From Poison To Legalization, Can The Rhino Poaching Crisis Ever Be Solved?

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Justine Alford

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2518 From Poison To Legalization, Can The Rhino Poaching Crisis Ever Be Solved?
Mother and young rhinoceros killed for their horns. Hein Waschefort/Wikimedia Commons

Rewind about a hundred years and you could count around half a million rhinos stomping across their Asian and African habitats. Now, you’ll find a paltry 29,000, the vast majority of which are in South Africa. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why: poaching for their horns, an activity that was made illegal in 1976.

Despite the ban, poaching grew exponentially in the 70s and 80s, igniting a massive concerted effort to attempt to stamp out the brutal practice. It hasn’t been easy, but thanks to conservation programs, implementation of anti-poaching strategies and awareness campaigns, some populations have reached stability or are even slowly growing. However, what has been achieved now threatens to be undone, as once again we are in the midst of a poaching crisis grimmer than could ever be comprehended.


One every eight hours. That’s the current rate that rhinos are being poached in South Africa alone, which amounted to more than 1,200 killed last year. This unfathomable rate of loss – a 9,000% increase since 2007 – means that rhino deaths could overtake births as early as next year. And we are well aware of the consequences. Already the western black rhino has been driven to extinction, something the northern white rhino now faces.

A Growing Appetite

So why has poaching exploded within the last decade? The market for rhino horn is soaring, driven by a demand in Asia where, in certain countries, it is believed to have medicinal purposes. It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific trigger for this increased demand, but it has been tied to a story of a high-level official in Vietnam supposedly curing himself of cancer using a concoction of ground-up rhino horn and water, convincing many that it was some kind of miracle treatment.

“Cancer sufferers would come from rural areas in Vietnam to the cities in their final stages of cancer, and go to oncology hospitals where the conditions were dire,” Julian Rademeyer, author of “Killing for Profit,” a bestselling book about rhino horn trade, told IFLScience. “They would try anything.”


But the market seems to be evolving, says Rademeyer, with rhino horn now being seen as a status symbol. The majority of Vietnamese people from rural areas looking for a “cancer cure” can barely afford it, so they are often fobbed off with fake rhino horn, sourced from Buffalo, while the real stuff is going to the rich. There is even evidence that it is now being sold as a hangover cure, although Rademeyer says the notion that it is used as an aphrodisiac is largely a Western myth. And in China, where its use has its root in traditional medicine, it is now being bought by collectors and fashioned into jewelry or fake antiques. 

And the harsh reality is that things won’t be changing any time soon. “You’re not going to get rid of the market,” Peter Mills, environment manager and Gauteng Chapter Chairman of the Game Rangers' Association, told IFLScience. “The market is in fact going to grow.” Keeping up with that growth currently comes at the sacrifice of rhinos.

And it seems we are helpless to stop the situation, though not through lack of trying. A plethora of charities and NGOs have been established; rhinos have been airlifted and relocated to secret places; crime teams have been assembled; synthetic horns have been fashioned; spy cameras have been embedded in horns (see below); the military has been called in – the list is endless. And these efforts did not come cheap. More money than ever before is being plowed in to stop poaching, yet it still continues to rise. “What conclusion do you draw out of that?” Mills questioned.

Non-Profit organization Protect is embedding horns with cameras. Protect


At least one seems to be that, no matter how many well-trained rangers you pepper across the savannah, it ain’t gonna make a dent on poaching. And that relates to two things: money and cell phones. “The guy earns shit on the ground,” said Mills, referring to rangers. “All of a sudden you get 10,000 Rand [$740, £480] for one phone call. He knows the areas being patrolled and where the animals are. The problem is mobile phones. It’s a whole network on the ground.”

The process is even easier in other southern African countries where many, unlike South Africa, don’t fence off their parks, they just draw a line on a map and that’s the reserve. And for the local people living near to the animals, one night of work could give them more money than they are ever likely to earn in their entire lifetime. Unemployment is around 25% in South Africa and reached a staggering 50% in Namibia in 2008, and wherever you have poverty, you will have poachers. People will shoot you for a mobile phone, but rhino horn goes for R60,000 ($4,400, £2,900) per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

The Power Of Poison

Efforts are failing, people are becoming demoralized, huge amounts of money that should be going to schools, hospitals and infrastructure are being pissed down the drain because poachers will always find a way. Is there a route out of this crisis? “There is no one silver bullet that will solve this problem” has been chanted to me multiple times, because it’s true: There isn’t a single solution.   


For Ed Hern, founder of Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg, efforts should focus on stopping the demand, rather than the supply. Talking to IFLScience Hern recalled a devastating incident in his park where, on March 28, 2010, three rhinos were shot in just one night. Out of this tragedy was born the Rhino Rescue Project, founded by Hern’s daughter Lorinda and veterinary scientist Charles van Niekerk.

Their idea was that if you can devalue the horns, the poachers will be deterred from taking them and users will be reluctant to buy them. Even though shoot and kill policies have failed to dissuade poachers, they are confident that contaminating horns on live animals has the potential to make an impact. The process is not simple or cheap: It involves tranquilizing the animal, drilling a hole into the horn and infusing it with a blend of chemicals intended to be toxic to humans, including antiparasitic drugs and a pink dye that is used to color banknotes.

Hern has reportedly stated in the past that: “The aim would be to kill, or make seriously ill anyone who consumes the horn.” So this is a two-pronged approach: Poachers will either see signage in the parks warning of the contamination or will see the holes themselves, and consumers will see the discoloration. Either way, it should be easy to see that the horn has been tampered with.

One of the many signs erected around the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve. Justine Alford for IFLScience.


Sounds viable, but the technique, which has been employed in various parks, is not without controversy. While the horn has no direct link to the bloodstream, Rademeyer points out to IFLScience that there has been no scientific evidence to prove that pumping poison into the horn has no detrimental effect on the animal. In fact, he says, there has been “no credible data produced that says it works how it is intended, only anecdotal evidence that it may or may not work.” Although, the project argues this is due to the difficulties obtaining research permits from governments.

Unfortunately, it seems the problem is also not simply a lack of evidence. A published study concluded that infused horn would be unlikely to cause any toxic effects in human users; even so, deliberately attempting to cause harm is ethically questionable, although it is easy to see how in dire situations such as this, ethics may not be of primary concern. Regardless, it’s possible the very idea of being poisoned is enough to discourage use, however this could have a knock-on effect of opening up a market for pricier, “guaranteed chemical-free horn,” or even invite chemical washing procedures to decontaminate stocks.

The study also failed to find any evidence that the infusion procedure actually worked and that the chemical cocktail diffused as presumed. The study also questioned the logistics of implementing such a strategy on a scale necessary to deter poachers. Still, it seems plausible that the presence of a hole surrounded by fluorescent dye would be enough to warn a poacher that the horn has been meddled with, and there is some evidence to suggest that signs warning of horn contamination can act as a deterrent.

“The basic suggestion,” says Rademeyer, “is a lot of this is driven by desperation because the poaching situation is so bad. Nothing that people are trying seems to be working. I think we’re grasping and trying to find some quick fix solution; I unfortunately don’t think that exists.” And that’s something Hern and Rademeyer seem to agree on.



And If All Else Fails?

Helplessly watching the sands of time pour away, we are now being forced to consider something that nobody wants, but that many regard as the only option in the face of this calamity: legalizing the trade of rhino horn. The argument is that the market is not going to go away, so maybe rhinos could be treated as many other animals are: a resource that can be used in an ecologically sustainable manner. But things aren’t as black and white as simply making the trade legal.

“You’re not saying let’s deal with rhino horn like we deal with cigarettes; it can happen in a number of different ways,” Mills told IFLScience. “You need the space to explore those different ways, and it’s not one solution – it’s multiple solutions.”


There are several options up for debate, which will be the focus of the 2016 meeting at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. First, a one-off sale of South Africa’s rhino horn stockpile has been proposed, which has a value of about $1 billion (£650 million). The idea is that saturating the market will lower the price and reduce the incentive to poach. The cash generated could then also be used to fund further rhino protection programs. However, increasing availability and lowering the cost temporarily could allow even more people to use rhino horn, driving up the demand in the long-term and leading us back to square one. 

Alternatively, South Africa could go the whole hog and legalize the trade. This would involve trimming the horns back on an annual basis and selling them in a regulated manner. The argument is that increasing availability so that demand could be met would reduce the need for poaching, but several issues with the idea have been highlighted.

Sally Kneidel PhD CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

For starters, as Hern points out, we just don’t know what the demand is. Furthermore, people will always look for the best price, so there is no guarantee that a black market won’t be established whereby poachers go around killing animals to nick off even the tiniest stumps as they begin to show regrowth. With its value so high, this doesn’t seem an unlikely outcome.


We also have to bear in mind that this would be a huge, costly operation, and darting the animals annually to shave their horns is not without health risks. Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, do countries have the resources or capabilities to make such operations feasible?

“While a lot of us say we should trade in rhino horn,” says Mills, “we don’t believe that any African country, for financial reasons and reasons of bribery and corruption, can actually control the proper regulation of a market.” 

Image in text (1):  Dutourdumonde Photography /Shutterstock


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  • conservation,

  • rhino,

  • poaching,

  • rhino horn