People who ingest the horn, a common practice among some Asians who believe it to have medicinal properties, could fall ill, as a result of the horn being treated with the toxic ectoparasitacide, used to control parasites. But the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve says the horns will also be treated with an indelible dye to discourage ingestion.
The owners of the reserve insist they are not vigilantes and don’t want to make anyone ill. “The treatment of the horn benefits both the animal and efforts to stop poaching,” explains Lorinda Hern, the reserve’s spokeswoman. “Our greatest desire is that no person ever touches a rhino horn again. Failing that, however, we do want to strike fear in their hearts, so they know we mean business.”
Several months ago, Hern’s father, Ed Hern, the reserve’s founder, drew fierce criticism when he announced he was experimenting with cyanide to inject into rhino horns, after poachers struck his reserve. “We wanted to inflict the same kind of suffering our animals had to endure on anyone involved in the vile activity of poaching,” the reserve explained in a statement. “We began researching the possibility of poisoning our rhinos’ horns, so any individual who knowingly handled or consumed the horn would either become seriously ill, or even face the risk of death.”
The idea was motivated by the need to treat the horn, and thus the animal, against parasites such as ticks, instead using conventional pesticides. “Such substances are not intended for human consumption and although not lethal in small quantities, remain extremely toxic,” the reserve states.
Hern says her father’s initial response was driven by emotion. “Once we reconsidered and got the necessary legal advice, we decided we weren’t going to right a wrong by doing another wrong,” she told the Saturday Star. “We have found a way to still get our point across, but without doing anything illegal or maliciously trying to hurt someone.”
In the past two months, all the reserve’s rhino have been treated with the ectoparasitacides and are in “excellent health” and carefully monitored.
Unlike parasite treatment, which typically involves the rhino being dipped, the rhino are darted and a hole is drilled into their horn to inject the pesticide, which also contains the indelible red dye.
“We have reason to believe that, if other rhino owners followed sui, the perception that rhino horn is no longer beneficial to humans, but potentially dangerous instead, could very well be the impetus needed to eradicate poaching entirely,” says the statement. Conventional methods to fight poaching, including dehorning, microchips and tracking devices have failed and a rhino has been slaughtered roughly every 30 hours in South Africa this year.
Faan Coetzee, of the Rhino Security Project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, questions the ethics motivating the reserve. “It’s still a poison. The problem is these guys (poachers) are going to kill the rhino anyway and hopefully someone gets sick. But is that a way to think? Let’s not dabble in these things,” he said, pointing out that tranquilising carried a risk to the rhino’s health and was expensive.
But the reserve stands firm. “We’re not interested in causing anyone’s death; we merely want the killing of these gentle, majestic creatures to stop. If we have to cause a few individuals some discomfort to accomplish this, we’re willing to take our chances. Although we in no way intend to enforce vigilante justice on innocent people, we want to send the message that poaching has dire consequences.”
Wildlife vet Dr Charles van Niekerk, who is involved in the research, says this is one “arrow in the quiver” in the fight against rhino poaching. Other private rhino owners are on board, he says but won’t divulge more. The research is still in the initial stages. “People have asked how we can treat all the rhino in South Africa. We’re not deterred by number. And people must not be blinded by the cost – all the money in the world won’t bring the rhino back once it is gone.”