Conservation news

Zimbabwe is dehorning its rhinos to curb poaching

  • In 2015, at least 50 rhinos were killed in Zimbabwe by poachers.
  • Zimbabwe has been using dehorning as a policy to protect its rhinos against poaching since the 1990s.
  • Dehorning, used in conjunction with intensive paramilitary protection, can help curb poaching, conservationist says.

In 2015, at least 1,338 rhinos were illegally killed for their horns across Africa. Of these 50 rhinos were killed in Zimbabwe.

To help curb poaching, Zimbabwe has announced plans to dehorn the nearly 100 rhinos residing in its state parks. Private conservancies, which house some 600 additional rhinos, may also choose to dehorn their rhinos.

“We want to send a message to poachers that they will not get much if they come to Zimbabwe,” Lisa Marabini, founder trustee and director of operations with Aware Trust Zimbabwe, one of the conservation groups assisting the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in the dehorning program, told Reuters. “The park’s policy is to dehorn all the rhino.”

Poaching of rhinos is fueled by demand from countries like China and Vietnam. Rhino horn, made of keratin, the same material as our fingernails and hair, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine. In Vietnam too, many people incorrectly believe that rhino horns can cure cancer or hangover. In fact, rhino horns can fetch about $100,000 in Vietnam’s markets.

At least 50 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2015. Photo by Stromayer, Karl, public domain.

Dehorning, as a poaching deterrent, has been used by a few African countries. Namibia, for instance, started dehorning its rhinos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. None of the dehorned rhinos were poached, according to the charity Save the Rhino. Many South African private reserves have also used dehorning as a way of thwarting poachers. Zimbabwe too has been using dehorning as a policy since the 1990s, Marabini told Mongabay.

But dehorning alone is not enough to discourage poachers.

In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, for instance, most of the rhinos dehorned in the early 1990s were hunted by poachers within just 12-18 months of being dehorned, according to Save the Rhino. In 2011, six newly dehorned rhinos were killed in Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe. In fact, even in reserves where all rhinos have been dehorned, poaching has not stopped completely.

One reason for continued poaching is that dehorning removes about 90 percent of a rhino’s horn, but not all of it. A stub remains, which is still valuable to poachers. Moreover, rhino horns continue to grow over time necessitating regular dehorning. Poachers may also kill dehorned rhinos out of vengeance, according to Save the Rhino. So in addition to dehorning, intensifying protection measures is essential for protecting the animals, conservationists say.

“Dehorning is a strategy that has to be used in conjunction with intensive paramilitary protection,” Marabini said. “It is necessary to leave a small amount of living horn bed on the animal. However, to the poacher, the reward to risk ratio greatly decreases if he is risking his life poaching for a few 100 grams of horn on a dehorned rhino, versus a big horn weighing seven kilograms on an animal that has not been dehorned.”

“In a large area, where some rhinos are dehorned and others are not, a poacher tracking a rhino he believes has horns may come across a dehorned rhino and shoot it either because he does not get a good look at it (black rhinos can be hard to visualize in thick bush because they take flight easily),” Marabini added. “A poacher often sprays the animal with bullets from some distance without seeing it clearly, or he may shoot it if he feels he can get away with it — hence the need for increased paramilitary protection.”

To help curb poaching, Zimbabwe has announced plans to dehorn all 100-odd rhinos in its state parks. Photo by tpsdave, public domain.

The process of dehorning — in which the animal is anaesthetized and its horns cut off with a battery-driven saw — can also be risky to the animal itself. But Marabini said that dehorning procedures have become safer now.

“Every anaesthetic in humans or animals is not without risk, but all precautions are taken to minimise the risk — medical oxygen administered, the animal is partially antidoted as soon as it is down, blood oxygen levels are monitored…” Marabini said. “Rhino immobilisation has been getting safer and safer in the last 20 years and the early unfavourable mortality rates of the 1980s no longer apply. The rhinos seem unphased by the dehorning process and are usually very calm the following day.”

Despite not being foolproof, researchers have found that recently dehorned rhinos in some of Zimbabwe’s conservancies seem to have 29.1 percent higher chance of survival than horned animals.

“That may not sound like much but it’s the difference between three rhino being killed a day and two rhino being killed a day,” Marabini said. “In our situation where every single rhino in the park is dehorned, and where this fact is publicized, and where there is a shoot-to-kill policy against armed poachers in protected areas, dehorning is a strong disincentive for the poachers to even think about coming into those parks.”