&BEYOND PHINDA PRIVATE GAME RESERVE RHINO DE-HORNING – FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I haven’t heard that much about rhino poaching in the media lately and though this was under control? What’s the problem now?
Although media reports may have quieted down recently, this does not mean that the problem has gone away. In fact, poaching pressure has increased significantly in South Africa, particularly in the KwaZulu-Natal province. While the Kruger National Park was initially the most severely impacted area, the increased security measures recently being brought into place in the park have pushed the rhino horn syndicates to become more active in KwaZulu-Natal. Reported statistics show that the province lost 32 rhino between 01 January and 13 March 2016. The figure for the same time in 2015 was 23, a clear indication of the increase in rhino poaching in the province.
How close are rhinos to being functionally extinct right now?
It is estimated that, if the poaching crises continues on its current trend, rhinos could be extinct as early as 2020, a mere four years from now. There are currently just under 18 200 white rhino and 2 040 black rhino left in South Africa, which makes up 74% of the African population. Last year alone 1 175 of the animals were poached in the country and there is no sign of this rate slowing down. Up until now, the birth rate has exceeded the poaching rate, however, it is predicted that this will change within the next year, which will send the population into freefall. This is one of the reasons why we feel it is more important than ever to protect the rhino population at &Beyond Phinda, even if it means taking drastic steps such as dehorning. In the face of declining rhino numbers throughout South Africa it is critical for us to be able to maintain a genetically viable population at the reserve so that we can help boost rhino numbers both now and at a time in the future when we hope the poaching crisis will be brought under control.
I read that the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs said that rhino poaching has stabilised. Figures from 2015, released by the South African government, showed that only 1 175 rhinos were destroyed in its wildlife parks, 40 less than in the previous year. That’s a step in the right direction, right?
It is a step in the right direction, but it is because the people on the ground are working so hard to put a stop to the poaching, not because there has been any decrease in the pressure. We cannot relax our security because we lost 40 less rhino in 2015 than in 2014. This is a comparatively small victory and should not be taken as a sign to let down our defences. When all of the resources put into this fight are taken into account, losing 40 less animals is not nearly enough. In general, we are wary of taking rhino poaching statistics too literally, as they do not account for unborn foetuses, calves that are orphaned or die as a result of the loss of their mothers or rhino deaths that are simply not reported. Therefore, we feel that the reported statistics underestimate the full impact of the rhino poaching crisis.
Do you think that legalising the trade of rhino horn would satisfy demand and reduce poaching?
That is a complicated, multi-faceted issue with no easy answer. We support all attempts to reduce rhino poaching and are aware that all past attempts to reduce demand and poaching have had limited success. Legalising the trade is one avenue that hasn’t yet been tested. We feel that, as long as rhino are worth more alive than dead, they will continue to be protected.
What is &Beyond’s position on the legalisation of trade in rhino horn?
There is no quick and easy answer to this question, as laws and regulations vary so widely in the various countries where &Beyond has lodges. We respect the laws of each country and stand by our responsibilities as a conservation-based company. However, in very broad terms, we would not be opposed to the legalisation of rhino horn, provided that the right framework is in place to ensure that there are adequate controls.
What effect would the extinction or removal of rhinos have on local ecosystems?
Rhinos are one of Africa’s mega-herbivores. This means that their removal would have a substantial impact on the local ecosystem. They are an ecosystem driver, modifying the vegetation through their feeding habits. There are also numerous specialised parasites that only exist on rhinos, the loss of which would have significant repercussions.
Why don’t you just move the rhino to the safe havens of Botswana?
As a response to the dire situation that rhinos are facing in South Africa, the proactive decision was taken to move 100 of these animals to safe havens in Botswana. &Beyond has partnered with Great Plains Conservation in the Rhinos Without Borders project, which aims to achieve this. &Beyond Phinda has also donated rhino for translocation. However, while translocation is one important aspect of rhino conservation, it is also crucial to protect the rhino that are left in South Africa. &Beyond Phinda is home to a rhino population that is of national importance and we will not lose our population, which we have worked so hard to build up and protect over the years. For more than twenty years, &Beyond Phinda has played an important role as a source of rhino to help establish other core populations both across South Africa and abroad. Given the extent of the current poaching crisis, we feel that we need to do whatever it takes to preserve the reserve’s rhino population, as it may have an important role to play in boosting rhino numbers throughout Africa in the future.
With all the security at Phinda, why are the rhinos still in danger?
Even some of the best security in the country is not enough to deal with the pressure that the reserve is currently facing. Numerous rhino populations in both state and privately owned reserves surrounding &Beyond Phinda have been removed. In the case of many privately owned reserves, the rhinos were sold off because the expense of protecting them had become too great. In the case of the state reserves, the numbers have dwindled due to a combination of poaching and drought. The result has been a decrease in supply and an increase in the price for the rhino horns, which has increased the risk to Phinda’s population significantly. Coupled with this, most of the reserves in the area have already dehorned their remaining rhino. If &Beyond Phinda does not follow suit, we would inviting poachers to target our rhino.
What does this mean for the conservation of rhinos throughout South Africa?
It is a sad reality that the rhino is losing the very thing that gives them their identity, something that we all hoped we would never see. However, it does show that South Africa is not giving up. We will do whatever it takes to protect this species from extinction. It is hoped that dehorning, which is a temporary measure, will release some of the pressure currently faced and can buy us some time in the fight to preserve the species.
Won’t this have a negative impact on tourism and, in particular, photographic safaris? If so, why consider this?
Obviously this will have a large impact on tourism. &Beyond Phinda, in particular, is renowned for rhino sightings. Having dehorned rhino will be an obvious detractor for guests who visit to see this species in all its glory. However, the rhino poaching situation in South Africa has developed into a fully-blown crisis over the past few years and, in order to preserve the rhino species in the long term, we will need to make some decisions that will not be popular in the short term. Whilst dehorned rhino are unsightly for our guests, it is imperative that we keep our rhino alive to ensure the long-term survival of the species. With the right messaging, and once they fully understand the situation, we believe that our guests would rather see dehorned rhino than not be able to see rhino at all in future due to th e extinction of the species.
While there will no doubt be an impact on our guests, we hope to turn this around by using the dehorning as an opportunity to educate our international visitors on the extreme threat that is facing the rhino. We believe that the severity of the situation is not fully understood by the broader international community and we hope that, by raising awareness, we can motivate more people to take a stand against poaching.
Why now? How much thought has gone into this decision?
&Beyond Phinda has had a Rhino Security Plan in place for over a year. This is a detailed, well thought out and researched plan that was put together as a proactive response to the poaching crisis. The document contains specific action plans that are rolled out when certain triggers are met, specifically based on the percentage of the rhino population that has been lost to poaching. The trigger to dehorn the population was when &Beyond Phinda lost one of their rhino in late December 2015, a result of the significant increase in the poaching pressure the reserve is facing.
What will be done with the horns that are removed from the rhino at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve?
The horns will all be placed in safe storage at an undisclosed location.
Why do you not simply destroy the rhino horn instead of storing it?
Although storing the horn will call for the strictest security measures, we feel that it is a valuable resource that would be wasted if it were to be destroyed. While we have no plans to sell the horn at this stage, should this change at some time in the future, the sale of rhino horns would raise significant funds that could be ploughed back into our conservation and security efforts
What precautions will you take to ensure that the rhino won’t be harmed by the sedatives used during the de-horning process?
The sedation procedure used is a tried and tested method that the experienced and qualified veterinary and conservation staff at &Beyond Phinda have perfected over many years. The animal’s safety is always the primary concern during these procedures: the drug combination that is used has been perfected over 20 years and the animal’s vital signs (breathing, heart rate and blood oxygenation levels) are closely monitored by the veterinarian for the duration of the sedation.
Will there be an independent audit on whether the horns are still in &Beyond’s hands?
Yes, all horns will be stored in accordance with national and CITES regulations. &Beyond will be subjected to regular inspections by the local authority and all horns will be microchipped and registered.
Who will be paying for the dehorning?
&Beyond will be cover all of the costs for the procedure. Dave Cooper, the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife veterinarian, is generously providing his time pro bono for the dehorning of the black rhino.
How do you expect poachers will come to know that the rhinos at &Beyond Phinda don’t have horns? Won’t they just hunt them in any case?
Not only will &Beyond tell this story to the media to ensure that the local and international communities are fully informed, but members of the community surrounding Phinda and potentially some of the schools that &Beyond supports through the Africa Foundation will be invited to witness the dehorning process to ensure that the word spreads locally. The poaching syndicates have very comprehensive information networks and we are confident that they will soon get the message. Nevertheless, &Beyond will continue to maintain the same stringent anti-poaching measures at Phinda to minimise the threat of any rhino being hunted.
How exactly do you dehorn a rhino and does it hurt the rhino?
During the de-horning process, the rhino will be darted from a helicopter. This minimises the risk of losing the animal after darting and allows staff to herd the individual away from potentially dangerous obstacles. Once the animal is down, it will be blindfolded and have earplugs put in to minimise external stimuli. The rhino’s horn is then cut off just above the germinal layer (growth point) using a chainsaw (this may sound brutal but it is very quick and it is important for us to keep the time during which the rhino is tranquilised as brief as possible). Hoof clippers or a hoof cutter blade are then used to clip off the excess horn around the germinal layer, which is convex in shape. This process is similar to cutting one’s fingernails and the rhino does not experience any pain.
Since rhino horn grows back, how often would you need to dehorn the rhinos?
We will re-evaluate the poaching situation and make the decision whether it is necessary to repeat the dehorning process in 18 to 24 months.
Why are we announcing this ahead of time? Doesn’t it encourage the poachers to come to Phinda now, while our rhinos still have horns?
While we need to inform our staff and plan for the necessary logistics, we intend to manage the spread of this information very carefully until the rhino dehorning process has been completed. All staff, especially our rangers and habitat team, need to be fully prepared and have the information to answer all of the questions that will come their way once the dehorning has taken place. While we will be reaching out to key trade and media partners on a selective basis, we will not be making this announcement to the general public until after the dehorning. We will maintain a heightened level of security to mitigate any threats up to and during the dehorning process.
Can guests / rangers attend the dehorning?
Yes, &Beyond would like to involve as many of the rangers at &Beyond Phinda as possible, so that they have first-hand experience of the process and can tell the story confidently. We will also be inviting media and community members.
Will this be a once-off procedure or ongoing?
For now, the de-horning will be a once-off procedure. We will re-evaluate the rhino poaching situation as time goes by and will make the appropriate decisions in response, including the possibility of dehorning the rhino every couple of years as the horns grow back.
Will we dehorn calves?
No, only rhino from the age of seven to eight months and older will be dehorned.
How long does it take for a rhino horn to grow back?
Rhino horn is composed of a fibrous protein called keratin, which is the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. Like fingernails and hair, it re-grows. The horn grows back at a rate of 6 – 8.5 cm (2 to 3 inches) per year for the anterior horn and 2.5 – 5 cm (1 to 2 inches) per year for the posterior horn. There is no difference in the regrowth rate between black and white rhino species.
What do rhinos use their horns for?
Along with their size and scent marking, rhinos use their horns as one of the measures for defending their territories. The horn is also an aid in foraging behaviour and helps the animals to dig for water, break branches and remove bark. In the case of females, the horns complement their sheer size in the defence of their calves from other rhinos and predators.
Will removing the rhinos’ horns prevent them from being able to protect themselves and their young against predators?
Rhinos do occasionally use their horns to protect their calves. However, however, studies have shown that dehorning has little impact on this and that mothers are able to successfully defend their calves without needing to use their horns. Meticulous land management practices at &Beyond Phinda mean that the reserve has a high density of preferred prey species for predators, which makes it extremely unlikely that rhinos would be targeted and need to protect their calves. In addition, most of the rhino population at &Beyond Phinda will be dehorned. As this population is meticulously managed, individuals will be carefully chosen for dehorning and will include any bulls with horns that could pose a threat to mothers and their young.
Will dehorning the rhino affect their behaviour?
Studies have shown that there is little change in the behaviour of de-horned rhino. However, it is impossible to say for sure until research has been done on the Phinda population specifically. The Phinda population will be closely monitored and the research written up. This will contribute significantly to the scientific and management community.
Are there any known side effects to the animal?
There is no conclusive evidence of side effects to dehorned rhino. The research teams at &Beyond Phinda will constantly monitor the animals and record observed behaviour patterns, social dynamics, feeding, defence against predators, protection of young, etc.
We know that &Beyond does a lot of work in conserving rhinos, but what are you doing to reduce the demand of rhino horn in the Far East?
&Beyond supports NGOs that are working towards reducing the demand of rhino horn in Asia and journalism that highlights the issue.
Would dehorning the rhinos completely eradicate rhino poaching on Phinda?
Dehorning will not completely remove the risk of poaching. However, it has been proven that it significantly reduces pressure from poaching. &Beyond Phinda will continue to uphold all the stringent security measures that are currently in place to minimise the risk even further.
HOW CAN I HELP?
What can I do to help save the rhino?
There are a number of initiatives that you can support financially to help save the rhino. &Beyond has partnered with Great Plains Conservation in the Rhinos Without Borders project (www.rhinoswithoutborders.com), which is working to translocate rhino from high-risk poaching areas in South Africa to the relative safety of Botswana. Guests at the lodges at &Beyond Phinda can also donate to The Mun-ya-wana Conservation Fund, through StopRhinoPoaching.com with the money used to help protect the rhino at the reserve.