‘n Boer maak ‘n plan

As poaching has threatened almost one rhino a day this year alone, South African farmers have resorted to desperate measures. With this in mind, Abré J Steyn decides to revisit the idea of horn farming.

In the story “Rhino Wars”
(5 December 2008 issue), I warned that reason wouldn’t stop the oriental demand for rhino horn, which has persisted for thousands of years. And, that if we don’t do something more proactive, poaching would escalate to such an extent that “this magnificent animal will become extinct, as sure as there is a sun in the sky”.

I suggested that we start thinking of farming a small percentage of our white rhinos for their horns, unaware that the renowned wildlife veterinarian Dr. Hym Ebedes had already advocated it at a symposium in 1998. These legal horns, the tips of which could be periodically sawn off with minimum harm to the animals, could then be supplied at a lower price to the Asian market to reduce poaching. My suggestion received mixed reaction, but my prediction proved to be correct.This year alone, almost one rhino a day has fallen prey to poachers on game farms and reserves across the country.

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Modestly equipped game guards are outgunned by highly organised poaching syndicates using helicopters, automatic rifles and sophisticated night-viewing equipment to spot a rhino 4km away. This year’s economic loss is approaching the R100 million mark and, if not checked, poaching will threaten the last viable black and white rhino populations on the planet. Official estimates from the World Wildlife Foundation indicate that all rhino can be extinct within a decade.But now something startling has happened, if you can believe the internet.

Poisoned goods It’s rumoured that according to the Bangkok Star of 18 August 2010 – the existence of which I could not establish – the first “Poisoned Rhino Horn Funeral” recently took place in Thailand, after a local man ingested powdered rhino horn bought on the open market in Bangkok. The source of the allegedly poisoned horn is still unverified but is suspected to be from a private game farm somewhere in Southern Africa, where it was apparently purposely contaminated. 

Officials in Thailand are allegedly frantic to identify the source of the powdered horn, as it is sold in miniscule amounts and they have no idea how much has already been distributed throughout Bangkok. Local hospitals are said to be on standby for an unprecedented influx of new cases. Meanwhile it’s alleged that an anonymous game farmer from North West Province apparently admitted to using the poison in the horns of four of his rhino.

Apparently one of them was subsequently slaughtered and dehorned during the last week of July. He was also allegedly aware of the recent slaughter of at least another five contaminated rhinos in the North West Province alone. Several months after treatment, reportedly, his remaining animals still showed no side-effects.I could not verify whether the rumour was true, or just a hoax, but that’s immaterial, as the internet has for the last two months been buzzing about it and both CNN and Skynews have reported on it. All you need is a clear world-wide Eskom-like message: “You touch, you die …”

Hoax – or darn good idea?
An internationally famous wildlife veterinarian I consulted confirmed that rhino horn is inert and, provided it’s not injected too deeply, the poison should be harmless to the animals, although probably fatal to anyone ingesting it.However, I have verified that Ed Hern, owner of the Lion and Rhino Park outside Johannesburg, is doing tests, in conjunction with a team of vets and scientists, to determine whether poisoning horns could have any harmful effect on the animals.

I prefer not to be drawn too deeply into the morals of the farmer’s alleged action, but game farmers and game reserve managers can’t be blamed for being determined to stop the escalating avalanche of rhino poaching. If anyone foolishly ingests horn from free-roaming rhino, after ample and clear warning was given that they’re all lethally contaminated, it could be suicide and not murder, as some people believe. I think it’s a marvelous idea, especially if combined with another strategy – horn-farming.

There are presently about 16 000 white rhino and 1 400 black rhino in South Africa. The average white rhino carries about 5kg of horn. Although there is no legal trade in rhino horn, the street value in China is said to be as high as US 000/kg – around 1,5 times the price of gold. This means the average adult dead rhino’s horns – basically stolen – can sell for over R2 million. No wonder Vietnamese ‘trophy hunters’ are prepared to pay US 000/kg for horns taken on hunts in South Africa with a smile.

They probably at least treble their money by the time the horn gets to the wholesale markets of the Far East. A white rhino produces on average 0,8kg of horn annually (bulls about 1kg and cows 0,6kg). This means on average R300 000 worth of horn annually for an insatiable market. If you can control this market, rhino horn is a goldmine which, unlike mineral deposits, will never dry up. The time is now ripe to insist that we look at the “horn farming” suggestion again.

Now it’s possible
There used to be one big flaw in the plan – why would corrupt middlemen buy rhino horn if they could simply steal it? But now the farmers’ action-plan has brought a new dimension to the rhino war, which could give us control over the market and largely eliminate the rampant poaching and smuggling. If a percentage of white rhino were intensively farmed and their horns periodically harvested under strict security, while the horns of free-roaming rhinos were increasingly contaminated with a lethal toxin, why would dealers risk buying horn from a poacher or smuggling middleman if they could buy “clean” harvested horn from a legal source?

A legal trade organisation has to be established to handle the trade, guarantee safe horn, build partnerships with the Chinese and encourage lawmakers and enforcers to, for public safety, close down the illegal trade that has its origins in poaching and slaughtering. This will stop the poachers, swiftly and suddenly ending the atrocities. In an upcoming issue, we’ll look at how this could work.

Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail at
[email protected].