Poisoning rhino horns

In 2010 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”.

Since then, there have been several high profile cases of private game reserves who have injected poison and dye into rhino horn in an attempt to deter poachers from killing rhinos for their horns.

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.                                           

In addition there is a concern that poisoning horns in one reserve simply shifts the poachers to another, less well-protected reserve. 

Cathy Dean Director Save the Rhino International

For more information about poisoning rhino horns, please see the links below:

The Guardian - April 2013 - South African game reserve poisons rhino's horns to prevent poaching



(4) 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.

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