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The Myth Behind De-Horning Rhino

Why do poachers slaughter rhino? Private game farmers, who stock rhino, want the rhino horn trade to be legalized. They claim that de-horning rhino, and selling the horn legally, will deter poachers from killing rhino. Rhino horn is made up of keratin, and grows back. They say that harvesting it in this fashion can perpetually satisfy the demand for rhino horn.On the surface, this concept sounds like a viable solution. However, when we did deeper into the true intricacies of the complications of illegal rhino horn trafficking, coupled with the corruption at the source, the deviousness of Asian syndicates, and the lack of international protection of the species, a different understanding emerges. Legalizing trade in rhino horn will play into the hands of the Asian syndicates and will not curb poaching, but rather, exponentially accelerate it.

Wet Horn vs Dry HornIn Sep 2006, the notorious Van Deventer brothers were arrested for poaching and eventually incarcerated. They decided to tell their story of their modus operandi and involvement with syndicates to Africa Geographic. They testified in court that they got paid more for horn that was in a state referred to as “wet”. It is possible that this increased its value in the early stages of poaching as it simply weighs more than rhino horn that has been dried out. Rhino horn is valued by its mass.When the horn of a rhino is hacked off at the base of the head, on the skull, it is a bloodied stump, hence the name “wet”. The founder of Safaritalk, Matthew Wilkinson, says that the rhino must be slaughtered and half the face cut off, in order to obtain “wet-horn”. If a rhino survives this mutilation, it then takes up to 4 years for the horn to grow back.Dry horn refers to the horn that is removed during a de-horning process as it does not contain any bodily fluids, and is the same as cutting a finger nail.When rhinos are dehorned professionally the horn is taken approximately 40 mm above the growth layer of the skin. When poachers take horns they uproot the entire horn from its base under the skin in the bone. There is a considerable mass of horn left behind after a de-horning process, which is still of high value to poachers, especially seeing as this is the part of the horn that is now considered to be more valuable.Besides the fact that a freshly de-horned rhino is still at risk, the horn starts growing back immediately. It grows back at a rate of 6 – 8.5 cm per year for the anterior horn and 2.5 – 5 cm per year for the posterior horn. In the first 12 months of re-growth, much more mass of horn is grown than in later years, as the base of the horn is the widest, tapering off to a point when fully grown.In Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, most of the dehorned rhinos were killed within 12-18 months of dehorning in the early 1990s.Chinese vs Vietnamese MarketsTwo parallel markets for rhino horn have been identified.ChineseThe original market, the Chinese market, has been using horn as an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine for hundreds of years. It is now believed that the wet horn contains more potency than the dry horn, and is therefore more valuable. It is unclear whether it was always considered to be more valuable because of its supposed increased potency. In a chicken and egg scenario, it is possible that higher prices of wet horn made it more valuable, and therefore higher potency properties were associated with it in order to justify the price.Lixin Huang, president of both the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, wrote : “American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine would reiterate that rhino horn is no longer approved for use by the traditional Chinese medicine profession.”Chinese professionals have stated that there are alternative medicines, made up of roots, which are more effective in treating the same symptoms.Unfortunately the belief that rhino horn is effective in medicine is still entrenched in the Chinese culture, which is prevalent in many countries across the world.VietnameseAsian crime syndicates, to target the affluent young in Vietnam, have developed the Vietnamese market in the 21st century. They have capitalized on the medicinal “benefits” by marketing the imagined ‘feel good” qualities of rhino horn. It is now used as a party drug in up-market clubs. Users are led to believe that it cures hangovers and increases virility. A grater type object, and a bowl, is used to grind up the dried horn as part of the “drug” taking ritual of horn powder sniffing at parties.Wilkinson, interviewed a retired Chinese Medicine practitioner who stated he had “never seen a case in his entire career where rhino horn was used as an aphrodisiac.”TRAFFIC’s Tom Millikin , suggested in his report , that western media characterized the use of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, and now that miss-truth has turned full circle in an evil twist. It is sadly ironic that this has now backfired and the Vietnamese syndicates have very cleverly worked it into their own marketing campaign to target partygoers in Vietnam.Although the Chinese medicine market is starting to wane, the Vietnamese market has exploded. The Vietnam economy has grown considerably in the last couple of decades. There are now many affluent Vietnamese with disposable income. Clever crime syndicates have taken advantage of this opportunity and used social selling and peer pressure marketing techniques to entice the young and rich. Sniffing rhino horn is now seen as a status symbol. The more rhino horn there is on the market, the more it will become available to millions more Vietnamese.The physical effects that humans believe they feel after consuming rhino horn has been attributed to the placebo effect . Rhino horn itself, has no physical effect on humans whatsoever.The founder of SPOTS (Strategic Protection of Threatened Species), Peter Milton, believes “there is a very real danger that they will start marketing the wet horn, as more powerful. Wet horn can be offered as the “real thing” as users start to realize that the promised effects of snorting rhino horn are not being felt any more.”This differentiation will be promoted and supported by selling harvested dry horn in a legal trade.The Dangers of De-HorningInitially it may seem like a fantastic idea to de-horn rhino. It is believed amongst private game farmers that the volumes of de-horned dry horn will satisfy the hungry market, and that rhino will be left alone to peacefully re-grow the horn in 18 months.This is a dangerous game, for more than one reason:We know now that the wet horn is sought after and fetches a higher dollar price. De-horned rhino still carry a huge money payload for crime syndicates.We know that there is a considerable volume of horn remaining after the dry horn has been removed during a harvesting process.Why would a poacher buy from private game farmers, or the government, when they can “take it” for free? Furthermore, why would private rhino horn traders part with any of their profits? It is difficult to see them splitting the profit amongst the poor who are recruited by syndicates to poach. It is even more difficult to imagine them giving their cash to crime syndicates. There is therefore no reason for poaching to stop just because there is legalized trade.Private game farmers state that poachers slaughter de-horned rhino because they don’t want to track them unnecessarily. In Peter Milton’s opinion, poachers will slaughter a de-horned rhino NOT because they don’t want to track it later, but because the wet horn is extremely valuable. Furthermore, there is evidence that poachers have the time and technology to know exactly where the rhino are. They do not, in fact, have to spend time tracking them at all.Some smaller game farms have noted a drop in poaching straight after de-horning. This is a short-lived respite and that the poaches will be back to slaughter the rest when their local supply of fully horned rhino runs out.The most sinister reason is the concept of the “placebo affect”. It is feared that when a user ingests dry horn, and the effects are not as expected, the syndicates may use this opportunity to offer the “good stuff”, i.e. the wet horn, for a much higher price.Finally, the most obvious reason of all:If our rhino are de-horned, and these horns sold in a legal trade, then volumes of available rhino horn will increase. So many more millions of Vietnamese might be drawn into the social arena of rhino horn usage. Vietnamese syndicates have mastered the art of social selling. Peer pressure is now dictating the habits of young Vietnamese, and rhino horn is “it”.

Key References:

  1. Wildlife Extra - Rhino Poaching – the poacher tells all
  2. Statement opposing the use of rhino horn in medicines by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, by American College of Traditional Medicine.
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  3. Dot Earth “Your Dot” contribution from Matthew Wilkinson
  4. The South Africa-Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus : A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates, by Tom Milliken and Jo Shaw
    View Document
  5. “Placebo Effect”, published in Better Health

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