The discussion around rhino conservation is plagued by an abundance of passion and a shortage of knowledge. A solid understanding of the biology and facts involved is needed before we can all engage in an appropriately thoughtful conversation.
Conservationists must trim the horns on healthy rhino on a regular basis.
A rhino’s horn exists for only one purpose. It is a weapon. And since the rhino’s prodigious size protects it from predation in the wild, that weapon is deployed almost exclusively to kill other rhino. In fact, rhino kill each other more commonly than any other African mammal kills its own. This has nothing to do with whether the animal is living in Kruger, Hluhluwe, or on a private reserve. Aggression towards other rhino is intrinsic to the species. Their habit of killing each other may be natural, but it defeats the purpose of our conservation efforts.
Poaching is the other obvious enemy of our efforts, and trimming diminishes (but does not eliminate) the incentive others might see to murder the animals we protect. Thus, horn trimming has become standard practice as we attempt to grow rhino population numbers as quickly as possible.
Trimming is painless and harmless.
By law, rhino horn trimming may only be done by a licensed wildlife veterinarian, and only under appropriate sedation. The base of the horn is ‘live’ tissue, with blood supply and nerves. But the growth beyond that base is ‘dead’ tissue, with neither blood supply nor nerves. Only this ‘dead’ portion is trimmed.
Rhino feel no more pain from trimming than humans feel from a haircut. And significant research has demonstrated that the stress of being darted is neither serious nor lasting.
The horn grows back quickly, constantly, and repeatedly.
It can take as little as three years for a rhino horn to grow back to full size. Rhino live, on average, for 45 years. Thus, the cycle of trimming and regrowth must be repeated roughly a dozen times over the course of an animal’s life to ensure the safety of the other rhino on the reserve.
The practice of trimming has left us with a massive stockpile of horn that is currently rotting in storage.
Private rhino owners in South Africa have stockpiles estimated at roughly 20 tonnes of horn. Private conservationists in the rest of the SADC region are believed to hold an additional tonne between them.
Detailed knowledge of the stockpiles maintained by governments is tightly held, leaving those of us in the private conservation space to attempt educated guesses as to how much horn is in government hands. In South Africa, we estimate approximately 50-60 tonnes of horn are held by government. And we believe another 10-15 tonnes are held by other SADC governments.
We produce far more horn each year than the poachers send to Asia.
Poaching delivers roughly 5 tonnes of horn to Asian markets every year.
Trimming an adult bull can produce more than 2kg of horn each year, but a safer rule of thumb is that an average rhino produces 1kg per year. With 10,000 rhinos being trimmed each year on private South African reserves, and another 1,000 privately held animals in Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, we can count on 11,00 kilograms of horn from private reserves.
Across SADC, almost all government reserves are now also trimming horn. South Africa can be expected to generate roughly 2,000 kgs in this manner, and the rest of SADC can contribute a further 3,000 kgs.
Thus, annual production of horn from trimming of healthy happy rhino is calculated at approximately 16-17 tonnes, which is more than 3x the supply poachers are producing through their slaughter.
When one considers the 80-90 tonnes of horn already in storage across the region, it is clear that we have the capacity to swamp the market for horn, without losing or harming a single animal.
The rhino on private reserves (a.k.a. Captive Breeding Operations) are just as ‘wild’ and ‘natural’ as rhino in Kruger.
The only significant difference between most rhino in private hands and rhino on a state reserve is the ownership status. Private reserves are typically massive in scale – usually thousands of hectares, allowing rhino to roam as nature intended, on land that has been taken from destructive and intensive agricultural practices and allowed to ‘re-wild’ with the reintroduction of much of the native biodiversity. The only thing that separates both state operated, and private rhino reserves from nature, is the extent to which rhino populations can be protected and maintained. The objective of these projects is to increase the numbers of rhino and safeguard them against extinction; resulting in faster growth of the rhino population than could be achieved in the unmanaged areas.
It is true that private reserves often provide more robust veterinary care, and invest more effort into providing supplemental food and water in times of drought. And it is also true that private reserves are more likely to shield their rhino young from predation. But all other aspects of an animal’s existence on privately owned land mirror the experience of their cousins on Kruger.
Detractors of private conservation sometimes make the claim that rhino on one or another private reserve are ‘domesticated’ or transformed in other ways that might differentiate them from ‘wild’ animals. Such a claim is scientifically impossible and deeply irresponsible. It took mankind 50,000 years to domesticate wolves. A few decades of existing in a lower-risk environment will do nothing to change the intrinsic nature of rhinos. It simply enhances our ability to keep them safe during this period of intense predation.
Now that we have the basic facts at hand,
let's examine each of the 14 most damaging misconceptions currently blocking the path to rhino security.