Rhinos are beautiful and majestic creatures, creatures that could cease to exist if we don’t soon find a solution to the worldwide poaching problem.
Their plight comes with a sense of irony, really. For millions of years rhinos have relied on their large horns to save and protect them from a variety of situations and predators. Now it’s those same horns, which are used in everything from Chinese medicine to basic status symbols, that poachers are killing the animals to the brink of extinction for.
That’s also why some wildlife managers in South Africa are now resorting to dehorning the creatures as humanely and safely as possible, giving them a better shot at evading horn-hungry poachers and hopefully allowing them to begin repopulating their species.
Because hey… someone had to do something, right?
According to an article in The Guardian, more than 7,000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa alone over the past decade. Meanwhile, the northern white rhino became extinct in March after the last male, Sudan, passed away; the black rhino population is down to about 5,200; there are only 3,200 surviving Indian rhinos, 76 Sumatran rhinos and 60 Javan rhinos in the world, and worldwide the population is estimated to now be fewer than 30,000.
Dire, isn’t it? The good news is that this dehorning mission seems to be working–at least so far.
According to Chris Galliers, chairman of the Game Rangers Association of Africa, the number of rhino deaths on private reserves in the province of KwaZulu-Natal have dropped from 25 per cent to five per cent in the last two-and-a-half years. That number coincides with the 1,800 horns removed from 900 rhinos in that area over the past three years by vet Dr. Mike Toft and his team.
Of course dehorning these creatures is no small task. Vets climb into a helicopter and use a dart gun to first immobilize the animals and outfit them with a blindfold and foam earmuffs to reduce stress levels (they’re awake the whole time). They then remove as much horn as possible, cutting as much as three finger widths from the base and trimming the remainder with an angular grinder to get about two more kilograms off. It’s an expensive procedure: dehorning one rhino, although comparable to trimming your nails, is estimated to cost more than $1,000 Canadian. It’s also a short-term solution since horns grow back, so the process must be repeated every 18-24 months. Meanwhile, Toft explains to The Guardian that dehorning selected bulls in one area isn’t an option either, because it would put some animals at a disadvantage against fellow rhinos whose horns remain intact.
“This is not something we want to do. It’s expensive and invasive but we believe it is a necessary evil,” Galliers said.
So what’s next, detusking elephants?
Probably not, Toft tells the publication, since tusks are partially hollow and they have sensitive roots and nerves that would hurt the animals if removed. And unlike rhino horns, which aren’t completely necessary for survival, elephant tusks are essential because they help the animals strip tree bark and dig up food.
Back to the drawing board on that one, we suppose. Or, poachers could finally give up the game once and for all.
Sadly, we don’t see that one that happening anytime soon.