Turning rhino horns pink could disrupt demand

16th September, 2013 by Koray Yilmaz

An indelible dye offers an alternative to dehorning in efforts to save the rhino.

Pink could be the colour to ward off poachers, thanks to a new treatment. The Rhino Rescue Project is injecting an indelible pink dye containing parasiticides into the horns of rhinos to deter poachers and disrupt demand.

Ed and Lorinda Hern, founders of the Rhino Rescue Project (RRP), along with veterinarian Charles van Niekerk, pioneered the new treatment in response to the recent surge in poaching of African rhino horn. It lasts for four years until the horn grows out. The dye, which is not visible from the outside, is similar to that used to stain banknotes and shows up on x-ray scanners at airports.

The ectoparasiticide compound in the dye protects the rhino from parasites and has no negative side effects; however, it is toxic to humans, and so intended to disrupt markets procuring rhino horn for human consumption, including medicinal purposes. Crucially, poachers and buyers can easily recognise horn that has been contaminated, as the dye is both impossible to remove and immediately visible when the horn is cut open or ground to powder. Conspicuous signs are posted in areas where rhinos’ horns have been treated, to alert and discourage poachers.

Implementation involves drilling a hole into the horn of a tranquilised rhino, through which bright pink dye is pumped alongside an ectoparasiticide compound.

A tracking device is usually inserted while the procedure is being carried out, and a DNA sample is also harvested and added to the national rhino database. This information can then be used to trace the origin of poached horn that has been seized by authorities.

Despite its success, the practicality of the project has been criticised. “Finding rhino and darting them is time-consuming, extremely costly, and carries inherent risks”, says Tom Milliken, rhino programme coordinator for TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network. But compared with the alternative of dehorning – not only stressful and expensive, but also bad for a rhino’s health and social behaviour – this risk seems relatively justified. Moreover, dehorned rhinos are often still poached for the base of their horns, and many game reserves reliant on tourism are wary of the economic impact of dehorning rhinos.

The procedure has proved to be extremely effective for the hundreds of rhinos treated, and has been rolled out to reserves across South Africa, most recently to Sabi Sand and Dinokeng game reserves. These reserves pay up to £1,000 per rhino for the treatment. Insurance broking giant Aon have already begun to offer cover for treated rhinos against the risk of poaching.

The next major task for the project is raising awareness of the dye in East Asian markets. If successful, this would cut demand for rhino horn at its source. – Koray Yilmaz

Photo credit: Rhino Rescue Project

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