Ingest this and vomit! That’s what will happen to end users of rhino horn poached from the Sabi Sands Reserve

Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project, who has co-developed the ectoparasitacide treatment since 2011, measures the horns for research purposes while Brent Leo-Smith assists.

Toxic infusions are the latest weapon to counter rhino poaching in the big game areas adjoining the Kruger Park. Consumers of the powdered horn in Asia risk becoming seriously ill from ingesting the horn, which has been contaminated with a non-lethal chemical package. The Sabi Sand Wildtuin has launched the country’s first large-scale operation to toxify the horns of its rhinos, together with an indelible pink dye that exposes the illegal contraband on airport scanners worldwide.

The Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association of property owners this year will spend R6.5m on security operations to intercept and head off the incursions. These defensive strategies, undertaken with the police and SA National Parks (SANParks), are facing predatory gangs heavily armed and highly motivated to meet the insatiable demand in Asian markets for rhino horn. That market pays an estimated $65,000 (R600,000-plus) per kilo for mature horns.

The poachers themselves, receive a mere fraction of the R2-2.5m value of each horn from the syndicates that plan the raids and export the material. Yet the size of their pay-offs in the neighbouring low-income communities is enough to keep them  from being identified.

Intelligence is a prime asset in the escalating conflict. For this reason the numbers of rhino located in the area are kept confidential, as are the numbers lost to date. The first spike in the incidence of rhino poaching was in 2008, when 88 animals were lost. This year more than double that number have been butchered in only the first three months.

The Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association’s toxification campaign is as much about sending a message to the illegal trade worldwide as it is about rendering the rhino horns inside its perimeter hazardous as traditional medicine.

CEO of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve Andrew Parker.

Andrew Parker, 41, CEO of the SSWA, says that compromising the product is the most effective deterrent to the illegal market.

“Sabi Sand is leading this programme because we are located at the epicentre of the problem at the southern end of the Kruger Park, which suffers up to 70% of the rhino killings. Poaching syndicates are here in large numbers and we are vulnerable as a western buffer between them and the Kruger Park.”

Up to 2,000 people are employed in the Sabi Sand reserve, mostly local residents. Information about planned anti-poaching operations becomes common knowledge very quickly outside the perimeter fences. The intel is worth tip-off money. Poacher gangs can then blend into the community and enjoy unquestioned access in and out of the Sabi Sand area along the shared local roads.

“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 Parker. “It also raises the stakes against agents smuggling it through airports. When their market dries up we expect the balance of risk against reward will swing back in favour of our own conservation operations.”

The decision to launch the rhino horn infusions was agreed by the association’s members in February, says Parker, as the poaching threat became aggressive enough to match the reserve’s combined ranger-watch. “To date, interventions have focused on bringing additional manpower into the field to counter the problem,” he says. “This has proved effective in terms of arrests but not in stemming the rising body count of rhinos.

“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 among local communities.”

The Sabi Sand properties are making a direct contribution to the national economy of R500m a year, says Andrew Parker, who wrote his Masters in Ecology at Wits and then worked in the SanParks business development unit in Pretoria.

“We must prevail in overcoming this scourge Our strongest response against poaching is to cripple the business of illegal rhino horn trading before it sabotages our own businesses.”

“Security costs are increasing. At Sabi Sand alone we are spending R6.5m on security this year – 50% of our annual budget for the care and maintenance of the game and the infrastructure of roads, and communications..”

Inserting a toxin into the horns of rhinos has been used on 100-plus animals in the past 18 months, pioneered by veterinary surgeon Dr Charles van Niekerk at the Rhino and Lion reserve at Kromdraai north-west of Johannesburg. The results have proved to be non-harmful to the rhinos, cost-effective, and a solution for private game reserves which are seen as easy targets for poachers.

The only possible danger to rhinos having their horns infused is the stress caused by being immobilised. For this reason, says Andrew Parker, the Sabi Sand treatments are performed outside the hottest part of the day, and the rhino are brought round as quickly as possible. The toxin-dye injections are administered into the horn’s inert (painless) keratin by compressed air.

The Rhino Rescue Project’s Lorinda Hern explained that the toxin is also ox-pecker friendly. While the treatment is for the benefit and improved health of the animals, she said, it is toxic to humans. Symptoms of ingesting the drug cocktail – in powdered rhino horn, for example – would include nausea and vomiting.

Says Andrew Parker: “We are not aiming to kill the consumers, no matter what we think of them. We want to kill the illegal trade preying on our herds. Once the poachers discover that rhino horn from Sabi Sand has no value they will move on..”

Devaluing the rhino horns is only one of three phases of its strategy to protect and conserve the Sabi Sand wildlife in the long term. 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 involving them more and more in the business of the tourism industry.