We often receive questions regarding the project and the infusion technology. You will find most of the answers on this page. They have been sorted into categories based on the topics that have come up most often since RRP was founded and, especially, since we were featured on “Carte Blanche” in 2014. If you can’t find what you are looking for here, please Contact Us.
Commonly asked questions
How was the treatment developed?
Following a poaching on a family reserve in 2010, Rhino Rescue Project’s Lorinda Hern started researching a number of possible solutions to prevent the poaching of another animal and in the process heard about a group of wildlife vets, under the leadership of Charles van Niekerk, researching the treatment and management of ectoparasites on rhinos in captivity through the infusion of depot ectoparasiticides into their horns. Since many reserves are dependent on tourists as its major source of income, dehorning of animals is not always deemed to be a practical solution – especially since dehorned rhinos often still get poached for the base of their horns. Furthermore, some research studies have indicated that dehorning can have adverse impacts on the animal’s social structures and breeding patterns. For these reasons, we decided that infusion was a more viable option.
Is this treatment legal?
Yes. The Rhino Rescue Project horn treatment methodology is the only legally recognised treatment option available at present (a full legal opinion is available upon request).
Treatment compounds are infused into the horn using a system through which a high-pressure device forces liquids into the tubular structure of the horn (patent pending). The system was designed by RRP’s wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Charles van Niekerk, and is also the only poaching intervention currently endorsed by the insurance industry.
What steps have been taken to prevent treated horns being accidentally ingested?
The fact that the rhinos on a reserve are treated is widely publicised by means of 200+ signposts around the reserve’s perimeter (see image) and, should a treated rhino be killed, the indelible dye should be immediately visible inside the horn (especially in the channel where it was inserted) – a clear indication that the horn had been tampered with. We are constantly experimenting with new visual marking systems, and have most recently had excellent results with a mixture of colorants that fluoresce under UV light, as well as containing indestructible DNA markers that bind permanently to the horn material. Thus a treated horn, even when ground to a fine powder, cannot be passed through many security checkpoints unnoticed. Airport security checkpoints, especially, are almost certain to pick up the presence of a treated rhino horn. This contamination should also discourage the ornamental use of horns, or horns bought a status symbols.
We also strongly suggest involving staff and local communities in the horn treatment process to assist as their involvement ensures that word about the treatment spreads rapidly via the “bush telegraph”.
What are depot ectoparasiticides?
Registered depot ectoparasiticides are freely available over-the-counter antiparasitic drugs used to treat ectoparasitic infestations, where parasitic organisms live primarily on the surface of the host. All products are used exactly as directed in terms of their classification under Act 36 of 1947 (Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act). The products are registered to treat ectoparasites in cattle, horses and sheep, so the only extra-label use is that it is being used on rhino instead. This treatment benefits the rhino owner, does not harm the environment, does not harm other living organisms, has no adverse effects on tourism or the economy, is cost-effective, legal and can be completed in under an hour. In other words, it is a minimally-invasive procedure intended to uphold the status quo with regard to the trade in animal parts for as long as is necessary.
Are you trying to harm or kill consumers of illegal rhino horn?
No. It has come to our attention that sellers of rhino horn are attempting to mislead their customers by claiming that horn infusions are not really toxic. It is apparent that these unscrupulous sellers do not care about the wellbeing of their customers, but purely about making money. So, it is up to us to make consumers aware of the dangers of using rhino horn, as the sellers and illegal traffickers most certainly will not.
Although it is true that the infusion compounds are not lethal for people in small quantities, the symptoms of ingestion may include (but are not limited to) nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Research into quantities of rhino horn used for medicinal purposes has indicated that no more than a pinch of ground horn is generally used at one time. Prolonged use (such as in the ‘millionaires detox drink’) may increase the severity of symptoms, though, and could result in, amongst others, permanent nerve damage.
Is the treatment programme intended as a long-term solution?
We see the treatment purely as a means to “buy time” for the dwindling rhino population, while long-term solutions are being investigated. In the short term, we need to regain control of the rampant poaching and disrupt the upward trend. No long-term solution, whether it be legalisation of trade or otherwise, is likely to be implemented within the next four years. Therefore, a rhino horn treated today for the purposes of keeping the animal alive is once again going to be free of any compounds if ever we reach a point where legalised trade becomes a reality.
I’ve recently seen images on social media of rhinos with pink horns. Do your treatments really make horns pink?
Although it is encouraging that the concept of horn devaluation as a proactive and preventative anti-poaching measure is gaining greater acceptance and momentum globally, it is unfortunate that much of the recent interest in such initiatives seems to be based on embellishment and misinformation rather than on the facts. Images like those doing the rounds on social media (of rhinos and elephants sporting digitally altered pink horns and tusks) create unrealistic expectations about what the technique entails and how it is intended to combat poaching.
The truth is that horn devaluation is a much more involved process than simply dyeing the surface of a horn pink (or any other colour, for that matter). Focusing on one component of a multi-pronged strategy to the exclusion of all others is not only misleading in that it belies the complexity of the procedure, but could also prove potentially harmful to both animals and humans. No buyer/consumer of rhino horn should ever be encouraged to consume or handle treated horns purely because no outward signs of devaluation may be present, especially as our ongoing research has resulted in the use of newer technologies, like radioactive isotopes, instead of relying solely on infusions with toxins and dyes. If anything, it is these new techniques that should be discussed and promoted in the public domain, instead of an outdated, and often misunderstood, methodology.
In short, rhino horns are not stained pink on their surface for two primary reasons:
1. The colour would not be visible for long enough to act as a deterrent, as the animals groom their horns down and wallow in mud on a daily basis
2. Visibly discolouring horns makes every other animal in a population without a coloured horn an even softer target for poachers
Rhino Rescue Project actively attempts to debunk the myths surrounding devaluation perpetuated by rumours like this, if and when we are made aware of them. As with all poaching interventions, we would recommend that interested parties engage in their own research to ascertain the facts before mindlessly sharing and reposting factually incorrect information that could actually be detrimental to the cause. Although it may be fun to imagine herds of rhino roaming the African savannah with pretty pink horns, one has to guard against reducing a scientific intervention into nothing more than a frivolous Facebook or Twitter rumour.
Social media is a valuable tool, in that it gives us an opportunity to engage and to educate more people about conservation issues, which is ever a bad thing. Also, any media coverage that encourages individuals to think creatively about ways to solve the poaching problem whilst also keeping the issue “top of mind”, can surely never be considered a bad thing either. Because, let’s face it – at this point, rhinos need all the help they can get.
Does horn devaluation work? In other words, is it preventing animals from getting poached?
In short, yes. To date, fewer than 2% of treated animals have been reported as having passed away – either due to natural mortality or at the hands of poachers. In all cases, the horns were retrieved on-site. Over an eight year period, such successful rates are unheard of, and no other anti-poaching intervention can claim to have protected more animals from poachers.
In fact, a graph compiled independently by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) shortly after a pilot project Rhino Rescue Project participated in at their request in 2013, clearly illustrates a dramatic drop in both incursions and poaching incidents in the months leading up to and immediately after the horn devaluation treatments had been done. The two reserves we worked in were, at the time, the two hardest hit by poachers in the entire province.
Questions relating to the Carte Blanche segment on horn infusion broadcast in 2014
What information was given to Carte Blanche by RRP prior to the segment going to air so they could put forward your side of the story?
RRP provided Carte Blanche with a 58 page brief prior to the broadcast, which based on the – heavily edited – footage that was ultimately broadcast, seemed to have been completely ignored.
RRP’s participation in the broadcast was secured under one condition: that a copy of the unedited interview footage be made available to us after the broadcast. Carte Blanche readily agreed to this. However, when we subsequently requested the footage, we were informed that it had somehow been “deleted” immediately after the broadcast, and thus could no longer be supplied to us.
What is the cost of infusion relative to the cost of dehorning?
The fixed costs associated with an infusion procedure (which includes immobilization and recovery, DNA sampling, microchipping, labour, insurance cover, pregnancy testing, ear notching and the actual devaluation/infusion) amounts to approximately R8000 per animal. The cost of an average dehorning procedure totals roughly R7000. The prices are therefore very similar, except that dehorning would need to be repeated twice as frequently as devaluation procedures.
I heard Rhino Rescue Project is a scam?
There are most certainly interested parties that would want the general public to believe this, in order to further or protect the pro-trade agenda that South Africa’s government appears to be embracing. Horn devaluation has the potential to put the current consumers off buying rhino horn and hence is a big threat to anyone looking forward to cashing in on their horn stockpiles should trade ever be legalised. The severity of this threat is evident from the fact that horn devaluation is the only poaching intervention regularly singled out for extreme scrutiny and criticism by high-level role-players, whose primary interest should be regaining control over the growing poaching crisis, instead of undermining creative anti-poaching initiatives.
I tried to find the Carte Blanche segment on horn infusion but could not find it, do you know where I can view it?
The clips of both inserts Carte Blanche broadcast on horn infusions during 2014 were subsequently removed from their website and all social media platforms. As no reason was provided, we can only assume that Carte Blanche no longer stand by what they broadcast.
I heard a rhino died going through the infusion process, how dangerous is the infusion process for the rhino?
In state-owned reserves like the Kruger National Park, losses/mortalities of rhinos due to complications associated with immobilisation amount to roughly 5% of all procedures. Although there are always risks involved when immobilising large mammals like rhinos, Rhino Rescue Project’s mortality rate of only 0.73% (over a 5 year period) indicates that the infusion procedure carries minimal risks to the animals.
With current poaching rates resulting in the loss of at least 4 animals per day, it is our belief that the relatively small risk associated with immobilisation (for purposes of infusion, translocation or for medical procedures) is far outweighed by the potential benefits.
Questions relating to the Dutch/Swedish Postcode Lottery funds for horn infusion
Did you get money from the Dutch/Swedish Postcode Lottery?
No. Although the funding was originally specifically allocated to performing horn infusion procedures (see video), the grant was made to the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) who, shortly after receiving the funding, decided against implementing any horn devaluation procedures.
If the infusion works, why did the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) return the lottery money?
As we never received any of the Dutch/Swedish Postcode Lottery funding, the decision to return a portion (10%) of the larger amount received by PPF was made by them alone. Their motivations for doing so (as well as the whereabouts of the remaining 90% of the funding) are unknown.
We can categorically state, however, that this decision was not based on the efficacy of infusion as a poaching deterrent, nor on any technical “teething problems” the procedure may have experienced at the time. As an RRP development partner, PPF was well aware of the experimental nature of our work and the legal limitations on our own research as early as August 2013. (In fact, PPF secured our cooperation in their fundraising bid by committing to assist us with our research going forward). However, the funds were returned in September 2014 – more than a year later, and only after public pressure to implement horn infusions mounted.
Questions related to the SANParks/EKZNW paper on horn infusion
I heard that rhino horn is like perspex. Is that true?
No. As you can see from these images, rhino horn has a tubular structure. Individual tubules are roughly 50 to 300 microns in diameter and live horns have a natural moisture content of roughly 20%. These images come from a comprehensive independent study on the internal structure of rhino horns performed by the University of Ohio in 2006, and repeated again in 2011. The information contained in these studies formed the basis for our horn devaluation work. The entire 2006 research article can be read by clicking on this link:
The paper published about horn infusion mentions the dye, is that the same as the toxin?
Not at all. The dye and the toxins are completely different chemical compounds and travel of one should not be confused with the travel of the other. In many horns, dye was not used at all, so we would not ever recommend that end-users handle or consume rhino horns; even when there is no visible trace of dye.
Were the horns used in the SANParks paper proven to be horns that RRP had infused?
No. We requested samples from SANParks to do DNA testing, but as yet (five years later) have received none.
Where did the 10 horns come from that where mentioned in the paper?
Four (4) horns were said to have been recovered from poachers within the Kruger National Park (KNP). The six (6) remaining “horns” were, in fact, not full horns at all, but merely drill samples taken from the horns of live animals by officials of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW).
Were you able to match the samples mentioned in the so-called “Ferreira” paper to RRP records?
No. As we have been denied access to the relevant microchip numbers and DNA samples, despite a request for same under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), we were unable to match the samples to any animals treated by RRP. We did, however, receive written confirmation from SANParks that no samples had ever been sent for laboratory testing. It’s “research findings” were based entirely on a “visual inspection” of a horn by an in-house ecologist.
Questions related to research on infusion done by RRP
Why did RRP not do any research of its own on the infusion process?
RRP did a tremendous amount of research prior to embarking on infusions, including an extensive review of existing literature (of which very little exists, sadly). As we had conceptualised the treatment to be an anti-poaching measure, this was the focus of our preliminary research. However, we are prohibited by law from dissecting rhino horns without a permit. Therefore, our research took the form of a compromise: whilst performing procedures on live animals (an exercise that would hopefully result in them being better protected from poachers) we also collected valuable data to improve our methodology, based on a series of measurements (like horn hardness, etc.) as well as recording what could be observed visually as the horns were being infused.
After a 3-year wait we have recently received a permit to analyse ONE static horn and are in the process of doing so.
Is your procedure endorsed by SAVA?
The role of the SAVA (South African Veterinary Association) is to promote the conservation of wildlife, including rhinos. The SAVA regularly provides a platform for wildlife veterinarians to present new techniques, which are then open to discussion by the rest of the forum. Dr. van Niekerk of RRP presented our technique at several of these workshops countrywide during 2013 and the responses from the workshop attendees were overwhelmingly positive.
It’s counterpart, the SAVC (South African Veterinary Council) is bound by the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act no. 19 of 1982 to respond to complaints regarding veterinary professionals allegedly involved in professional misconduct. Neither body, therefore, “endorses” procedures per se, as this is not their role within the frameworks in which they operate.