns is that the toxin, which is mixed with the dye in liquid form, does not permeate or spread throughout the high-density fibre of the rhino horn. When studying the distribution of the coloured dye, the researchers found that the dye was only found in the drilling holes and no other part of the horn. This means that the poisoning is ineffective.

Some have criticised the release of the findings, saying that we should continue use the ‘fear factor’ to dissuade rhino-horn consumers. However, the paper's co-author Ferreira warns that perpetuating the bluff is not a wise strategy ''Relying on publicity to deter poachers also relies on convincing managers that the chemical treatment of horns through infusion will secure rhinos. Poachers will benefit and managers will lose when the bluff of horn treatments fails."

With the rapidly increasing poaching crisis, it is understandable to see why game reserve owners are willing to try anything to protect their rhinos. However, the poisoning technique appears to be a ‘red herring’, and with scarce resources it is important that programme managers know that the technique doesn’t work, so that funds are spent where they can make the most impact.

We need to continue working to address the demand for rhino horn in Asian countries, particularly Vietnam, through targeted research and behaviour change campaigns. Meanwhile instead of focusing on the individual rhino, we need to continue funding projects that will protect overall rhino populations and crack down on the criminal syndicates involved. We need to focus on the 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; and improved law enforcement and cross-border co-operation by Interpol, national police forces and illegal trade investigators.

Click here to read more about Save the Rhino’s efforts to reduce the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

Sources & further reading

Earthtouch News - New study: Infusing rhino horns with poison doesn't work.

(9) Comments

  • Andrew
    12 May 2013, 17:58

    Aside from the ethical reasons and potential hazard to the Rhinos themselves, sadly this plan sends a message to the wrong people. It would be different if the people doing the poaching were also the people consuming the powdered horn. If that were the case then they would certainly think twice if there was a chance the horn was poisoned. The poachers won't necessarily care whether the horn is poisoned or not and neither would the middlemen doing the smuggling, certainly not the criminals running the trade. Unless a large number of people were being killed or made seriously ill in the end user countries, enough to deter people from using the powder, I would be sceptical that this would work at all. I recall a radio interview I heard a short time back with a drug pusher who was selling a type of street drug that was killing people. He had no remorse at all and was only interested in earning money. I don't see that the poachers or their employers would be any different. It would be the innocent, badly advised and non-educated who would suffer.

  • Anonymous commenter
    17 May 2013, 10:29

    With the price of rhino horn in Asia, these are hardly "uneducated" people. In fact the "poachers" are the least of trouble. They would not be doing what they do if there was no market. Their problem is one of poverty. What we need to be fighting is the middleman. And if the market dries up because people fear poisoning, then so be it. If we can't trace the horn to the market, how can the buyer trace the poison?

  • Mike Illenberg
    05 June 2013, 17:49

    Interesting and creative solution. The legality issue would make for an interesting debate to hold at an academic institution. I am curious whether or not this would fall under a peremptory norm and the concept of jus cogens, or if it would violate international human rights law as you suggest? Would nations enforce it or seek legal recourse?

    The best application of the poison is also an interesting biology discussion that should be closely examined before implementing a toxic horn strategy.

    While I like the solution overall, I imagine my own opinion would change if children in China start dying as a result of their parents use of the horn as a family treatment option.

    Public awareness of any toxic horn campaign is critical to its success. Without it the public backlash will most certainly create an international backlash.

  • Trevor Swanepoel
    04 July 2013, 09:40

    Maybe some sort of explosive divise should be inserted in the horn which would explode when dehorning. The Rhino has already by that time been slaughted, this would get rid of a few poachers and send a message to other poaches.

  • Anonymous commenter
    29 May 2014, 22:34

    Rather than having and explosive in the horn I believe it should be a non-harmful gas that knocks anyone in the vicinity unconscious and triggers an electronic signal that tells the location of the rhino and unconscious poachers to police or a rhino protection station sort of thing. Not only would this mean capturing the poachers but possibly saving the rhino by slowing down it's heart rate making it lose less blood and possibly making it possible to survive, not making a pool of brain matter and flesh.

  • Caroline Mason
    26 June 2014, 18:28

    "It was hailed as a ‘silver bullet’ to protect rhinos from the current poaching epidemic."
    Not by Rhino Rescue Project.
    "...sadly it seems that poachers simply do not care whether the rhino they are killing has a poisoned horn or not."
    What proof do you have that poachers simply don’t care (whether the rhino they are killing has a poisoned horn or not.)? RRP have a 97.5% success rate.
    "Even if poachers were deterred from killing rhinos with poisoned horns, this would likely deflect them to areas that hadn’t poisoned their rhinos."
    What reason is this for not taking a pro-active measure to stop some rhinos being poached? Has anyone ever used this rather limp argument in relation to de-horning, which we all know DOES NOT WORK AT ALL?
    "To continue the technique, a rhino’s horn would need to be re-poisoned around every four years for the substance to remain in the horn. This is not only expensive but is also a particularly invasive technique, and each time a rhino is darted there is a risk from the anaesthetic."
    De-horning needs to be done at a similar rate and shaving the horn even more frequently, both involving darting and anaesthetic. Your argument does not stand up.
    "There is little publicity of the concept in Vietnam or China."
    You are clearly not aware of the work of ENV and WildAid in Vietnam! Both these organsations are doing tremendous work and as you should know, raising awareness takes time.
    "Even if the consumers did become aware of the poisoning, this could lead to a dangerous mindset of ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’"
    What nonsense!
    "The paper, due to be published in the journal Pachyderm in July, examines the efficacy, risks, legal and ethical implications of poisoning rhino horn through chemical infusions."
    Such a shame that RRP have been given no right of reply on this biased ‘scientific’ paper.
    "When studying the distribution of the coloured dye, the researchers found that the dye was only found in the drilling holes and no other part of the horn. This means that the poisoning is ineffective."
    Seeing a permit to take a cross-section of horn is required and extremely difficult to obtain, where did this horn come from? We have only seen a photograph – are you familiar with photoshop? The photograph in question shows a red line with a white margin. Firstly the red line is bent and looks more like something drawn onto the image with a red marker pen and secondly the quality of the photograph is very poor. Hardly ‘evidence’ of horn infusions ineffectiveness. And by the way, I have seen video evidence of dye being injected and exiting through the microchip drill hole.
    "We need to focus on the 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; and improved law enforcement and cross-border co-operation by Interpol, national police forces and illegal trade investigators." Why the focus on re-active strategies? Is it because some do not want to stop the poaching of rhino? Is it because some are banking on extinction? Horn treatment by Rhino Rescue Project is the ONLY effective pro-active strategy being done in an attempt to save the rhino. The other pro-active strategy – de-horning – does not work as you should well know.
    I find this article full of inaccuracies, biased and poorly researched. Have you contacted RRP? No.

  • Cathy Dean
    27 June 2014, 15:39

    I wonder how the above author, Caroline Mason, knows that we have not contacted the Rhino Rescue Project.

    Read here for a comment on the ineffectiveness of poisoning rhino horns by the Chair of the IUCN SSC African Rhino Specialist Group, Dr Mike Knight:
    http://www.pachydermjournal.org/index.php/pachy/article/view/361/241

    "The infusion under pressure of a dye and an ectoparasiticide into the rhino horn of living rhinos has been advocated as a possible method to reduce the value of horn, demand for it, and the threat of poaching, without dehorning the animal. The ectoparasiticide is said to be a mild poison causing gastric disorders that should deter would-be consumers, while the dye acts as a visual identification for treated animals.

    "However, recently retrieved horns from poached treated animals that have been sectioned show virtually no penetration of the dye into the horn (Markus Hofmeyr, pers. comm.). This is not unexpected given the dense nature of rhino horn, suggesting that in all probability the poison does not penetrate either. Despite the failure of the dye to penetrate, this treatment continues to be sold, raising questions as to the motivation of those selling it.

    "Furthermore, as the horns of treated animals are expected to get soiled quickly after such treatment, poachers will not be able to visually tell if an animal has been treated, thus rendering them no different from normal untreated animals and thus these animals will be equally exposed to poaching unless warning that some rhinos’ horns have been poisoned has a deterrent effect.

    "However, sooner rather than later poachers will discover that the dye, and hence resumably the poison also, doesn’t penetrate the horn, and then any deterrent effect can be expected to disappear.

    "Even if the poison were somehow to act differently from the dye and penetrate through into the horn it is unlikely to deter buyers or consumers from purchasing treated horns given the small dosages consumed in either traditional Chinese medicinal uses or the new status uses in Vietnam.

    "Given the relatively high cost of the treatment and the need to repeat it, as horns keep growing, there is a significant lost opportunity cost. The large amount of money spent to date on such treatments could probably have been more profitably used for other conservation activities such as increased law enforcement, intelligence gathering and data analysis or dehorning (which shifts the cost-benefits away from the poacher).

    "Thus, in the absence of any conclusive scientific support for the method or its suggested effect on demand, it is recommended that this method be treated with extreme caution."

    Cathy Dean, Director, Save the Rhino International

  • Caroline Mason
    28 June 2014, 21:35

    No secret, I contacted them! Anything wrong there?

  • Exvar
    06 July 2014, 18:13

    How about fake rhino horn and powder? I understand a rhinos horn is made of keratine, which is found in human nails, would it be too far fetched to look out for a way to print 3d rhinos horns with a keratine based material and flood the market with "pirate" copies so that horn prices sink? I think poachers will be required to show proof of authencity and even that could be forged too by adding more made up stuff

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