Desperate times call for desperate measures. For rhinoceroses, the last measure may be at hand. Subspecies in Africa and Southeast Asia are now extinct. Globally, there are only about 20,000 rhinos scattered among threatened enclaves in Africa and Southeast Asia. As the price of powdered rhino horn has soared to rival gold at $1,400 per once, poaching of the endangered species has exploded from just 17 killed in 2007 to more than 585 rhinos this year alone.
Now private ranchers in Africa, under siege by heavily armed poachers who are feeding a newly affluent Asian market for rhino horns, are taking matters into their own hands. Reserves in South Africa, the epicenter of the killing, are fighting poachers with arsenals ranging from ex-military guards recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan to a suite of new technologies including drones and poisons.
The Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa, has launched the Rhino Rescue Project in hopes that a "permanent solution is to eliminate the demand for rhino horn altogether." After considering injecting the horns with lethal cyanide (since many are eaten or ground up and inhaled for medicinal purposes), the reserve has hit upon a set of non-lethal means—a veterinary drug treatment, indelible dyes, tracking microchips, and DNA sampling—designed to prevent the killing, rather than relying on gun battles in the bush or arresting poachers after they do the killing (such as a Thai national recently sentenced to 40 years for arranging the illegal hunting of 26 rhinos, reports Yale Environment 360).
"We have developed what we believe to be one of, if not the only, proactive initiative to combat the scourge of rhino poaching," writes the Reserve on its website (representatives did not respond for comment). "Our mission is to provide a sustainable, cost-effective defensive strategy to protect rhinos in South Africa and elsewhere from poaching … there is no more time to waste."
The Reserve’s Rhino Poaching Project injects horns (which are composed of keratin, the same material in human fingernails and hair, as well as horse hooves) with a brightly colored, indelible dye similar to one used by banks to mark bills in case of robberies. A GPS microchip is then inserted to help track the horns. Finally, they add a non-lethal poison, a common veterinary anti-tick medicine that causes nausea and convulsions in humans but is harmless for treated rhinos, to deter anyone from grinding up the horns for traditional medicines. Then they’ve used conspicuous signs and the "bush telegraph" (word of mouth) is used to spread the word that the rhino horns are worthless to poachers. The anecdotal evidence, so far, has been good, claims the Reserve: "Not a single treated animal has been poached since administration of the treatment."
But some, such as Tom Milliken, Elephant and Rhino Program Leader with the wildlife trade–monitoring network TRAFFIC, question if the tactics are ethical. Besides Asia’s nouveau riche, most users of rhino horn are often desperately ill, and tricked into buying ineffective "cures," says Milliken in the magazine Conservation.
The Rhino Rescue Project argues it is "not out to poison the consumers. … The aim of the program is to prevent the rhinos being poached in the first place." In a world where a single horn may fetch as much as $1 million, preventing poaching means destroying the horn’s market value. Otherwise the program fails those without the resources to give each rhino an armed guard, says the project. "And hopefully by the time the initial treatment needs to be reapplied, a permanent solution will have been found."