A Sickening Solution to the Slaughter of Rhinos

A conservation group is injecting poison into rhinoceros horns to deter buyers of poached animal parts.

(Photo: Bill Currie/Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Fair warning to anyone contemplating buying traditional Asian medicine made from endangered rhinoceros horns: That illegally poached rhino just might poison you.

With only 25,000 wild rhinos left in Africa, a conservation group is taking a radical step to stop the slaughter by poisoning rhino horns to deter poachers—and their customers.

The Rhino Rescue Project has been injecting the horns of wild rhinos with a toxic compound called ectoparasiticide. It’s supposedly safe for the animal but, when ingested by humans, can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, and even affect the nervous system, the group’s founder, Lorinda Hern told Public Radio International.

A sedated rhino's horn is infused with a chemical compound that won't harm the animal but can cause sickness to those who ingest it. (Photo: Facebook)


“The users of rhino horn do not care about killing the animal or the death of rangers and poachers in Africa,” Hern wrote on Rhino Rescue’s Facebook page. “The only way to stop them from consuming horn is to trigger health anxiety—the fear of ingesting contaminated horn.”

The thinking goes like this: The demand for rhino horns has increased as rumors have spread about its supposed medicinal properties. Take away the horn’s value, and you take away the reason to kill a rhino.

The group focuses on rhinos in small parks and wildlife reserves that want to protect rhinos from poachers and keep tourism dollars flowing. Each rhino must be tranquilized—the biggest risk to the animal through the whole process, the group claims—and injected with the chemical and a pink dye. The dye renders the horn inedible and noticeably tainted for those who purchase rhino horn for use in jewelry and household decorations.

Signs are posted to warn potential poachers of poisoned horns. The group estimates that more than 90 percent of poaching is based on insider information, so they rely on getting the word out about the horns both through media and word of mouth.

Hern told The Huffington Post that two reserves bordering Mozambique—a hotbed for poaching—have experienced no poaching since their rhinos were injected in September 2013. Both reserves had been averaging nine poaching incidents a month.

Still, the practice is not gaining traction among all conservationists. The South African National Parks Service has been critical of Rhino Rescue’s work, saying injections wouldn’t work in a large park like the 7,500-square-mile Kruger National Park.

“This strategy will never help in quelling rhino poaching in the park because we have so many rhino such that we can't even manage to capture them,” Kruger park spokesman William Mabasa said in a statement. "But I do think it will be a good thing for the individuals who own few rhinos.”

U.K.-based nonprofit Save the Rhino International cites a 2014 study from South African National Parks researchers that found the dye-infusion techniques used by Rhino Rescue did not permeate the horn but stayed only in the drilled area.