Horn toxin infusions sound deadly but actually prevent rhino poaching and could help save what’s left of the dwindling species.

Most rhino conservation methods involve some form of horn devaluation, which serves the sole purpose of making rhino poaching less appealing. While private reserves were previously de-horning their rhinos, toxin infusions are favored due to the negative behavioral and physiological effects observed in rhinos after de-horning.

The infusion of toxins and dye into rhino horns in the field is one of the newest and most fascinating methods of horn devaluation. This method is highlighted by the Rhino Rescue Project, an organization “to offer a sustainable, cost effective defensive strategy to protect rhinos in South Africa and elsewhere from poaching.”

The Rhino Rescue Project has developed a highly effective procedure utilizing a compound of dye and ectoparasiticides that is injected into the horn, leaving it valueless for medicinal or ornamental use. The treated animals undergo sedation but are otherwise unharmed by the process and their horns remain devalued for three to four years at a time.

Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation is a prominent conservation organization committed to Ethical Conservation, and ensuring that practical assistance directly reaches the wildlife most in need.

The Foundation fully supports the process of rhino horn infusion as an alternative to de-horning and have assisted the Rhino Rescue Project in several of these infusion procedures.

Image: WHWF/Rhino Rescue

Founder and Director Paul Oxton explained to Roaring Earth, “De-horning has significant adverse effects on the behavior and even fertility of the animals. A rhino bull that was dominant and strong became increasingly lethargic and disinterested in the females [after de-horning]. His vitality returned once his horn was allowed to re-grow.”

The Foundation strongly favors horn toxin infusions as an effective substitute for de-horning, confirmed by their assistance in a number of these procedures on private reserves. In addition, WHWF explained that the toxin infusion process has been advanced to include a radioactive isotope, for easier detection by airport scanners.

Image: Rhino Rescue Project

Most conservation methods are faced with at least some opposition, and a study published under Sam Ferreira of South Africa National Parks argues that infusing and discoloring rhino horns is an ineffective technique in the field, especially when dealing with large rhino populations.

The literature presents the idea that infused horns themselves may become a poaching commodity and that anesthetizing the rhinos for the procedure is an unnecessary risk. The study also questions the effectiveness of dye dispersion throughout the horn structure.

Image: WHWF/Rhino Rescue

Although the research addresses legitimate concerns, according to the WHWF, “Horn devaluation methods would make the horn impossible to sell. With the current raging debate on whether trade should be legalized or not in South Africa, it makes sense that those who are in favor of trade would go to great lengths to discredit any procedure that would adversely affect the value of their product.”

“The risk with regards to anesthetizing the animals is a always a factor, but that needs to be done whether it gets de-horned or infused. In fact, infusion is much less traumatic to the rhino due to lower stimuli levels, and a less invasive procedure protocol. Instead of discrediting others, any and all efforts to curb poaching and protect rhinos should be actively supported.”

The application of this horn infusion technique has yet to be implemented and evaluated in a captive environment setting. Rhino horn poisoning may be an effective method for devaluing the horns of rhinos kept in zoos, as well as allow for closer analysis of the procedure and its effects on the animals. 

Oxton confirms, “Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation believes that zoos are the perfect arena for this treatment, as it could be turned into a massive public awareness campaign. It is a controlled, contained environment, and the education value should not be underestimated.”

Image: Rhino Rescue Project

Early last month poachers broke into the Thoiry Zoo in Paris and brutally killed a four-year-old rhino known as Vince, then removed its horn with a chainsaw. Although this unfortunate event is commonplace in the wild, this is the first documented incident in Europe of a live animal being killed while kept in captivity.

Zoos and conservationists must continue to work together to manage the impending ivory trade crisis. Rhino horn toxin infusion serves as an ideal tool for wide-scale implementation into both arenas as an effective conservation method to save the rhino species.

Watch the full video of the rhino horn infusion process below: