Spoiling a good story

2014-06-10 00:00

THE brutal and needless slaughter of our rhinos by greedy syndicates that take advantage of the naive traditional belief that rhino horn is a “magic cure” for all sorts of ailments fills me with abhorrence.

As a passionate lover of South Africa’s wildlife, I am in favour of grasping at any straw that might help save this country’s rhino population from extinction.

Last year, 1 004 rhinos were killed by poachers, according to the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA). To date this year, the latest statistics show that at least 376 rhinos have been slain.

I, therefore, find it quite incomprehensible that a group of scientists working in conservation circles is reportedly preparing to publish a paper in July that is going to denounce experiments that are being carried out in several private and state-run game reserves where the horns of rhinos have been infused with a mixture of toxic chemicals and dye in the hope that this might deter poaching.

The Rhino Rescue Project, which spearheaded the trials, said the poison is injected into the base of the horn and spreads through the keratin protein that makes up the horn, which then becomes extremely toxic.

The dye is designed to warn would-be poachers and users of rhino horn that it is not safe for human consumption.

It was reported in The Witness on May 13 that the soon-to-be published paper, titled “Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?”, concludes that the treatment is “useless” and suggests conservationists should not use the technique to counteract the poaching threat.

Co-author of the study Sam Ferreira, a large mammal ecologist at the Kruger National Park, has been quoted as saying that the effectiveness of the horn infusion has been questioned by experts for a long time, but that scientists did not voice concerns in order that game sanctuaries can “benefit from the bluff”.

So why raise red flags now?

Quite frankly, as a layperson, my response is, what does it matter if science does not support the contention that the infusion renders the horn “unuseable”, as long as the poachers or the end users themselves believe it and are put off killing rhinos with treated horns?

Let the experiment run its course. Give it enough time for a proper evaluation to be done as to whether or not the presence of the toxin has had any effect on deterring poaching.

The belief that it cures cancer or works as an aphrodisiac by those who would buy and ingest the horn in the Far East and Asia are also not beliefs that have any basis in scientific fact.

Quite the contrary.

Rhino horn is made up of keratin and hair. It is a scientifically proven fact that it has no more medicinal qualities than human nails have.

South Africa has a history of wildlife crimes that are committed daily based on misconceptions spread by traditional beliefs that have no basis whatsoever in fact.

Body parts of many endangered species of mammals, birds, reptiles and marine life are commonly found in traditional medicine markets.

These include the Cape pangolin, African rock python, honey badger, crocodile, hippo, giraffe, vervet money and the feathers of owls and critically endangered vultures.

Vulture poisoning is particularly prevalent in KwaZulu-Natal, where the body parts are sought after for the muthi trade. Leopards, cheetahs and serval are hunted for their skins.

If the end users are deterred from buying the rhino horn because it has been treated with a toxic substance, it might indeed save at least some of our rhinos from the poachers’ bullets or dart guns, as the case may be.

If the procedure saves the life of even one rhino, it is to be applauded.

Only in April this year, the CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Dr Bandile Mkhize, was quoted in the media saying plans were afoot to inject the poison and dye into the horns of rhinos in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve because it has proved so successful in Tembe Elephant Park. According to him, not one rhino had been poached at Tembe following the procedure. This might turn out to be coincidence, but at this stage the horn infusion is admittedly still in an experimental phase.

In my humble opinion, this is one time the scientists should not let the “alleged facts” spoil a good story.

• Ingrid Oellermann is the court reporter at The Witness.

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