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Rhinos dehorned – the last line of defence





9 September 2016


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The rhino is the second largest member of Africa’s Big Five. It is also best known for its horn, one of which is worth millions of rands on the black market. Because of this, the giant beast is targeted and killed by poachers – to such an extent that it could soon face extinction.

According to Dr Peter Rogers, a renowned wildlife veterinarian who is actively involved in the fight against rhino poaching, dehorning these animals is a necessary evil for the survival of the species.

‘Survival of the species’ is not a casual term used by the doctor either. Last year saw the poaching of 1 175 rhino within the borders of South Africa alone. To put that number into perspective: three rhino are captured, injured and likely killed for their horns each day.

The population numbers also tell a grim story since there are fewer than 25 000 combined white and black rhinos left roaming the African savannahs. Poaching estimates indicate that at the end of this year we will likely reflect back on 1 800 rhino which were killed for their horns with a sombre estimate of 2 153 for 2017.

If these estimates are anything to go by, rhino will be wiped off the African continent by 2030. This paints a very dark picture, and more conservation efforts are needed for the survival of these prehistoric animals.

As a result, Isuzu partnered with non-profit conservationists, Nkombe-Rhino to dehorn 24 white rhino at the Blue Canyon Conservancy near Hoedspruit. This daunting operation, however big, was just the start of conservational strides on the grand anti-poaching scale.

In addition to lending a financial hand, Isuzu also supplied a fleet of KB300 LX bakkies to perform duty as support vehicles in this ongoing fight.

Dehorning the rhino
Ready to fight the good fight, media members, some highly experienced rangers, a team of conservationists and a team of the best wildlife veterinarians SA has to offer gathered at a tented bush camp on an icy Lowveld morning. The mission was relatively straightforward: find the rhino, sedate them and amputate their horns without causing the animals any discomfort.

Dr Peter Rogers and his associate Janelle Goodrich were responsible for the wellbeing of the animals during the entire operation, with the team from Nkombe spearheading the ground team.

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These conservation warriors included rugby player Joe Pietersen, Tim Parker, Martin Meyer and Chris Prinsloo. Armed members of the Anti-poaching Unit (APU) were also present in the event that a potential poacher looked to make a quick buck by targeting the convoy transporting the rhino horns.

The ‘eye in the sky’ was a Robinson R44 helicopter, with the Doc on board who would find the rhino and dart them.

After the animal was darted, the ground team would engage in a hot pursuit, ensuring the animal didn’t sustain any injuries while drugged.

According to Doc Rogers, the white rhino, despite its gargantuan size, is highly susceptible to the tranquillizing concoction. Only a fraction of what would be adequate to sedate an average size Kudu bull is enough to sedate these massive animals, which can weigh up to 2.3 tonnes.

When darted, the charismatic rhino would kick up some dust clouds in a last- ditch attempt to stay afoot, confused by the noises surrounding it. In its groggy state, it would then be guided towards an acceptable location by rangers who would then prep it for its procedure by covering its eyes with a blanket.

Then the clock starts ticking – every second is crucial since the time a rhino will remain under the effects of the tranquilliser is dependent on a large number of variables. Oxygen is fed through the nostrils and the procedure commences.

The head of the APU, Tim Parker, would then carefully measure the horn with a measuring tape and mark the area where the horn would be amputated. This would usually be just a few centimetres above the nerve-endings to ensure the rhino experiences minimal discomfort.

The chainsaw is fired up with a loud clatter and the horn, consisting mainly of a hair-like material called keratin (which is also found in fingernails) is carefully sawn off. During the process, the rest of the ground team carefully monitors the rhino, calming it when needed and making sure that the procedure is smooth sailing.

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The rhino’s stompie is then polished over to eliminate sharp edges, whereafter Janelle Goodrich, associate to Dr Rogers, uses a grinder with a special blade to ensure that the surface is perfectly smooth.

This is an important step, as this prepares the surface for the antiseptic to follow. This brew serves a dual purpose as it disinfects the area where the horns are severed, while also serving as a marker to indicate which animals have already received treatment.

The horn is numbered and chipped, and is then shipped to a secure location.

A radical option
Dehorning a single rhino can take anywhere between 10–15 minutes after which the blanket is taken off the animal’s eyes. As soon as it regains consciousness it is able to stand up, but is still closely monitored, ensuring it is ready to go back into the wild.

This is also a costly affair since the price tag associated with performing a single dehorning can range anywhere between R7 000 to R10 000. This is also just a short-term solution since the process would have to be repeated every 18 to 24 months, thanks to the rapid growth rate of the horn, which can grow up to five centimetres a year.

Since the procedure doesn’t alter the behaviour of the rhino, it appears to be the only viable solution to save a species that is fast approaching critically endangered status. The slow reproduction rate of females is also worrying to conservationists, since females can only reproduce every 30 to 60 months. The calf will stay with its mother until the tender age of three, from when it will roam the savannah solo, so to speak.

Separating the rhino from its most treasured feature will also not guarantee its safety. According to the Doc, poachers hunting for rhino at night will fail to establish that the rhino has been dehorned, killing it ‘just in case.’ The conservation team also plans to erect signs outside the perimeter of the park indicating that its rhino population has been dehorned and eliminating any situation where a dehorned rhino will fall victim to a classic case of mistaken identity.

Get your rhino here, get your rhino horn here!
These prehistoric giants are killed and their most distinguished feature plundered and sold on the black market for around $60 000 (R963 000) per kilogram. The biggest markets for this illegal trade in rhino horn are Vietnam and China, where the horn is believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac, and hangover cure, despite research indicating that it has absolutely no medical benefit.

In the growing economy of Vietnam, rhino horns also serve as a symbol of wealth and status, according to savetherhino.org.

Since poaching kingpins rarely risk getting their hands dirty, they take advantage of members of poverty-stricken communities around game reserves and national parks. Recruiting these individuals proves to be lucrative for the leaders of the syndicates as they have an intricate knowledge of the area and usually the respective parks.

While dehorning in the name of conservation might be seen by some as barbaric and inhumane, the results speak for themself. Previous dehorning operations at the Blue Canyon Conservancy have seen a dramatic decline in rhino poaching. In certain Zimbabwean conservancies, dehorned rhinos even proved to have a 29% better chance of surviving than horned animals.

According to Tim Parker, it is better to have a rhino without a horn, alive and well, than a dead rhino, robbed of its horn.

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Isuzu – keeping it real
Isuzu, the main sponsor of the operation dedicated to saving SA’s rhino population, not only helped the rhino, but also everyone hoping to make a difference in the survival of these gentle giants.

In addition to covering the costs for plane tickets to Hoedspruit, the carmaker also supplied steaming hot dinners to everyone involved – and provided comfortable accommodation in the form of bush tents.

When the operation was concluded, members of the media were safely transported back to Johannesburg in a fleet of Isuzu KB300 LX models. All vehicles performed superbly without skipping a beat.


Text and photos: Deon van der Walt