Toxic rhino horn treatment a thorny issue
Johannesburg - The environmental jury is out on whether treating a rhino horn with toxic substances is an effective method to curb poaching in South Africa.
"If it makes people sick, it will surely make animals sick," the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) said.
"It's a complex, ethical issue because it involves poisoning people," the Private Rhino Owners' Association (PROA) said.
"If they say it won't hurt the environment, they must be using a synthetic compound that hasn't been proven to be toxic to humans," replied the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies at the University of Pretoria, Onderstepoort.
On Wednesday, the Rhino Rescue Project announced it had treated a number of rhinos' horns with a mixture of ectoparasitacides [drugs which kill parasites living on the surface of the host].
The project treated animals at the Rhino and Lion Reserve in Kromdraai, north-west of Johannesburg, more than a year ago, claiming that no adverse behavioural or environmental effects were recorded.
The project's Lorinda Hern said the potion was not lethal to humans, but would cause unpleasant symptoms such as convulsions and headaches. The treatment, injected into the horns, was described as a cost-effective, long-lasting and immediate solution for private rhino owners seen as easy targets by poachers.
On Thursday, EWT's compliance and enforcement spokesperson Rynette Coetzee said the effect of the treatment on a whole population of rhinos was not clear.
"What if the rhinos use their horns to scratch themselves? The toxins may enter the bloodstream and have an effect. Every rhino is an individual with unique behaviour. Our main concern is that this treatment is not damaging rhino or other wildlife."
She said the potion's active ingredients would have to be legal and in line with both the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies Act, and the Hazardous Substances Act.
On Wednesday, Hern said she had sought "extensive legal opinion" on the treatment, a combination of legal chemicals.
Richard Burroughs, director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies, said on Thursday he could not give academic comment without knowing the exact components of the solution.
"However, it sounds like it may be synthetic pyrethroids which are used because they are environmentally friendly. We don't know the effect on humans and also what concentration will penetrate the rhino horn.
"It might be worthwhile, from a public relations point of view, to those who are reasonably informed. However, poachers are not informed and will still shoot rhinos."
He said it was the right of individual owners to treat their animals for protection, but did not see it becoming national policy.
Stockpiles of horns
PROA chairperson Pelham Jones was wary of commenting on a treatment that could inflict harm on people.
"We as an association have no firm position. We will certainly look at it... and welcome any legal initiative that is shown to be credible and measurable."
He said PROA supported the legalisation of the trade of horns as a solution.
"We would like to see the legitimate trade of horns from rhinos that have died from age, fighting or relocation.
"Farmers are sitting on huge stockpiles of horns... we can meet a short-term demand by releasing them and run an education campaign in the process."
Jones said a horn's status could be checked by DNA registration at Onderstepoort, opening up a process for possible criminal proceedings against those who had horns illegally.
"To create legislation allowing us to sell horns, waiting for a country that legislates horn buying, and waiting for approval by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species... could take up to six years."
Coetzee said she was against legalising the market, as this would fuel a demand that could not be met.
"We'll have those with money buy every horn they can get. Those who can't afford it will resort to poaching to get a horn."
Burroughs said legalising horn trade would stem the demand, and owners could de-horn large numbers of rhinos on their game farms in a sustainable way.
What was clear among the environmentalists was that the department of environmental affairs needed to regulate the issuing of permits for legal game hunting.
"The department has failed to implement stricter controls. We have asked for a centralised permit office that would police this issue," Jones said.
Coetzee said putting a moratorium on hunting would damage the tourism industry and target legitimate hunters wanting to enter the country.
"The sustainable and legal utilisation of wildlife [like hunting] is vital to the future of tourism in South Africa."
Since January 1, poachers killed more than 280 rhinos in South Africa. The local rhino population was around 18 800 white rhino and 2 200 black rhino.