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Is De-Horning Rhinos a Feasible Option for Combatting Poaching in South Africa?

The poaching of rhinos in South Africa for their valuable horns has long been an issue. These horns can be worth $60,000 per kilogram on the black market, due to their high demand in countries like Vietnam. People in these countries mistakenly believe rhino horn powder has many health benefits, such as preventing hangovers and curing cancer. Though horns can be retrieved from rhinos without killing the animal, because these animals can be quite dangerous, they are often killed. The government has taken action against poachers, but the rhino population in South Africa is still severely threatened. De-horning rhinos in South Africa may be a possible method of combatting this threat.
The number of rhino poachings in South Africa, though slightly declining, is still dangerously high in recent years, as shown below. 5,424 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since 2006. Head Ranger Simon Naylor at the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa said, “I think in the last few years we’ve reached that tipping point in Africa, and certainly in South Africa. There are more deaths now than births. And so it’s a species heading towards extinction if we don’t do something drastic.”

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De-horning is a practice which has been taken up by many South African ranchers to protect their rhinos from poachers. Through this process, they safely remove the horn from the rhino so as to get rid of any incentive for poachers to kill them.
First, the rhino is darted with a carefully calculated amount of sedative so as to calm the rhino. A vet then checks the vital signs of the animal to ensure the sedative did not harm it, and then the dehorning team begins their work. They make measurements to determine how much of the horn should be removed so that no permanent damage is done to the rhino horn, as removing too much of the horn can prevent regrowth.

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Once these measurements have been made, then a battery-driven saw is used to cut off the horn at the line drawn. Cold water is sprayed on the horn during this process to prevent any over-heating of the horn or any burns.

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Once removed, the horns are measured, weighed, and labeled, and any shavings of the horn are gathered and saved. These horns, because of their value, will be stored in a safe for security. The question many governments in Africa are now facing with the implementation of this practice, is whether or not to legalize trade of horns that are removed in this humane way, and therefore to gain profit which can further fund the conservation and protection of rhinos. South Africa has indicated that it intends to explore this option as a way to ensure the viability of rhino protection.

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After this process, the sedative wears off and the rhinos will walk away unharmed. However, this does not mean that there are no concerns regarding de-horning. There are many concerns that the loss of their horns will affect a rhino’s ability to protect its young and to defend its territory from other rhinos. In wildlife reserves where all rhinos have been dehorned, this is not a threat, but this concern makes de-horning rhinos in the wild an unrealistic option. Another reason de-horning is not as effective as desired is that poachers often shoot on sight, and therefore will kill rhinos even when their horns have been removed. Even if they are aware that the rhinos have been de-horned, poachers will sometimes kill a rhino just for the small stump remaining. To combat this, those who de-horn rhinos have started publicity campaigns to make poachers aware that their rhinos are de-horned. Another option some have pursued is poisoning rhino horns and marking them as poisoned to make them inedible and therefore unprofitable.

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The poaching of animals in Africa has become a worldwide concern, and governments of African countries such as South Africa are pursuing any option that may help them protect their endangered animals. De-horning is one such method by which many are attempting to control poaching, and in small-scale wildlife reserves, it has been fairly successful, though there are concerns. For wider-scale use in the wild, however, it is not exactly feasible. If a substitute for the rhino horn which is without value could be discovered and used to replace the horn, perhaps this method could be instituted. There is much work to be done before the process of de-horning can be used as a wide-scale poaching countermeasure, but it has proven fairly effective in the time it has been implemented on a smaller scale. De-horning and other measures taken to protect rhinos against poaching provide a ray of hope for the future safety of dwindling rhino populations.