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Toxic avenger: One man’s desperate idea to save the rhinos–poison their horns

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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With rhinoceros poaching in Africa approaching an all-time high, one nature preserve owner has had enough. Ed Hern, owner of the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa, is experimenting with injecting cyanide into his rhinos’ horns. He believes the poison will not harm the rhinos, because there are no blood vessels in the horn to carry the poison the rest of the rhino’s body. But if anyone kills the animals and sells the horns for use in traditional Asian medicine, the end-consumer could pay the ultimate price.

“The aim would be to kill, or make seriously ill anyone who consumes the horn,” Hern told Sky News. He also hopes this could help disrupt the market for illegal rhino horns. “If someone in China eats it and gets violently sick, they are not going to buy it again,” he said.

Trade in rhino horns is illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), but that has not eliminated the market or opportunities for poachers and smugglers. Rhino horns are often used in traditional Asian medicine, which touts them as a cure for cancer and other diseases, and as aphrodisiacs. (Rhino horns are made of keratin, the same substance in human hair and fingernails, and there is no scientific foundation to support any of these supposed medicinal properties). A single rhino horn can fetch $70,000 or more on the black market. Prices like that have created a poaching frenzy, with more rhinos killed in South Africa so far this year than in all of 2009. The last adult rhino in South Africa’s Krugersdorp Game Reserve was killed in July, and Hern is now hand-raising the rhino’s orphaned calf at his private facility.

Whereas Hern’s frustration and willingness to take any chance to protect his rhinos can be understood, there are two major problems with his plan: First, obviously, is the moral component. “My primary concern would be that poisoning rhino horns with the stated desire of killing or injuring anyone subsequently ingesting it must be regarded as attempted murder,” Save the Rhino Director Cathy Dean said in a statement posted on the group’s Web site. (Dean does admit that there is “some validity to the idea,” although she suggests starting by poisoning any horns that are already in museums, government storage vaults and other collections.)

The other problem is that although most poached rhino horns go to Asia, some end up in the Middle East, where they are carved and used as ceremonial dagger holders called jambia, a symbol of pride in Yemeni men.

Poisoning the horns will not make a difference in those cases. Still, with several endangered rhinos being killed every week, and several species on the verge of disappearing, something needs to be done, and Hern’s idea is crazy enough to at least create some publicity for the problem. We’ll have to wait and see if it can do any good in the long run.

You can watch Sky News’s video report on this subject, and listen to the heartbreaking cries of orphaned baby rhinos, here.

Photo by Brandon Thomas via Flickr. Creative Commons Licensed

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  1. 1. cew0719 11:45 am 09/1/2010

    I say poison them! If they are stupid enough to think rhino horn is going to cure them, then that’s one less stupid person on the planet.

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  2. 2. dskan 11:54 am 09/1/2010

    It’s an interesting legality, what to do about someone who dies or is maimed doing something illegal.

    In parts of the US, you can be sued by a robber if you put mantraps in your house and the robber gets maimed during a break-and-enter.

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  3. 3. dude1818 11:54 am 09/1/2010

    We should make poaching a capital crime. Anyone caught selling rhino horns, elephant tusks, etc. illegally will be executed.

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  4. 4. dude1818 11:56 am 09/1/2010

    If they’re doing something illegal, all of their rights should be waived. Including the right to health.

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  5. 5. thedr9wningman 12:01 pm 09/1/2010

    Can’t we just grind up some hooves and fingernails and shape them into rhino horns and sell those on the black market?

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  6. 6. MCMalkemus 12:38 pm 09/1/2010

    I believe cyanide could be neutralized once the horn is harvested, and still sold to the Chinese medical market.

    A better solution would be to tranquilize the animal, and remove the horn surgically. Sure, this would interfere with their natural defense mechanisms, but it might actually prevent poaching.

    That said, once population in Africa reaches a critical mass, will any animal be safe from the dinner table? I doubt it.

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  7. 7. beef2eet 12:47 pm 09/1/2010

    Are there any other ways to destroy the horns value that would both mark it as poison and make it valueless. Perhaps holes drilled in conspicuous places or dyes.?
    How about an implanted transmitter to track poachers down?

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  8. 8. gunslingor 2:22 pm 09/1/2010

    MY DAD was doing this for many years on his land in africa.. Poochers still took the horns, people probably did die or at least got sick… good ridens.

    More people need to do it. didn’t hurt the rinos or elephants at all. I think they are getting the picture now, we haven’t seen any pooched corpses in a couple years now.

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  9. 9. rhinoguy 2:36 pm 09/1/2010

    I like the idea of rendering rhino horns unusable as a folk medicine, but, as has been mentioned, is there not some alternative to cyanide like an ipecac or other noxious solution that would make the use of the horn unpalitable to users and sellers? I do think, though, that poachers themselves need to be dealt with in a draconian way to discourage their activities once and for all.

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  10. 10. tharriss 2:36 pm 09/1/2010

    It is the same problem with everything.. .there are more ignorant (and yes, sometimes outright stupid) people, than the reverse… it is very difficult to stay ahead of the curve of destruction and chaos they cause on a global scale. While I pity them, I’m not sure it is ethically correct for them to expect me to protect their right to continued ignornant behavior at such a cost for everyone else.
    I can understand someone eating an endangered animal to avoid starvation, it is regrettable , but undertstandable. But people who kill these creatures for completely imaginary boosts to their health or virility deserve what they get. Given a choice, I’d prefer a solution that makes them painfully ill for a while to outright killing them, but in the absence of that option, they have to lie in the bed they have made for themselves.

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  11. 11. Elegia 3:48 pm 09/1/2010

    Obviously, there is a huge market for Viagra(R) in China & other countries where rhino horn is used in traditional medicines to increase virility. And possibly in Yemen as well, since clearly there is a symbolic component to having a knife sheath made out of this big erect horn. I will resist the obvious inference from this desperate need to wipe out a species in order to … well, you know.

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  12. 12. Laurie 3:57 pm 09/1/2010

    Put warning signs on all fencing, plus a skull and crossbones painted on all horns when they are treated should remove all responsibility. Isn’t that all that is necessary when an electric fence that could kill a trespasser is erected? This would be the same deal right?

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  13. 13. qj0n 5:12 pm 09/1/2010

    Maybe we can legalize rhinos breeding? In South Africa and other countries you can buy a hundred thousand hectares of savanna for a $100k, give a transmitter to every rhino (so you can localize them easily) and sell a horn and tusks of dead rhinos. It can be done by every national park, it’s completely harmless, but for some reason… export of horns is still illegal.

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  14. 14. peakflow 8:25 pm 09/1/2010

    He should just say he’s poisoned them, that way the first person that dies will do the work for him.

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  15. 15. makoureactor 2:36 am 09/2/2010

    This Wikipedia entry is relevant to this discussion

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  16. 16. SunGod 5:43 am 09/2/2010

    It’s a species war. Weren’t we all told that all is fair in love and war?

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  17. 17. 7:19 am 09/2/2010

    Poisoning the horns is really a great idea to save the endangered rhinos and it will not lead to any problems. It will be the right punishment for the end user who is dare to use an illegal product. Whether it is used for disease treatment or for making any handicrafts, nobody in this world have the rights for killing such an endangered species just for the artistic pleasure and personal benefits of some immature individuals.

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  18. 18. checkyourself 8:08 am 09/2/2010

    "stupid" ?? are you being serious? it is just culture and tradition. i’m sure there are things that you are doing for your health or otherwise that make no sense and are culturally "stupid". really think before you post.

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  19. 19. mikelist 8:59 am 09/2/2010

    i’m gonna bet that if that rumor is propagated, and a few rhinos visibly and obviously caught and had their horns assayed, (or any other reasonable pretext), i think that would suffice to discourage a lot of poaching, especially if it were "something the poachers could conceivably be hurt by".

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  20. 20. Grasshopper1 9:04 am 09/2/2010

    Poison them! It serves them right.

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  21. 21. shanayze 2:12 pm 09/2/2010

    I say go for it! If you’re stupid enough to buy and ingest rhino horns then you deserve to get ill or better yet die. People its called cohabitation with other animals on earth, not kill everything around us and rape earths resources until theres nothing left.

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  22. 22. shanayze 2:14 pm 09/2/2010

    Completely agree! Why are animals granted any less rights than humans? I say if we’re going around killing them then catch and kill the people doing it. Simple.

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  23. 23. jerryd 7:24 pm 09/2/2010

    I think staining them would be better as it gets both markets or stain and poison both Rhino’s and elephants horns/tusks.

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  24. 24. yarko 7:30 pm 09/2/2010

    …sort of like putting something undetected in oil refineries to make your car blow up. If you didn’t make the connection, it wouldn’t have the intended effect, but it would do harm.

    I do feel for his frustration, the situation. Too bad his approach isn’t likely to help any. *sigh*

    Now, if you could put some marker on the horns / skin of the rhinos that would be (like spy stuff) a tracer to the poacher, and you could actually effectively stop the poacher once found, that might be interesting. One person mentioned a locating electronics (could be quickly disabled).

    People believe what they believe – despite demand, you have to consider carefully the end consumers (just think of the heated political or religious debates – pick your place in the world). The real system problem is the surrounding culture that tolerates, or allows the poaching. Even if you spotted and caught a poacher but the system didn’t or couldn’t do anything effective, there’s something else in the "system" of it that needs addressing. Between demand, supplier, preserve agencies, and supply, there are multiple paths. In the U.S., bison were once endangered, and now are farm raised. Without getting into the values around this, it _is_ an effective strategy to prevent extinction (with it’s own consequences). What others (better than the one written about here) might there be?

    This seems fundamentally a human problem.

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  25. 25. dberkholz 5:23 pm 09/3/2010

    If poachers are somehow informed of the cyanide (signs on the fence), wouldn’t it be suicide, not murder?

    At most, poachers passing on cyanide-infused horns to someone else would be committing murder themselves.

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  26. 26. Hewlett 6:04 pm 09/3/2010

    It’s sad to think that education regarding the inefficacy of rhino horn won’t quench the alternative medicine market. Perhaps misinformation will work better than boobie traps and truth. Stain the horns, and spread the word that they contain poison and a spiritual curse!

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  27. 27. katy 9:48 am 09/4/2010

    They have suffered enough. Gunslinger says they have not seen slain corpses for a couple of years, then this should be done. Hurt or be hurt and, desperate times/desperate measures. And these animals have been hurt long and hard enough and are desperate to survive. As someone mentioned, a horn can be marked to show it was poisoned, however, I am not sure a tip-off would be good. They will only hunt any unmarked beast.

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  28. 28. kouroi 12:34 pm 09/4/2010

    I don’t think it can be cataloged as attempted murder. If I grow poisonous mushrooms in my backyard, advertise them as such and somebody comes and steals them and eats them and then dies, that is not murder.

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  29. 29. leggedfish 9:41 am 09/5/2010

    They should get unmanned drones to patrol the areas where the animals live. They wouldn’t disturb the wildlife any more than a large bird would. These would deter poachers, since they wouldn’t be sure if they were weaponized or not, and at the very least the drone could photograph them and follow them until a human patrol could catch the poachers. Also, signs and a practice of shooting poachers on sight would also be a good deterrent.

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  30. 30. doug l 11:09 am 09/6/2010

    Raise genetically modified Rhinos on farms and flood the market with horn.

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  31. 31. Qwertyuio 10:54 am 09/8/2010

    All large wild animals are doomed. Human population is growing uncontrollable, so eventually every one of them
    will be eaten, unable to reproduce or somehow destroyed.

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  32. 32. bucketofsquid 5:34 pm 09/8/2010

    A great way to fulfill the need to solve two problems at once would be to harvest the horns of rhinos that die naturally and fill them with radio active waste. Then sell them on the black market. We get rid of unwanted radio active waste and we begin eradicating excess population on two continents. Each horn would do it’s job for years as the radiation continues to sterilize and kill.

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  33. 33. robert schmidt 10:21 pm 09/10/2010

    I have no sympathy for someone who destroys an endangered species to satisfy their irrational superstitions. Summary execution for anyone caught in a national park with a gun would be a good start. Putting contaminated preparations on the black market would be step towards drying up demand. Of course if our governments weren’t so quick to prostitute themselves to gain access to the Chinese market, then we could apply political pressure. Unfortunately, as one can see from the comments here, when the system stops working, the people begin to take things into their own hands.

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  34. 34. doug l 3:11 pm 09/11/2010

    The more we outlaw something the more people will want it and the more they will pay making it even harder to protect what’s left. Considering that the horn is just a kind of hair that grows on the rhino’s snout, why not figure out how to make that horn grow a whole lot more and harvest it without killing the animal and sell the horn product to raise money for increased habitat…that the one thing that’s sorely missing in other plans. How to make it worthwhile for those who live with wild rhinos or harvest the horn to stop the killing. Notions of retribution against some poor starving guy in the bush whose family needs what we all have in super abundance are bound to fail.

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  35. 35. eddiequest 7:42 pm 09/13/2010

    I used to stuff little popping caps into someone’s cigarettes when I was young, as a practical joke. Perhaps an explosive embedded in the horn, so that when it is cut off it would remove the arms of the poacher… Or maybe just a tracking device so that they could follow the movements thru the black market.

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  36. 36. doug l 8:15 pm 09/13/2010

    Imagine, for the sake of argument that rhino horn was free. Would you use it? Probably not. The major users are middle aged men afraid of their ebbing libidos and performance which they attribute to a superstitious understanding of human vitality and nature where in reality it probably more to smoking and drinking and thanks to modern medicine living long enough to actually experience old age and its infirmaties.
    Building up the stock of rhinos artificially and through a humane but captive husbandry program to make it abundant and legal might not even require that much and it would both remove the incentive to poach and increas the number of rhinos which might actually become a magnet for eco-tourism dollars. In the mean time people will become aware that rhino horn’s effectiveness is a sham and stop demanding it.

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  37. 37. gt 9:36 pm 09/13/2010

    I am in no way defending the idea of hunting an endangered species into existence, but the idea of poisoning Rhino horns is rather absurd. First off killing someone for committing a crime is no way of detering poachers. It is immoral to kill a person even if that person is hunting an endanger species. Secondly the poachers are selling these horns which means they themselves wouldnt be detered from acquiring them. Also, as stated in the article, the horns are frequently sent off to the middle east where they wouldnt ingest the poison therefore nullifying the desire effect. Security should be increased as well as punishment before poison-ingected horns should be the norm. Differences in cultures also result in this difference point of view on the legality of hunting rhino. All that this stunt would do would kill a few rhino horn customers and create a little publicity for Rhino endangerment awareness. An easier method would be to sell the horns of rhino that have already died, which would lower the desire to illegally hunt rhinos.

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  38. 38. JosephA92 1:19 am 09/23/2010

    Obviously the encroaching of these poachers on these animals will wipe out the species eventually, and no sufficient solution has yet been found to stop the poachers. Ed Hern has come up with a solution, one that would undoubtedly cause a stir amongst the poachers. The poisoning of the horns, as stated, would kill people in another part of the world, purchasing these illegal products. Some would say this is murder, but why would this be any more cruel than someone putting up electric fencing to protect their own property? In agreeance, with many who posted their thoughts on here, as long as the poachers were indeed warned of the new danger of taking the rhino’s horn via signs or any other evident means then it should be perfectly reasonable and within the reserve owner’s right to poison the horns in attempt to put a stop to poaching. This action will fulfill its purpose in affecting the black marketers, but it should also get the attention of other people around the world and become the catalyst to get them to either support what the reserve owner is doing or come up with a better solution. Eventually, the problem will be more affectively resolved than it would were nothing to be done differently about the problem.

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  39. 39. eflood91 8:46 am 09/23/2010

    Nature is supposedly the realm where lives are won and lost according to “survival of the fittest.” Rhinoceroses are born with horns that provide protection from the world’s dangers. They are prominent creatures on the grasslands, and few animals would choose to pick a fight with a rhinoceros. But what is a rhino to do when the single most important defense it has is the ultimate reason for its demise? Poisoning the horns of rhinos is a very fitting solution to the poaching problem in Africa. Rhinoceroses stand no chance against the countless types of armaments and machinery of poachers, so why don’t the men who care for the rhinos’ welfare give the animals a leg up in the world of nature? Poachers kill only for personal gain and think nothing of what they are destroying in the process. They deserve to face severe consequences for what the harm they are inflicting. Perhaps poisoning horns will open their eyes to the violence of poaching, or at the very least, the violence that could befall them if they continue to participate in it.

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  40. 40. doug l 10:27 am 09/23/2010

    Attempts at making rhino horn toxic as a way to save them are pipe dreams. There are so many reasons it just wont work as to make much discussion pointless.
    Education will work and the replacement in the people’s mind that modern pharmaceuticals are a more effective route for sexual dysfuntion where so much of this horn material ultimately ends up. Education takes time, particularly when age old superstitions about sexual performance are concerned. In the mean time, the rhino could be saved by an active program of selective breeding, cloning, and captive production oriented animal husbandry that harvests the horn, sells it and uses the profit to fund ecosystem protection, expansion and restoration, as well as educational efforts.

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  41. 41. zombielogic 6:13 pm 05/21/2012

    I disagree with any moral compunctions against doing this. It is illegal and immoral to use rhino horn in any way so anyone doing so has committed an atrocity. We can breed more Chinese, I think that’s a proven fact. Rhinos, not so much. Let’s get serious about this.

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