Are Some Anti-Poaching Solutions Too Extreme?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | July 3rd, 2013 | 3 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

elephant poaching

Despite efforts such as anti-poaching patrols, increased arrests, relocation and unmanned security drones, it seems we’re losing the battle against wildlife poachers. Already in the first six months of 2013, for example, in South Africa alone, more than 200 rhinos have died at the hands of poachers.

Rhino horns are in demand because the desire for traditional “medicines” in Asia is growing. Products that contain rhino horn are touted as successful cancer treatments, and rhino horn is being marketed even in hospitals to the families of critically ill patients. It’s also being pitched as a trendy hangover remedy. In Vietnam, the country that has recently emerged as the single largest market for rhino horn, the item is considered a very high-value gift. That’s why some innovative wildlife conservationists have come up with a plan to make the horns of living rhinoceroses toxic.

But should we alter the makeup and appearance of wildlife, even if it is in an effort to save animals from poaching and extinction? 

Pink horns

Elephant face

Desperate to keep elephants safe from poachers, some conservation rangers are contemplating shortening their tusks. ©Eric Rock

Wildlife workers at the private Sabi Sand Reserve, located in South Africa adjacent to Kruger National Park, have experimented with injecting a toxin into the horns of living rhinos, turning the appendages pink in an effort to deter poachers. Veterinarian Dr. Charles van Niekerk of the Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve, situated northwest of Johannesburg, pioneered the process. According to the wildlife workers, initial results have shown that the toxin is safe for rhinos, effective against poaching and a very useful tool for private game reserves, which are seen as easy targets by poachers.

The indelible pink dye that is being put into the rhino horns is mixed with parasiticides, compounds usually used to control ticks. While the mixture is not meant to be lethal to poachers and consumers who ingest the rhino horn powder, it does cause some severe side effects, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

An added advantage to using the toxic dye is that not only does it discolor the horn, airport scanners can also detect it, even when the horn is ground into a powder. That makes transporting illegal rhino horn products that much riskier.

Shorter tusks

But rhinos aren’t the only animals whose appearance is being changed by humans in an effort to thwart poachers. In a desperate attempt to stop the killers of elephants, rangers from the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, a local landowner from the Borana ranch in Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service are contemplating a controversial operation, which, if successful, could be a future anti-poaching technique. They plan to saw off about a third of a bull elephant’s tusks in an effort to make him less attractive to poachers — and also to keep him from breaking fences so he’ll stay inside a protected area.


The high demand for rhinoceros horn to be used in traditional medicines is fueling the illegal trade. ©Mark Hickey

According to elephant expert Cynthia Moss on, however, shortening tusks is not a good idea for several reasons: anesthetized elephants sometimes get hurt or die; veterinarians have been killed trying to immobilize elephants; cutting a tusk is painful because of a nerve that runs down the length of the tusk; elephants need their tusks for feeding, digging, and defense; and tusks grow back when they are broken or cut off.

Will they work?

In the case of the rhinos, too, there are those who aren’t counting on the dye to be the ultimate anti-poaching solution. Some aren’t sure that the toxic mix has been adequately tested and certified to be nonharmful to the animals. Rhinos have been known to die in the process of being anesthetized, including one at an event to specifically showcase this particular dye technique. And for rhino horn products that are not consumed, such as carvings and knife handles, pink horns can be bleached white again.

But for on-the-ground conservation workers who are tired of seeing the results of the slaughter poachers perpetrate day after day, those rhinos are probably looking pretty in pink; or more accurately, poorer-looking for poachers. And that one bull elephant whose tusks may soon be shorter still carries six slugs in his body, the result of previous encounters with gunmen. For all we know, living with shorter tusks could be a price he’s willing to pay.

Do you think it’s ever justifiable to change the appearance or alter the physical characteristics of wild animals in order to protect them?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: Elephants use their tusks for foraging, digging, moving things out of the way, defense and as a display to attract females. ©Don Martinson


  1. Just want the elephants and rhinos to be safe! Maybe they need more military for security? I don’t know just want them to be safe. Maybe they need to be corralled in an area where they are safe and can be watched? Just want them to be safe! Pray, Pray, Pray for their safety! OR let them ALL be destroyed then everyone will not have them anymore!!! I grieve when they are slaughtered, and I cry when I see their faces hacked off while alive and left to suffer. I would shoot a poison arrow to every poacher if I could. A tusk for a tusk and a horn for a horn! Thank you

    Alice Hudman | July 9th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Well as long as there is market for those horns and ivory and the people living aroung protected areas are ignorant or do not see the economical and environmental benefits, the conservationists are running a losing battle. In most instances the people meant to protect these animals are in contact with the poachers and we who value the existence of these animals hardly have the immediate resources to stem the practice. The war against drug trafficking has been going on for so long , but the governments have failed to stop it.Why? The drug loads, dealers couriers have a network that ihas ready cash, no strings as long as you deliver. The bottom line in the conservation programs should be to involve the locals who monitor, partake in the poaching and they are aware of who is who in this business. Are governments and its representatives on the ground ready to take the war to the bitter end?????????////

    Roni | July 17th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. In situations such as this, it’s the economics that are the driving force. As long as there is a demand, someone will find a way to supply it. And there is no easy answer for an issue this complex. I admire the ingenuity even with the risk involved, but see that the effects are probably not worth the price that could be paid. In this particular instance, I would have to say the pros don’t outweigh the cons far enough to justify altering the appearance of elephants and rhinos. As Roni pointed out, and I have to agree, the locals need to be involved in any conservation endeavor. If they have an investment in it, usually something that makes it more profitable than poaching and would help feed their families, clothe their children, etc, then they will be more inspired to aid in the prevention. Conservation efforts that fail to account for the human element are doomed to fail.

    Amy | August 8th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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