Poisoning rhino horns

Rhino horn for sale in Hanoi

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

NB: Please note that this news article has been superceded by a longer discussion article in our Thorny issues section, here.

29 thoughts on “Poisoning rhino horns

  1. There is a precedent in Tasmania in the opium poppy industry. The poppies are leagaly grown but prone to theft by illicit drug users. Around 10-15 years ago a new variety was developed that has thebain as the primary opiate rather than morphine. Thebain is poisonous and has killed several users of illeagaly harvested poppies. There have been no prosecutions of poppy producers. The thebain is manufactured into other opiate medications so it is not there just as a deterrent.

  2. I think the time is now to take whatever drastic action is required to end the slaughter, It is now obvious that you can tell these stupid people that they are wasting their money for zero health benefit till your blue in the face…DO IT.

  3. I agree with Cathy’s note. Humans are so clever, the toxin might affect some of the individuals but it won’t take long for humans to find something that will neutralise the toxin or the strategy if not.

  4. I really can’t understand the misplaced concern about harming humans who well know what they are doing. WAKE UP there are over 7000000000 people in this world, you can do your own research on Rhino numbers but black Rhino is around 5000. Having just watched Unreported World about Saving the Rhino and seeing these poor animals still alive with half their face cut off or lying dead with orphaned calfs in distress they should publicly execute every poacher they catch.
    The same punishment should also be handed out to the corrupt politicians and officials in high places who are aiding this traffic. But this wont happen and we will all sit by and watch these magnificent creatures dissappear in our lifetime.The sad thing is that the World could save them but that would take drastic action on a global scale and it seems Rhino’s, Elephants, Tigers etc are not important enough.

  5. The poisoning of the horns will reduce tha rhino poaching however people need to think about the countless people that will get sick

  6. If you poisen the horn, and you make a public statement that you did, it is like to buy poison and use it. If you tell the people buying rhino horns that you have inserted poison in the horns, you warned them not to buy it so it would be their own fault if they do. Then to make sure about the effectiveness of it you shouldn’t be able to counter act the poison. The rhino doesn’t have any danger except the darting. It would be possible to find a poison dangerous to human but not to rhinos.

  7. Basic economics for a grade 9 student. A high demand equals a high price, thus a lucrative industry for syndicates. By poisoning horns you lower the demand, lower prices for the horn and bam suddenly trade in rhino horn aren’t worth the while. This is the same as the drug trade. Decades of fighting it with few to no success. Educate and patrol as much as you want, it wil keep on as long as there are a demand or worse still rhino left. But by eliminating the demand the problem is instantly stopped.

  8. I am in favor of poisoning rhino horns – not some of them, all of them. The people buying rhino horn are the worst kind of scum. I wish someone had thought of this strategy decades ago. Nothing else is working. The rhinos are going extinct.

  9. Go to the very bottom for the short version!

    True, the poachers could be doing it out of being desperate for their well being or their families well being, but there’s enough meat on just one rhino to probably feed them for a good chunk of time, and we don’t see them doing that – you don’t normally see a poached rhino stripped down to its bones. Maybe education would help the poachers, but if anyone could round them up, who would start trying to educate them (vs. imprisoning them or shooting them) – and what’s to keep them from not caring because of the price the demand pays anyways?

    Education May help in TCM, but how many of them are going to believe that rhino horn doesn’t actually do anything when for THOUSANDS of YEARS THEY HAVE BEEN BELIEVING it cures fevers? They’re not just going to stop all of a sudden because someone else says “”whoah…you know that’s the same sh*t your finger nails are made of?””

    I mean, look at all of the crap china does – they copy about everything that’s been copyrighted, they put lead in the products that they send out to other countries (probably their own products too, but idk), their air is so polluted in places it’s not even funny (who knows, maybe that’ll end up bringing their population down in the long run, but probably not in time to help keep nearly extinct species from going extinct in the meantime), plus, how many species are under pressure of extinction just because of the general eastern asian area? Rhinos aren’t the only thing – sharks, whales, etc.

    It may seem cruel to poison the horns because “”people may get sick””, but if that happened to enough people, then there would start to be a stigma around the product, and fewer and fewer people would want to buy it, because : who wants to get sick, or die, from using something that could easily be replaced with an aspirin, which would’ve worked better in the first place? It may be cruel to poison the horns because a few people could possibly die, but look at all of the death and destruction they are causing in the world. People say two wrongs never make a right but nobody was saying that when Osama or Hussein went down.

    This may sound even worse, but the human race is in no way about to go extinct, so if there’re people Stupid enough to eat something after it’s been made Known World Wide that it’s now Poisoned so Don’t Eat It, well then natural selection happens and the people smart enough Not to eat it (or whatever they do with it) will see (and learn) not to use that product any more. It would have to be done en masse, and possibly the animals that had had it done chipped (so there’s no visible difference to tip the poachers off that it’s been poisoned or not, because you know it’d be difficult to get every single animal, but most would probably be enough) so that the reserves could tell which animals were and weren’t poisoned, but it would be a very good deterrent.

    Also, when people have aggressive dogs, if you put up a warning sign for that dog on your property, then people can’t sue for the dog attacking them on your property (as if they were tresspassing). I could imagine it could be seen the same way if you warn people that the horns will be poisoned, so don’t steal them – because legally, poaching probably comes down to theft, so first off, you gave a warning, second off, it’s an illegal item anyways – and if someone gets sick from the horn then they can pinpoint who’s purchasing them and have them arrested for an international crime.

    Short version:

    It may sound mean to poison something that’s technically your own property with something that has the potential to possibly kill someone, but first off, the item is Illegal, second off, it was also Stolen. Lastly, if there’s a warning given out that it is poisoned then the people purchasing the Illegal, Stolen product are ignorant for continuing to take it After being warned, and we should let natural selection do its job. Also, people falling seriously ill after having only a minor illness could be a tip-off to feds, who could possibly search their place for the illegal item and confiscate it and arrest them.

    Being seriously sick And being arrested for trying something illegal should be a fairly good deterrent ;D And personally, I think they should serve their prison time in the country the item was stolen from, that way they get the sh*t scared out of them.

  10. i have experience in this field. what i can tell u is this: 1. the horn is used primarily for liver diseases/ailments nt erectile dysfunction. yes, it does work. the main point where the horns are sold are in hong kong. thy are then transhipped to vietnam or elewhere in china/taiwan. it is handled by triad from local buyers in africa- many chinese. the only way to stop this trade is to break any mecial knowledge of the owners of tcm shops which are generations old. u hv to gt the sellers of this medicine who mix it with other ingredients to agree it doesnt work… and if they believe it does… – then ther eis a problem… u hv to prove it doesn t work… if u poisoin it at source u hv toi gt everyone to poison the horns en masse… thes two ways and the thrid way is to inform the end users in china… this is the ways u will stop the trade…otherwise… impossible…

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  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!

  14. 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

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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/

  18. 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

  19. 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.

  20. 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.


  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

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