It’s international Rhino day with many involved and committed organisations from across the globe bringing the on-going rhino poaching crisis to the fore. The fight against poaching remains real for our rangers, communities and other conservationists dedicated to saving this species. Greater awareness is needed about this continuing scourge, which in turn also highlights the critical work being done to help save this iconic species.
A large percentage of the flying operations conducted by our airwing consist of rhino de-horning projects, with most of the Private Nature Reserves embarking on mass de-horning operations. The SAWC air-wing has a big impact on these operations as an aerial observation platform, firstly spotting potential rhinos to de-horn as well as providing a command and control platform from above. These operations have evolved over time to be quick and efficient, causing as little disturbance and trauma to the animals as possible.
It’s important to note that the rhino de-horning strategy requires that every individual in the population is de-horned so that all individuals have an equal advantage of survival. De-horning can never be the sole solution, its only one tool in the arsenal of weapons we have to consider to try and combat rhino poaching. Having said that, it has certainly reduced poaching significantly in many of the reserves where we have conducted de-horning operations.
Rhino de-horning projects can however only be implemented where adequate security measures and effective monitoring protocols are already in place. It is a short-term solution and very costly. Horns grow back over time, with recent studies suggesting that the re-growth of de-horned rhino appears faster than growth in non-de-horned rhinos. With the current poaching threat, it’s recommended that these rhinos should ideally be de-horned every 12-24 months in order to be an effective deterrent. The sad reality is that de-horned populations deflect the risk onto populations that have not been de-horned yet. More strategic solutions need to be found to this global crisis of unsustainable natural resource use.
Given this approach, we are of often asked “How does de-horning affect rhino behaviour and population dynamics?”
An important consideration in the dehorning debate is whether rhino actually need their horns and what the significance is of removing them. The evolutionary significance is not entirely clear and may be for mate choice or fighting off predators. It’s known that rhinos use their horns for several behavioural functions, including defending territories, protecting calves and other rhinos from predators, maternal care and foraging behaviour as well as territorial dominance.
Reassuringly, recent studies (University of Bristol Veterinary School in the UK with the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism – Save the Rhino International) found that de-horning had very little effect on rhino behaviour and population productivity. The study found no evidence to suggest that the de-horned rhino population had any differences in age of first production, inter-calving intervals, birth sex-ratios, calf survival, cause of death or lifespan. It also indicated that de-horning reduces fighting-related mortalities. The study also suggests that de-horning did not affect the overall population growth rates. Rhino populations remained stable.
When one thinks about the effectiveness of de-horning, one needs to think about it in a kind of cost benefit ratio. For poachers, the cost is the risk of being shot or apprehended, and the benefit is the value of the horn which tends to increase with the size of the horn. De-horning reduces the benefit of poaching by decreasing the value of the horns, but the technique is most effective when paired with a high cost in the form of effective security. Poachers are less likely to risk their lives shooting rhinos if the reward is not as great.
Whatever it takes to save rhinos legally is what should happen, we do not have time on our side anymore with our dwindling rhino populations. This means continuing with de-horning projects, especially since humans continue to be a greater threat to rhinos than any alleged side-effects of de-horning.
Rhino Conservation Experiences
The SAWC offers a number of donor-funded rhino conservation experiences on the Kempiana property where the College is based. These research experiences were opportunities to either fit tracking tags or de-horn select rhinos on the property. It’s a win-win situation, with the guests playing an interactive role in these operations and at the same time getting up close and personal to these critically endangered giants.
Guests witness the darting procedure and interact with the veterinary team, either de-horning, notching or tagging. DNA samples are taken and the rhinos micro-chipped, before being woken-up and released back into the wild.
The SAWC is committed to ensuring the survival of our rhino populations and as such, we implement best practice through our research department. Ear notches enable researchers to correctly identify different individuals on the various reserves. Each rhino is given a unique ear notch number, and the animals are micro-chipped for identification and security purposes. Measurements, horn shavings and skin samples are taken for DNA analysis.
These rhino experiences are of great conservation significance ensuring the longevity of these natural rhino populations. The funding of these projects goes a long way in keeping our aircraft in the sky contributing to valuable conservation efforts.
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The Southern African Wildlife College is a non-profit organisation (Registration number: 1996/005726/08; NPO number: 046-675 NPO; PBO number: 930016093). As an NGO we strive to ensure that sufficient funding is available to carry out our training mandate, as well as execute those projects crucial to reaching our objectives.
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