Project History

Poached rhino at Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, 2010
Poached rhino at Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, 2010

Rhino Rescue Project (RRP) was founded in the weeks following a poaching incident on the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve in Gauteng, South Africa in May 2010. We were shocked that poachers would target such a small reserve so close to Johannesburg and we contemplated many different methods to fight the poaching scourge. The problem we found with all of the alternatives available at the time was that they were largely reactive instead of proactive, and did not necessarily deter poachers from striking again. We considered conventional solutions like microchips and tracking devices, to more extreme measures such as dehorning. The latter was not considered an attractive option to us as we rely on eco-tourism as our primary source of income. After all, no tourist to Africa really wants to see the “Big Four-and-a-Half” instead of the iconic Big Five!

Our thought process increasingly centred around ways to devalue rhino horns, by means of infusion or other forms of contamination. Central to our initial research was the need to ascertain whether it would be possible to contaminate or impregnate rhino horns, possibly with either prolific colouring agents or toxins (or both) to render them valueless in the minds of buyers and/or end consumers.

We found no existing research into the devaluation of rhino horns, but of particular interest to us was work being done on the control of ecto‑parasites (ticks etc.) through the treatment of rhino horns with ectoparasiticides. This research hypothesised that the horn could be used as the depot from which an ectoparasiticide could be distributed on to the skin of the animal to alleviate discomfort from natural parasites. Upon realising that this treatment could potentially neutralise a dual threat (both poaching and parasites) we decided to proceed with testing and the subsequent treatment. The starting point for this operation was to obtain a sound legal opinion, which can be provided upon request.

The selection of acaricides for inclusion in the treatment compounds was carefully researched and only Ox Pecker and Vulture friendly products were considered to ensure little or no collateral damage to other animals and organisms sharing the rhino’s habitat.

Blood samples are collected for DNA & pregnancy testing

Ectoparasiticides, although safe for use on animals, are not intended for consumption by humans, and are registered as such. The treatment in no way contravenes the products’ classification and registration criteria (as per Act 36 of 1947). Although not lethal in small quantities, ectoparasiticides remain toxic, and symptoms of ingestion may include, but are not limited to nausea, vomiting and convulsions (all dosage dependent). With this in mind, it was crucial that the message about horn treatments on properties be spread far and wide, to avoid accidental or intentional ingestion of treated horns by people. One way to accomplish this was to place signs around the reserve stating that the rhino horns are not fit for human consumption, thus hopefully deterring poachers from entering the property in the first place.

Further, the next step in the project was to introduce an indelible dye, which based on (prelimenary research into the internal structure of rhino horns) should discolour the inside of the horn, thereby indicating that a horn has been treated. The dye, similar to products used in the banking industry to permanently stain stolen bank notes, cannot be removed in any way if successfully infused and is visible on an x-ray scanner even when the horn is ground to a fine powder. Thus airport security checkpoints, for example, are almost certain to pick up the presence of this dye in a treated horn regardless of whether the horn is intact or in powder form. The dye should also discourage the use of rhino horns for ornamental purposes.

It was imperative to us that we, at all times, considered the animal’s wellbeing, and great care was taken to ensure that the horn infusion is done in such a way that no compounds cause damage to the horn’s germinal layer or make their way into the animal’s blood stream. All properties on which treatments are done are frequently contacted thereafter for feedback on the condition of their animals and, thus far, all reports have been predominantly positive.

Infusion with sponsor family from Vietnam
Infusion with sponsor family from Vietnam

Rhino Rescue Project rolled out treatments on a fee-for-service basis in 2011. From a research perspective, this roll-out took place sooner than we would have liked, but the alarming rise in poaching incidents since 2010 meant that we simply did not have the luxury of testing this methodology to the n-th degree over a number of years prior to its implementation. The sad reality is that if we had, there may not have been enough rhinos left for our findings to matter. We aim to offer rhino owners a proactive, legally recognised anti-poaching measure – the only in South Africa endorsed by the insurance industry. AON Insurance, the largest insurance broker in South Africa, offers rhino owners insurance against poaching at no extra cost (i.e. premiums will remain the same as those paid for ordinary cover against natural mortality) if they have had their animals’ horns treated. From a technical perspective, exciting possibilities into developing improved horn devaluation methods do exist and are actively being explored by us and our research partners.

We have continuously evolved the infusion technology investing our own money. For us, the primary aim of the programme is to prevent rhino’s from being poached in the first place. We are hoping that the majority of treated rhino’s will be left alone, their horns intact; so that they can continue with their lives in the same way they have for decades, whilst contribute to the size of the national herd. Horn devaluation is arguably one of the only proactive solutions that does not entail dehorning or farming rhino as livestock nor does it have an adverse effect on the hunting industry or the country’s tourism revenue. It is relatively cost-effective and has no long-term effects since it “grows out” with the horn in time. Horn treatments have always only ever been intended to be an interim solution to be used by owners of rhino populations who do not have the resources available to provide each rhino with an armed guard. Similarly, animals sold on auctions or ones being exported could have their horns treated prior to being sold to ensure that they are not bought by buyers interested solely in their horns.

recovering after the procedure
Animal recovering after the procedure

We realise that this approach is but “one arrow in the quiver” against poaching, and we do not suggest that it be seen as a long-term solution, nor that it be implemented in isolation or as a substitute for other reasonable security measures. Instead, we believe it to be a means to “buy time” for ourselves and our rhino, while we investigate all potential long-term strategies thoroughly. Maybe the most telling information about horn treatments as an effective poaching deterrent can be found in the fact that, of the animals treated to date, losses (due to poaching or otherwise) amount to less than 2%, making these infusions a valuable tool in the anti-poaching toolbox, even if there can never be a 100% guarantee against poaching.