Dye and poison is being used to stop rhino poachers

Gold, platinum, and rhino horn are among the world’s most valuable materials, with rhino horn being the most expensive. According to National Geographic Magazine, late in 2011, it fetched from $33 to $133 a gram on the streets of Vietnam. Samuel Wasser, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle’s Department of Biology, described rhino horn as “gold cocaine.” Approximately a thousand rhinoceroses are killed every year.

Peter Darroll, a development manager for One Financial Services, observed that this makes rhinos “close to uninsurable.” Although insuring rhinos doesn’t generate much profit for the company, it helps attract business for more profitable policies, such as those for buffaloes. For rhinos to be insured, they must undergo a specific treatment process.

Rhino horn’s popularity in Asia is based on the belief, without any scientific evidence, that it can cure diseases such as cancer, improve concentration, and relieve hangovers. It’s a myth that it has aphrodisiac properties.

To combat rhino poaching, the Rhino Rescue Project (RRP) was created by Ed and Lorinda Hern, who own the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve in Krugersdorp, South Africa. They collaborated with veterinarian Charles van Niekerk to develop a method to inject rhino horns with red dye. Since rhino horns grow as much as an inch a year, this process must be repeated every four years.

The dye used is similar to Disperse Red 9, also known as 1-methylamino anthraquinone. When mixed with water, it turns a highly visible shade of purple that cannot be removed by alcohol, soap, or water. Unlike other horns, rhino horns lack a bony center and are composed entirely of keratin, like human fingernails. When soaked with dye, they show no visible external effect. Photos showing rhinos with pink horns have been doctored; in reality, this would make the animal vulnerable to predators.

Before treatment, a rhino must be immobilized, so one RRP team member must always be a veterinarian. They use etorphine, better known by its brand name, M99, which is an opioid 1,000 to 3,000 times stronger than morphine. Rhinos given M99 must be turned over every seven minutes, or their organs would be squeezed by their own body weight.

In 2012, a male white rhino named Spencer died during this process. Brett Gardner, a veterinarian from Johannesburg Zoo who was present as an independent observer, stated that this was due to “underlying medical conditions.” However, this did not deter others, as “rhinos in the zoo are at risk.”

Once the rhino is anesthetized, a drill is used to create holes in both horns. The dissolved red dye is then pumped into the horn through metal connectors attached to rubber hoses linked to a metallic cylinder containing the dye solution. Anesthesia typically lasts for about 45 minutes, while infusion usually takes no more than 20 minutes.

The dye not only colors the horn but also contains an ectoparasiticide used to protect the animal against ticks. However, if consumed by humans, it causes diarrhea, nausea, and stomach ache, although these effects are not lethal.

This method has raised ethical concerns about poisoning people who are already ill. Game reserve owners have put up signs on fences to warn against consuming treated rhino horn. Airport X-ray scanners can detect the dye even if the horn has been ground into powder.

Most other methods to fight poaching are reactive and do not prevent it. Private reserve owners often rely on armed patrols by foot or helicopter, which sometimes leads to violent confrontations with poachers.

Dehorning rhinos was first employed in the late 1980s. The horns are cut off using chainsaws after the animals are sedated. However, this method only removes 90 to 93% of the horn, leaving a stub that is still valued by poachers. In Zimbabwe in 2011, six rhinos died for their stubs. However, a study by the Lowveld Rhino Trust found that dehorned rhinos in Zimbabwe’s Save and Bubye Valley Conservancies had a better chance of survival than those with intact horns.

Technological advancements have led to new ways to counter rhino poaching. One method is GPS tracking. ProTagTor, a South African firm, produces tags that, when implanted into rhino horns, report their position every minute. Any atypical behavior, such as running fast or sleeping for over six hours, generates an SMS report to nearby game rangers.

As drones become more popular, game reserve owners are using them for surveillance. South African farmer Clive Vivier commented, “We can see the poacher, but he can’t see us. We’re good at arresting them when we know where they are.”

Another method involves a database recording the DNA of thousands of rhinos. This database made the punishment of rhino poacher Simon Ngomane more severe. He was captured after a shootout with rangers in the Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2017 and was sentenced to 28 years in prison partly because DNA evidence showed that two freshly cut horns in his possession came from a recently slaughtered rhino. Poachers convicted using DNA evidence are less likely to appeal.

Susan Walley, a spokesperson for RRP, highlighted the problem that some South African vets are corrupt and sell M99 to poachers. Poachers prefer tranquilizing rhinos to shooting them because it is quieter and easier. M99 is so strong that it completely immobilizes a fully grown rhino within five minutes.

Game rangers are also sometimes corrupt. In Mozambique’s Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, rangers killed 300 rhinos from 2002 to 2012. It is estimated that up to 90% of poachers base their attacks on inside information from park workers and locals.

Award-winning journalist Godknows Nare spent six months interviewing poachers and their families near the Kruger National Park and spoke to the New York Post in 2020. He found that almost 70% lived on government benefits due to a lack of land to farm: “You just need to fill up your stomach. Then you can think about other things.”

There is a way to stop rhino poaching. The travel company &Beyond runs the Phinda game reserve south of Swaziland. It had so many rhinoceroses that it sold some to Botswana in 2016. This happened because when the land was purchased, it was returned to the local tribes, who managed it. They now protect their land, making it nearly impossible for poachers to operate. As Martin Bornman, a director of the African Conservation Experience, put it: “They … work for [&Beyond] and everyone makes money off the animals.”