Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Toxic avenger: One man's desperate idea to save the rhinos--poison their horns


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

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

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