Poison horns to save rhinos?

Helicopters, machine guns, bullet-proof vests, R250,000 night-vision binoculars, prescription tranquillisers, axes, saws... these are all tools of the grisly trade in rhino horns.
And one man is prepared to go to extreme lengths to stop it.

Ed Hern, owner of the Rhino and Lion Park near Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, believes poisoning the horns of rhinos will result in consumers of the product falling ill or dying and knock the demand for this illegal product hard. 

"We need to try poisoning the horns with something like cyanide so when someone uses it for medicine they will die. I have started testing with a vet," he said.

South African rhino owners are becoming increasingly desperate as the country is being targeted by high-tech rhino poaching syndicates, believed to be working with industry insiders, to feed the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China.

"What they are doing is illegal. We need to stop this once and for all."

Hern is at his wits end after recently accepting yet another orphaned rhino calf onto his farm after its mother was poached.

In the last six months at least 124 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, a vast increase on the 122 killed over the duration of 2009, according to SA National Parks.

Hern said with the help of a local vet he has been injecting small amounts of poison into the horn of one of his rhinos to see if it will have any adverse effects on the animal.

"The horn is made of hair, there is no blood flow through it and so far we have not seen any effects. But if someone used the horn as medicine they would get very sick or die.

"We're not waiting to see if the rhino dies. The signs we're looking for are loss of condition or if it stops eating. Then we would stop."

He would not say what poison they have used or reveal the vet's name.

"I have even consulted lawyers to see what would happen if we did this. They tell me I would get into a lot of trouble."

Faan Coetzee, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, says it would be a criminal offence to poison horns.

"If someone died you could be arrested for murder. We do not think this is a solution.

Japie Mostert, manager at the Krugersdorp game reserve where the last rhino was poached on July 14, leaving behind an orphaned nine-month-old calf, said all rhino breeders were getting desperate, but he was not ready to resort to that kind of action.

"All rhino breeders feel the same way [about that idea], but is it the right way?"

According to Coetzee the horn is a fundamental ingredient in traditional medicines in China and Vietnam, where "medicine is like religion to them".

Rhino horn has been extensively analysed and found to contain no medicinal properties. It is ground into a powder, added to liquids or sprinkled over food and is incorrectly believed to treat impotency, fever, pain, arthritis and even devil possession.

And demand for the product is closer to home than we think, according to the traditional Healers' Organisation for Africa (THO).

"Yes, rhino horns are used in impotency cases for sure, however, I am not sure who in South Africa from our healers use it," said the organisation's co-ordinator Phephsile Maseko.

"To curb the killings of rhinos the THO in 1997 started up a natural resources and biodiversity management programme where healers were trained on the importance of respecting such animals, and unfortunately we could not sustain the programme as we lacked funding."

Rhino breeders all agree that the legal route of stopping rhino poaching would be to step up security at all game parks, encourage vigilance from citizens, and boost law enforcement.

According to Coetzee: "We need better patrolling and the government needs to focus more on catching the syndicates, the top guys."

Said Dr David Mabunda, Sanparks chief executive officer:

"Poachers and their rich bosses sitting in air-conditioned luxury homes in the leafy suburbs of our metropolitan cities must know we are after them. We will hunt them in the bushes, in the cities, airports and internationally."

He asked that people report low-flying Robinson R44 helicopters with concealed registration numbers which are widely used in rhino poaching.

An angry Hern, who has adopted at least five orphaned rhino calves over the past few years, says: "If they try to poach my rhinos I will shoot them, these [poachers] will shoot you dead, and I will shoot a helicopter out of the sky if it is flying low over my farm at night." he said.

He pays around R30,000 to a private security company each month to sit on koppies on his farm and watch his rhinos. Every guard has night vision binoculars.

"But how do these compare to the kind of binoculars that these syndicates have, that can see a rhino at night from 4km away and cost a quarter-of-a-million rand? No game park can afford that."

One of the rhinos under Hern's watchful care is Vuma, the orphaned calf born at the Krugersdorp game reserve about 10 months ago.

He has been put in an enclosure with two other orphaned calves, but after three weeks at the park still jumps at the approach of any humans. He nervously follows his companions around, but refuses to feed from the bottle of formula milk offered to him. He lets out a high-pitched whine and his ears flick to and fro, listening to the sounds around him.

Three weeks ago the only sound in his world was that of his now-dead mother.

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