Back in 2016, while I was doing my research on rhino behaviour, I had the opportunity to take part in a dehorning. How dehorning affects rhino social behaviour was one of the focal points of the research. It was a big day and one hell of an experience.
(Photo credit: Rachael Leeman - Instagram: rachyleeman)
On the day itself I strapped a faux-pro to my head and handed my video camera to a volunteer. Two more video cameras were in use by some members of an Earthwatch expedition. Footage was also filmed from the air using a drone. I later compiled all this footage and produced the following film.
It has now passed 230,000 views and is one of the most watched rhino dehorning videos on YouTube. Predictably the comments thread became very polarised. After trying to respond to most of them, I thought I'd write this piece to give a little more context to dehorning.
An example of some negative comments towards the dehorning video.
I can understand why dehorning may seem cruel to some people who don’t understand the full situation. Rhinos are iconic for their horns which give them that unique pre-historic look. Seeing it removed is upsetting at first and just feels like the wrong thing to do. Alas the poaching situation has become so bad that many rhino owners are resorting to this drastic measure. With rhino horn worth more than gold poachers will go to any length to acquire it. The primary reason for dehorning is to reduce the poaching risk to rhinos. Poachers are less likely to risk their lives for a smaller reward. For more information see the links at the bottom of this post.
Back in 2014 the reserve was hit by poachers and ended up losing four rhinos. The savagery and cruelty of the act nearly broke those people who dedicate their lives to rhino conservation. There was even talk of selling off the rhino herd and leading normal lives once again. Dehorning was the only option if they wanted to keep their rhinos.
For those who’ve never been to Africa and spent time on reserves like this, it is hard to comprehend how the poaching has taken over the lives of those who protect rhinos. The threat of poaching is constant, heightened every month as the moon fills up. Patrols must be done 24 hours a day. Every incident is investigated. Every human near the perimeter treated as suspicious. Staff cannot be trusted. Death threats are received. Average night’s sleep is 4 hours. Stress-related illnesses are common. Life is lived constantly on the edge.
Although the day of the dehorning went remarkably well, the lead up to it was fraught with stress, anticipation and worry for the managers of the reserve. The event was kept secret until the last minute. If word gets out to the poaching syndicates that dehorning is about to happen, then the reserve could get targeted. Unfortunately it is estimated that 90% of rhino poaching involve insider information and involvement. There is so much money in rhino poaching that corruption has spread to all levels. On the day itself security was tight, with armed guards securing the perimeter of each dehorning.
During the dehorning the welfare of the rhinos comes first. Being keratin (the same as our fingernails), the horn is removed painlessly. The helicopter pilot and team of veterinarians involved were outstanding professionals, themselves passionate rhino conservationists. Their skill and efficiency on the day resulted in it going exceptionally smoothly. The rhinos are lucky to have such dedicated individuals on their side.
A drugged rhino being herded by the helicopter (Photo credit: Rachael Leeman).
The vets attaching a blindfold to a drugged rhino (Photo credit: Rachael Leeman).
Eight rhinos were dehorned the day this video was filmed. The whole operation took around three hours and was done by 11am. After lunch I went out into field and located four of those rhinos. I was fully expecting them to be a bit rattled by the morning’s events – confused, vigilant, wary at having undergone such a procedure. To my surprise I found the four of them calmly grazing together as if nothing had happened. I stayed with the group for about three hours recording data, frankly in shock that they seemed to have no recollection of what had happened. Maybe the anaesthetic had given them a short-term dose of memory loss? There has yet to be any research showing negative impacts of dehorning on rhino behaviour. Dehorned rhinos live normal rhino lives. They graze all day, they socialise, they fight for dominance, males impregnate females, the females give birth to healthy calves.
The rhinos calmly grazing a few hours after being dehorned.
Bar humans, the biggest threat to rhinos are other rhinos. Black rhinos are notoriously dangerous towards each other, with that species having the highest rate of intra-species mortality (they kill each other the most) of any mammal. Reducing the threat to rhinos from other rhinos is an unintended benefit of cutting their horns down. As long as all the rhinos on a reserve are dehorned then there is no unfair advantage. The other main threat to rhinos are lions and spotted hyenas which have been known to predate rhino calves. Many reserves do not have these predators (including this one), so this is not an issue.
The horn being airlifted to a secure vault under armed guard.
Once the horns are off the question is raised about what to do with them. In the case of this reserve, like all others, there is only one choice: pay a fortune per month to lock the horn in a secure vault. They are not allowed to destroy it or sell it. To keep it on a reserve, or at someone’s home, is to invite armed robbery or worse. Poachers will torture and kill to steal horns. Dehorning in the current climate of banned trade is economically unsustainable. Even keeping rhinos with intact horns is unsustainable. The security costs alone result in them being a financial liability. To trade or not to trade? That is a question I’m going to leave for another article.
Again, I can understand why people become upset by watching this video. To see a rhino disposed of its iconic horn may seem wrong, but until you’ve experienced what it is like on the frontline, you should not be so quick to judge. For now dehorning is the only option many reserves have if they want to keep their rhinos alive. A desperate situation calls for desperate measures. Dehorning is done to protect rhinos, and those who are their custodians. If getting rid of the horn means saving the rhino, then so be it. For all the bad people who want kill rhinos for their horn, there are far more good people dedicated to protecting them. That at least gives me hope!
For further information see this article about dehorning in Zimbabwe: http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/136/1366424627.pdf
And this report by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) for the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA): http://www.rhinoresourcecenter.com/pdf_files/134/1342739407.pdf