The South African poachers were only after the native rhinoceros for its horn in 2016, so the solution seemed simple. If the game park wardens could get the protuberance legally and safely removed, the rhino would be less of a target. But when a wildlife veterinarian team was called in and performed the operation, the head specialist saw something amazing inside the rhino’s horn. Could what he spotted have been a sign from Mother Nature for us all?
Rhinoceroses have many defining characteristics – they are big, powerful and majestic, but the thick-skinned beasts are mostly famous for their horns. As adults, rhinos have no natural predators, but regardless of this they are still a dying breed. And that sorry state of affairs is partly because some humans target the rhino for its most well-known feature.
Whether they are from Africa, India or Indonesia, all the world’s wild rhinoceroses are facing the very same threat. Poachers are increasing their efforts to secure rhino horns, despite the many preventative measures taken against the practice. Sadly, the problem is so bad that several breeds of the species are close to extinction.
In fact, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species classifies three breeds – the Javan, Sumatran and black rhino – as critically endangered. Indeed, the worldwide animal protection body knows of only one group of Javan rhinos left on the planet. And in January 2018, shocking poaching statistics emerged from the continent of Africa.
According to a report published by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, poachers killed some 1,028 rhinoceroses in that country in 2017. Although that death toll was an improvement over the previous year, it was still equivalent to three rhino deaths per day. But why are the massive mammals so sought after?
Firstly, although rhinos may seem big and tough, in reality they are predictable and easy targets for poachers. But the real issue is actually the huge demand for rhino horn. The fact is that a vast market for the material exists in Asia for use as an ingredient in traditional medical treatments.
Indeed, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine use rhino horn to treat a variety of maladies, including rheumatism and fevers. Nonetheless, in truth there is no scientifically acknowledged basis for the efficacy of rhino-horn remedies. Especially bearing in mind that the facial feature is made of a substance called keratin.
This structural protein makes up human hair and fingernails, and the rhino’s horn is composed of the same. So, while handy for hair, hooves and horns, keratin’s effectiveness as a medicine is questioned in the Western world. And while some Chinese medicine practitioners swear by the ingredient, an increasing number of them are now against its use. But it turns out that China is not even the main culprit in demand for the contraband.
That criminal accolade actually belongs to Vietnam, where rhino horn is considered a status symbol. Nevertheless, the feature has also gained popularity as a cure for many ailments, from hangovers right through to terminal diseases. As a consequence, the rising demand for the material is having a devastating effect on rhinoceros populations.
As a result, some African countries have brought in a de-horning strategy in an effort to prevent rhino poaching. While de-horning is a completely legal practice, some wildlife observers still disagree with its use. And this is partly because its success has proved to be variable.
Indeed, there have been instances where poachers have killed the de-horned rhinos regardless. It is unclear as to exactly why they would do this – perhaps so that they would not waste time in the future, unwittingly tracking the same rhinoceroses minus their prize. And then there is the fact that while rhino-horn stubs do not fetch as high a price as a full horn, they nevertheless still offer a relatively large profit.
On the other hand, when authorities couple de-horning with extra measures of conservation, the method can be successful. There have been multiple African examples where this dual process has proven effective. The actions have either reduced rhino poaching significantly, or prevented the crime completely.
With this in mind, rangers in Kragga Kamma Game Park, near Port Elizabeth in South Africa, decided to de-horn a male rhino who lived on their reserve. The news media captured the event on camera and a clip was uploaded to YouTube on May 26, 2016. And not only was the de-horning safe, legal and painless, it was also performed by total professionals.
To be more specific, a medical team led by renowned South African wildlife veterinarian specialist Dr. William Fowlds was called in to carry out the operation. First, they tranquilized the rhino to reduce stress and prevent the animal from thrashing around during the procedure. Then the vets tied desensitizing straps around its eyes and ears before the de-horning began.
Alarmingly, the video begins with Fowlds using a chainsaw to finish off removing what remains of the rhino’s horn. But it is important to state that, although the removal looks scary, the operation is completely painless. As previously mentioned, the horn is made of keratin, so only the very base – which is left untouched – possesses nerves.
Fowlds is actually very careful with his saw, and the vet ensures that the horn stub is smooth as he goes. The specialist frequently stops to rub the spot down before he continues sawing. A close up of the procedure reveals that the surgery at this point looks a lot like a woodworker sanding down a surface to make it flat.
As the conservationist from the Wilderness Foundation Africa saws, a fine dust of keratin drifts through the air. It also becomes easier to discern that the rhino in fact has two horns – a large front protuberance and smaller point behind it. In addition, we see that the horns have a darker patch of color at their center.
The footage goes on to reveal how Fowlds shapes the horns using another, smaller, automatic hand saw. Once the doctor has finished coming at the horns from one angle, he resumes work on the rhino from the other side. The veterinarian gets as close a cut as possible without hitting the root.
When Fowlds finishes off, he rubs the stub to make sure that the job has been done to his satisfaction. But as the specialist gives what remains of the horn a final appraisal, he notices something. Whatever it is, we see that it is significant enough for Fowlds to point it out to the rest of his team.
The camera now zooms in on the removed horn, and suddenly what the doctor has spotted becomes apparent. The dark patch at the center of the base is still present, but it has assumed a different appearance after the de-horning. Remarkably, it has formed the shape of a love heart – appropriate symbolism for the conservation of a struggling and much-loved species.