Pink is the new black, at least for some lucky rhinos in Africa.Endangered rhinos in South Africa are being hunted for their horns, which are smuggled to Asia and ground into powder for cooking and medicinal use. In an effort to deter poachers, the Sabi Sand game reserve in South Africa has injected a mix of parasiticides and indelible pink dye into more than 100 rhinos’ horns over the past 18 months.
The poisonous dye is injected into the horn of a tranquilized rhino by drilling a hole into the horn and using compressed air to inject the mixture. The technique was pioneered by veterinary surgeon Dr. Charles van Niekerk at the Rhino and Lion reserve at Kromdraai, northwest of Johannesburg. The results have proved to be non-harmful to the rhinos, cost-effective, and are considered an immediate and long-lasting solution for private game reserves, which are seen as easy targets for poachers.
The parasiticides that are being injected into the rhinos’ horns are used to control ticks on domesticated animals such as horses, cattle, and sheep, but it’s toxic to humans. The treated rhino horn won’t kill people who ingest it, but it will make them quite ill with severe nausea and various intestinal problems.
“We are sending a message through the supply chain that rhino horn from Sabi Sand will endanger the health of anyone who uses it as a medicine,” says Andrew Parker, 41, CEO of the Sabi Sand Wildreservaat Association.
According to Parker, the dye is not only clearly visible in the ground horn, it’s also detectable by airport scanners. That should help to cut down on the amount of illegal rhino horn that is currently getting to the Asian black market, where rhino horn sells for $65k per kilo.South Africa is home to virtually the entire population—more than 18,000—of white rhinos, and 5000 black rhinos, about 40 percent of the entire black rhino population in Africa. According to government figures, 188 rhinos have been poached in South Africa so far this year, most of them in Kruger National Park, which abuts Sabi Sand. African authorities have arrested more than 60 people since the beginning of this year for rhino poaching and related activities. Last year, a record 668 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa, up nearly 50 percent from 2011 and double the number killed in 2010.
Parker says, “There is a limitless recruiting pool of poachers inside and outside our borders, and they enjoy a tactical advantage against the counter-measures we’ve employed so far. They dictate the time, the place and the scale of their engagements and they hide in plain sight amongst local communities.”
The pink horn approach isn’t widely accepted as a good solution to the problem of rhino poaching. There’s some concern that by creating a high profile for this practice in one area, the poachers will just intensify their activity in other areas. It’s not feasible to inject dye into the horns of all of the rhinos on the African continent. And black market dealers in rhino horn will no doubt figure out how to bleach the dyed horn to make it appear to be untainted—buyers beware!
Devaluing the rhino horns is only one of three phases of Sabi Sand’s strategy to protect and conserve the Sabi Sand wildlife in the long term. From the game reserve’s perspective, winning the war means building up and motivating a highly-skilled staff on the ground, developing an excellent intelligence network, and winning the hearts and minds of surrounding communities by increasing their involvement in the business of the tourism industry.