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Rhino Dehorning in South Africa and the Path to Survival

Taking a chainsaw to a rhino certainly doesn’t sound like it could be a good thing and it isn’t the preferred action any game reserve management decides to take. However, for the preservation of the species, rhino dehorning is a necessary one.

Rhino horn is a lucrative and much sought after product in certain countries, making the poaching of an animal a risk worth taking. Illegal poachers have absolutely no qualms about taking the life of a rhino and axing the horn from its bleeding skull. The sight of a slaughtered rhino is one not easily forgotten..

Chain sawing a rhino's horn in Klaserie

The shocking end result of rhino poaching

It is easy to decry the purposeful removal of a rhino’s distinctive feature but at the grassroots level, it’s about survival. Here in South Africa, living within this precious wildlife environment exposes you to some hard truths.

We had the opportunity to spend time with Colin Rowles, Warden of Klaserie Private Nature Reserve, a part of Greater Kruger in South Africa, to gain a clearer insight into this challenging and often emotionally charged subject.

Colin and I at Klaserie HQ

Colin Rowles, (left), Warden of Klaserie Private Game Reserve 

Video of Rhino Dehorning Project at Klaserie Nature Reserve

Poaching and Rhino Protection

A rhino’s magnificence is contributed to by not just its powerful bulk but also the impressive set of horns that adorn its head, giving it a distinctively powerful presence. Yet the horn is really nothing special; it consists of keratin, the exact same material that makes up our own fingernails and toenails.

So why all the fuss over rhino horn? Some cultures, particularly those in China, prize rhino horn for its purported medicinal properties, even though there is absolutely no scientifically proven benefit at all.

[You may also be interested in reading about the plight of the endangered pangolin which we encountered twice in South Africa: Rare Pangolin Sighting – Not Once, but Twice.]

Rhino horn is worth more than gold on the black market and therefore, to those who are poor and living hand to mouth in South Africa, poaching is a lucrative option and worth the potential consequences if caught. Without the ludicrous demand coupled with the ridiculously high price of rhino horn, these behemoths of the bush would remain untouched.

Klaserie Anti-Poaching team

An anti-poaching team in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

It is a see-saw effect: as demand for rhino horn increases, the rhino population dwindles, forcing the price ever higher thus increasing the likelihood of these iconic African animals being poached. Poachers have no care for the rhino itself, only the rhino horn and killing is the quickest and most effective means to achieve their goal. A gruesome and unnecessary death.

You may wonder how anyone could find a rhino in the bush and then to even get close enough to given their acute levels of hearing. Well, rhinos are both creatures of habit and territorial. They follow the same paths in the same area, making it relatively easy for poachers to lay in wait.

A sad fact is that poachers also know that if a mother is with her calf, then the rhino calf can be shot first. The mother will choose to stay with her young even though it is dead rather than flee, making her an easy target.

White rhino lying on the ground

A magnificent white rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Rhino Dehorning Project – Klaserie’s Giant Step Forward

The year 2018 for the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve was a time that saw rhino killings escalate to a new high. Two rhinos per month were being slaughtered and it was estimated that within 3 to 5 years, the rhino population would be non-existent. Desperate measures were needed to address this ongoing threat from poaching.

In 2019, after much planning with both government and private consortiums, Klaserie Private Nature Reserve was issued permits to undertake the unprecedented and ground-breaking move to counter poaching with a rhino de-horning programme.

It was to be a first and largest mass dehorning event within an open system in South Africa. Specialised teams took to the air and tracks within the Reserve to dehorn 78 rhinos over 10 days. It was a well-co-ordinated and precisely timed procedure.

Darting the animal from the air, ground teams then moved in and removed the rhino horn with a chain saw. Veterinarians were also part of the team and instructed on the safe removal of the rhino horn. The removed horns were then taken off-site to a secure storage facility.

Rhino dehorning in south africa

A dehorned rhino in Klaserie Private Nature Reserve

Was the Rhino dehorning the right decision?

Since the rhino dehorning in 2019, Klaserie Private Nature Reserve has not lost one rhino to poachers. So yes, it’s definitely one of the great success stories of Klaserie and a great win for the rhinos. With a rhino’s horn growing about 50mm each year, the plan is to repeat the dehorning process every eighteen months or so with the 2020 de-horning operation having just been completed.

You may wonder if the horn removal somehow alters the behaviour of a rhino? Observation of interactions between dehorned rhinos and those with horns have shown no difference in their behaviour or aggressiveness.

The adjoining Kruger National Park management has also followed suit but faces greater challenges due to the huge park area (nearly 20,000 square kilometres) which is coupled with massive operational costs. Kruger’s approach has been to only dehorn selected female rhinos. (Click here for an awesome video of the animals of Kruger and their antics)

To give some context, Kruger National Park has between 8000 and 9000 white rhino and approximately 500 black rhinos. This park has also felt the ravages of poaching having lost 33 rhinos during just the first 6 months of 2020.

Update: As of January 2021  – Africa Geographic  reported:

 

After years of silence about Kruger National Park rhino populations from South Africa’s Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, we can now confirm that populations in the Kruger National Park have plummeted to an estimated 3,529 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos.

This represents a population reduction of 67% for white rhinos – from 10,621 in 2011 and 35% for black rhinos – from 415 in 2013.

2 white rhino in Kruger

Two white rhino in Kruger National Park

Trading Rhino Horn

In South Africa, the selling and trade of rhino horn on local markets is legal, however, it remains illegal to trade on international markets.

One proposed solution is to legalise the international trade of rhino horn thus making it a legitimate commodity available to all on a common market. As a result, rhino farming would become a viable option and with this increase in supply, the price of rhino horn would cease to be a lucrative product with the knock-on effect being a decrease in poaching.

Rhino monument at kruger, punda maria gate_

Poignant reminder – entrance to Kruger at Punda Maria Gate

Rhino Dehorning – A Future in the Balance

Rhino dehorning has been shown to successfully deter poaching however the operation itself remains an exorbitantly expensive one with reliance on private funding and donations.

The fate of the rhino remains in the balance but with sensible, informed decisions and co-joined efforts in its ongoing conservation, this majestic animal will continue to roam the South African bush for future generations to enjoy.

I know for a fact that we would rather enjoy seeing a dehorned rhino than no rhino at all.

Are you for or against the dehorning of rhino? Have you had any great rhino encounters? We’d really like to hear your thoughts – drop a comment below.

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