Pink Poison, the Surprising New Trend That’s Saving Rhinos

Rhino experts discuss a bright approach to keeping poachers away.

This photo has been digitally altered and is not an actual photo of a rhino at Sabi Sand. (Photo: Heinrich van den Berg/Getty)
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With over 200 rhinos already dead this year at the hands of poachers in South Africa and no signs of the slaughter slowing, some innovative rhinoceros lovers are stepping up their game.

Wildlife workers at Sabi Sand, a private game reserve at the southernmost tip of Kruger National Park, have injected a special cocktail into 100 rhino horns, turning them pink in an effort to deter illegal horn hunters.

In addition to discoloring the horn, the pink dye can also be detected by airport scanners, even when the horn is ground into a powder to make the high-priced traditional "medicines" that help fuel the killing of rhinos. The hope is to make transport of the illegal product that much riskier.

And that's not all. There's poison in the pink.

The indelible pink dye is mixed with parasiticides, usually used to control ticks. Though it's not meant to kill unscrupulous poachers and consumers who ingest the powder, it does have some pretty nasty side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ironically, these are some of the symptoms which rhino horn is incorrectly believed to alleviate. (Rhino horns contain nothing more than the same keratin found in fingernails.)

This comes at a time when the demand for traditional "medicines" is growing, says Tom Milliken, Rhino Program coordinator with Traffic, a leading wildlife trade-monitoring network. He says, "There is a whole new market that advertises rhino horn as a successful cancer treatment. It's being marketed in hospitals to the families of the critically ill. In addition, it has also become a trendy hangover remedy."

Dr. Susie Ellis, Executive Director of the International Rhino Foundation, has concerns about the ethical implications of intentionally poisoning something that may well be ingested, but hopes the project will draw attention to the dire situation.

"If this strategy discourages even one person from buying horn, I think it's marvelous," she says.

Milliken also understands the urgency to save every rhino possible, but isn't sold on this technique. "I'm not sure I fully buy the notion that this dye cocktail has been adequately tested and certified to be non-harmful to rhinos," he says. "The process of anesthetizing living rhinos to inject the cocktail is time consuming and entails risks; we know of rhinos in the private sector that have died in the process, including one at an event to specifically showcase this particular dye technique."

While the pink poison might deter Chinese consumers of traditional "medicine" market, a longtime threat, the market is changing. And for products that are not consumed, such as carvings and knife handles, pink horns can be bleached white again.

"Vietnam has recently emerged as the single largest market for rhino horn," says Dr. Ellis. "In Vietnam, it is now given as a high value gift item. Give a horn instead of a Rolex—it's worth its weight in gold."

Sabi Sand is putting up signs around the reserve advertising the poisoned horns. Whether or not this strategy works to protect their rhinos, it is unlikely to become a standard anti-poaching technique, as national parks in Africa simply don't have the resources to catch and treat all their rhinos every three to four years.

At the very least, it's one more strategy, along with dehorning and unmanned security drones, that could help save a species from a violent and pointless demise. 

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