Horn infusion challenged

2014-05-13 00:00

LAST year Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife launched an anti-poaching project in Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve on the northern border of KwaZulu-Natal with Mozambique that saw chemicals and dye being injected into the horns of around 40 rhinos.

Horn infusion, which has also been employed as an anti-poaching strategy by several private game reserves, has been hailed as the magic bullet in the battle against rhino poaching. According to the Rhino Rescue Project, the creators of the horn infusion, it utilises “a compound made up of depot ectoparasiticides and indelible dye” which contaminates the horn and “renders it useless for ornamental or medicinal use”.

However, a paper titled “Are chemical horn infusions a poaching deterrent or an unnecessary deception?” soon to be published in Pachyderm, Journal of the African Elephant, African Rhino and Asian Rhino Specialist Groups, concludes that treatment is useless.

The paper is authored by Sam Ferreira, large mammal ecologist at the Kruger National Park, Markus Hofmeyr (head of Veterinary Wildlife Services, SANParks); Danie Pienaar, head of scientific services, KNP; and Dave Cooper, EKZN Wildlife veterinarian.

The paper, to be published in the July edition of Pachyderm, argues that “conservationists should not use this technique when dealing with the rhino poaching threat”.

Speaking to The Witness, Ferreira, lead author of the paper, said there is “damning evidence” regarding the claims made for the horn infusion — “that it makes the horn not useable is not true at all”.

Ferreira said that scientists and others had tended to keep quiet on the matter because of the “benefit of the bluff” but, he added “the bluff is fading now”.

One of the originators of the infusion method, Lorinda Hern, said that coming out against the method was “counter intuitive — it’s actually putting treated rhinos at risk. It’s regrettable. We are trying to keep rhinos alive.”

Hern is owner of the Rhino and Lion Reserve in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site west of Johannesburg. She said that following a poaching incident in May 2010 they wanted to protect their rhino but didn’t want to dehorn them. “So we looked at alternatives that would still make them unattractive targets to poachers”.

Out of this grew the anti-poaching initiative Rhino Rescue Project that saw Hern team up with veterinary scientist Charles van Niekerk. Van Niekerk was contacted for comment but referred The Witness to Hern, saying she was the spokesperson for the project.

Asked about the efficacy of the infusion method, Hern said, “We have always been quite clear this is experimental and is still in initial research phase; it’s never been done before.”

She said rhino horns have a four-year growth cycle and the first horns were treated via infusion in August and September 2010. “This year we will test those horns.”

She said between 250 and 300 rhinos had been treated, the majority in private reserves and around 40 in the EKZN Wildlife reserves.

The cost of the infusion varies according to the number of animals being treated. Hern said the treatment also came as part of a package, that can including micro-chipping, pregnancy testing and the insertion of tracking devices. The cost is estimated at around R6 500 per animal.

EKZN Wildlife was approached for comment on the issue last Tuesday. They had not responded by the time of going to press.

What the private owners and WESSA say

Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association (Proa), said that when the technique was introduced it was investigated by their board. “We had doubts that the infusion of the horn could perform to the promised level,” he said. “And would it achieve what it was promised to do?”

Jones said that even with high pressure infusion the chemical cannot infuse the high density fibre of a rhino horn, which is as hard “as a melamine table … No ways can it penetrate right through.

“The product does not meet the minimum specs as outlined in the sales literature,” Jones said. “It does not perform.”

Neither did the horn infusion deter poachers, he said. “Poachers are unselective, they don’t give a damn whether the horn is infused or not. If a rhino is in front of them they will shoot it.

“Whether the horn is for medicinal or ornamental use, they will find a use for it. We are not prepared to endorse this product.”

Speaking of the “deterrent value” of horn infusion, Chris Galliers, Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) Rhino Initiative co-ordinator, said he was not convinced there was “sufficient scientific evidence that it is making a significant difference”.

Galliers acknowledged fears that denouncing the method could be counter-productive but added that rhinos are still being poached and dehorned. “There is no feedback on how this method impacts on the market place. When it comes to jewellery and ornaments will it make a difference?”

Galliers said the horn itself was not always their “prime price driver”.

“It’s the pulpy base of the horn that is the real value — and the secretion that exudes from the horn has an even greater value. The rest is just dead horn.”

He said the time had come to investigate other alternatives. “This might well be a window of opportunity — we could come up with something better that might make a difference.”

Over 2 650 poached in last 6 years

The last six years have seen a dramatic increase in rhino poaching – 83 rhino were poached in 2008, last year the figure was 1 004. By April 31 this year, according to StopRhinoPoaching.com, 331 rhino had been killed.

Over 2 650 rhino have been poached in South Africa over the last six years. Today there are an estimated 18 900 white and 2 040 black rhinos left in South Africa, home to 74% of Africa’s remaining rhino population.

According to figures released by the Department of Environmental Affairs in mid-April, the Kruger National Park (KNP) continues to bear the brunt of rhino poaching, with 185 rhinos killed for their horns since January 1, 2014. “A total of 34 rhinos have been poached in Limpopo, 26 in North West and 25 in KwaZulu-Natal.”

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