Pioneering treatment for Balule rhinos

Photographs by Meka Ravenhill

HOEDSPRUIT - To win the war against rhino poaching you have to be innovative, have an open mind and be prepared to try new options. This is exactly what Mario Cesare, Warden of Olifants River Game Reserve (Balule Private Nature Reserve), did after hearing an inspiring presentation by Lorinda Hern on a new method of rhino horn infusion at a recent Rhino Revolution meeting. Lorinda, founder of the Rhino Rescue Project, had together with veterinary surgeon Charles van Niekerk developed a method to introduce a toxic compound (a depot ectoparasiticide) together with an indelible dye into the horn of a rhino as a new weapon in the fight.
  The deterrent effect on poaching is twofold, making the horn useless both for medical and ornamental purposes: the inside – but not surface – of the horn turns bright pink, and ingesting the toxic compound will have unpleasant but not lethal consequences. The aim is not to poison rhino horn consumers, but to prevent the rhino being killed in the first place. Once word gets around that rhinos on a reserve have had their horns treated, it should stop the killing because the horns become worthless to the poachers. The bright pink colour will give the game away immediately when the horn is cut off. The compound is also detectable by X-ray, which means that rhino horns will be picked up by airport scanners even when ground to a powder.
  The compound is legal, freely available and in general use on cattle, horses and sheep. Much research has been done to show that it has no harmful effect on the rhino or on other fauna and flora in the ecosystem; it is oxpecker-friendly and vulture-safe. The rhino actually benefits from improved health: although it is not normal to give parasiticide treatment in the wild, the animals get protection against parasites such as ticks as a bonus.
  The product is infused into the horn using a high pressure device, in a procedure overseen by a vet. At the same time, a DNA sample is taken for the national database, and the rhino is fitted with microchips and a radio tracking device. The treatment remains effective for about 3 – 4 years. The treatment is quick and inexpensive, with a total cost (including insurance) of about R11 000 per animal, with special offers available. By now, a total of about 200 rhinos have been treated and the procedure is becoming more of a routine.
  Olifants River Game Reserve took the lead in Balule PNR by making the decision to treat the rhinos there. They had already lost three this year, an increase on last year’s two for the whole year. By now, several capture and treatment operations have already taken place, and about two thirds of the adult rhinos on Balule have had their horns treated, with more planned for the near future.
  The horns of the Balule rhinos are of no value to poachers! They are bright pink on the inside and will make anyone that ingests even the tiniest bit of horn very ill.
  For more info on the treatment, please contact rhinorescueproject@gmail.com.

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