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?
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.
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.
According to elephant expert Cynthia Moss on bloodyivory.org, 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?
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