De-horning the Rhino: A Temporary Solution to an Ongoing Problem

And an interview with a Veterinarian on the scene.

Image Credit: Paul Stone of Paul Stone Safari Africa



Imagine you were born with a versatile, precious appendage that was considered a luxury good, was believed to have traditional medicinal properties, and could fetch a price tag higher than that of gold. This isn't fiction: it's the unfortunate reality for the rhinos of Africa.

Rhinos are hunted illegally (poached) for their horns for the growing demand on the black market in China. Here it represents a symbol of high status and is used in many traditional Chinese medicines, primarily as a fever reducer. An estimated 9,885 African rhinos have been killed in the past ten years—a devastating number considering only about 19,600-21,000 Southern White Rhinos remain. Not to mention only 2 Northern White Rhinos are living, and both are female and unable to carry. Poaching is unarguably the main cause for these drastic declines in populations.


Compared to the extensive history of poaching Rhinos, dehorning is a recent method of protecting rhinos from poaching, beginning in Namibia in late 1980s-early 1990s. The process is done by a professional veterinarian and involves (blatantly put) removing the horns with a chainsaw while the rhino is under anesthesia. Since removal of the horn renders the animal virtually worthless to poachers, Dehorning acts as a deterrent by removing the ultimate target.

It may sound cruel to remove an essential part of a rhino's body, however, when you take into consideration that poaching has increased dramatically in recent years solely for their horns, it makes more sense why this drastic measure is taken: to save lives. And while rhino horns are made up of keratin (the same as our fingernails), they will grow back within two years. This is a harmless procedure and precautions are taken to ensure the process is minimal stress to the animal. They are up walking within minutes.

Dehorning does not occur in all national parks or private reserves due to the large costs involved with hiring a vet and crew, purchasing anesthetics, as well as owning or leasing the vehicles involved (scouting planes, scouting helicopters, and occasionally barges and jet boats). It can also be a rather risky and dangerous event for the crew involved due to the aggressive nature of the animal.

I talked with Krae Baumgardner, who interned for a veterinarian clinic in South Africa where he shadowed vets working on-call for private reserves. He explained the dehorning procedure as a complicated and secretive operation, including a whole patrol of private security and most of the time, not being able to know details of where they were called to work.


Below is how our conversation went:


Sterling Crawford: Krae, thank you for giving me the time to speak with you and learn about your experience working in South Africa. Can you first tell me a bit about where you were working and what your specific role entailed?


Krae Baumgardner: Well, the program only ran for two weeks but I feel as though I saw enough action to be able to fully understand the poaching crisis and to respect the efforts that many are doing to approach the problem. I worked for a company called Wildlife Vets South Africa where I shadowed vets who worked on-call for people who owned or managed wildlife near Kruger National Park, I believe they were private landowners but I wasn't fully in the know.


I know it is very common for veterinarians and rangers to be on-call for reserves because of the immediate action needed to respond to poachers. What type of work did you specifically do when your team was called-in?


Our job was to go out and remove the horns from the Rhinos to keep poachers from targeting them. We also had the 'kill two birds with one stone' kind of approach as we also used the time to collect blood samples for DNA purposes while they were under the anesthesia. It is a very intense operation due to the unanticipated and aggressive nature of these animals and takes multiple people to get the job done. People are working as fast as they can, and everyone has a specific job. Whether it is the person performing the actual dehorning, the vet collecting the blood samples, the person ensuring the levels of stress on the animal are subsided, the monitor, etc. It is an all-hands-on deck operation.


Image Credit: Paul Stone of Paul Stone Safari Africa



What did y'all do with the Rhino horns once they were removed?


After the horns were removed, we would tag them with government tags and place them in bags to be held in a safe owned by whomever owned the land/rhino.


The sale of Rhino Horn is currently illegal. Can you explain why they would want to save the horn?


Yes, the sale of horn is illegal, but there are theories and hopes that the sale of Rhino horn will become legalized in the future. That is why they keep the horns in a safe so that if it does become legalized, the land and rhino owners can profit greatly on the saved horns, to continue to fund their conservation operations. As you mentioned, Rhino conservation is not an easy feat, and it is extremely expensive. Private owners and nonprofit organizations currently have to rely heavily on donators to fund their efforts. They also need to save the horn so the poachers or those who would traffic it illegally wouldn't profit.


And how did the animal react to the dehorning process?


Before the animal is sedated, they run away as anyone would be if a helicopter or boat were chasing them. Once the first the team spots the animal from the air, another team uses a smaller helicopter to fly directly above the animal so they can maneuver and get close and dart the Rhino with tranquilizer. After a few minutes the animal is sedated, hopefully. Next, I was on the ground in a jeep (one day we were in boats running alongside the bank) and we would be first to the animal once they are down. Approaching the animal for the first time on foot was the most dangerous part. Due to their thick hide, it was common for the darts to become plugged, and the rhino would not receive a full sedative dose. We would approach quietly and slowly on foot until we were sure the rhino was safely sedated. The vets minimize stress on the animal by placing in earplugs and covering their eyes with a covering. Once the operation is done, we would reverse the anesthesia (Carfentanil) with Naloxone to wake them back up and they are up walking within 30 minutes.


And is there any bleeding from the procedure?


There's no bleeding from the operation as the horn is made of keratin (what our nails are made of).


What was the most surprising thing to you that you learned while working alongside this team in South Africa?


What surprised me the most is how differently the large game ranches are viewed by the community in South Africa versus people in America. The hunting ranches provide jobs like cooks, maids, hunting guides, people who process the animals after a hunt, etc. so they are viewed as job opportunities to the locals. The most common reason poaching takes place is to sell the meat and other items as a source of income, but when poached it is unsustainable. These large game ranches are able to afford basic care to wild animals, we were able to treat a group of Cape Buffalo for Bovine Papillomavirus, something like this would be impossible in natural settings as no one is willing to pay for the treatment. This makes these private ranches more sustainable as their income and employees income depends on the survival of rare and endangered species.




Resources:


Baumgardner, Krae. Phone Interview. April 17, 2022.


“Poaching Stats.” Save the Rhino, 2022. https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino-info/poaching-stats/#:~:text=The%20latest%20poaching%20numbers%20from,incidents%3A%20an%20extremely%20sad%20reality, Accessed on July 29, 2022.


“Rhino Populations.” Save the Rhino, 2022. https://www.savetherhino.org/rhino-info/population-figures/. Accessed on July 29, 2022.


“De-Horning.” Save the Rhino, 2022. https://www.savetherhino.org/thorny-issues/de-horning/#:~:text=Namibia%20was%20the%20first%20country,significantly%20to%20reducing%20poaching%20losses. Accessed on July 29, 2022.

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