South African Wildlife Conservationists Are Poisoning Rhino Horns to Prevent Poaching

South African game reserves have started to poison rhino horns in an attempt to prevent poaching; however, some wonder whether the radical new method will actually help to save rhinos

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Karen Trendler cares for Ntombi, a 2-month-old white rhino, at Legends Golf Estate on Jan. 12, 2013, in Limpopo, South Africa. Ntombi survived a brutal panga attack, when poachers grabbed her mother earlier in the week

In an attempt to prevent the poaching of rhino horns, a game reserve in South Africa is trying something different: poisoning the horns to make them useless to poachers.

According to the Guardian, wildlife managers are injecting the horns of live rhinos with poison that would make people who consume the horn “seriously ill.” The poison is a medley of parasiticides and permanent pink dye.

Though the poison isn’t considered fatal, anyone who ingests the tainted horn will experience symptoms like nausea, stomachache and diarrhea, the Guardian noted.

Sabi Sand, a private game reserve in South Africa, has already injected the poison into more than 100 rhinoceros horns (none of the animals were harmed during the process) over the past 18 months to deter international poaching groups, the Guardian reported.

(MORE: Why It’s Time to Get Serious About the Bloody Illegal Wildlife Trade)

The conservationists hope the poison will make consumers think twice before eating the horns. The wildlife managers are warning would-be poachers and consumers with a media campaign and are posting notices on fences surrounding protected areas. Airport scanners can also detect the dye, whether it’s contained within a whole horn or ground into powder.

Rhino horns currently sell for their weight in gold — sometimes more — in markets in China and Vietnam, where they are used in traditional Chinese medicine or as a condiment in some delicacies, according to Smithsonian magazine.

So far this year more than 200 rhinos in South Africa have been killed for their horns, which indicates that the country is on pace to beat last year’s total of 668 animals, Smithsonian magazine noted. Conservationists estimate that about 1,000 rhinos will die this year.

(MORE: Rhino Poaching Soaring Thanks to Demand for Horns)

But while the new method is aimed at lowering that death toll, it has received a mixed reception from Traffic, the wildlife-trade-monitoring network. Rhino program coordinator Tom Milliken told the Guardian that the scheme could act as a deterrent in areas where rhino poaching is highly publicized but, like dehorning, “it probably has the effect of displacing poaching intensity to other areas, not stopping it altogether.”

Milliken also wondered whether dealers in rhino-horn markets would use other methods, like bleaching, to make the horns appear “normal,” and thus continue to make a profit on the illegal trade.

South Africa National Parks has supported the initiative, but according to the Guardian, a spokesperson admitted that it would be “virtually impossible” to apply the process to all the rhinos in national parks because of a lack of resources.

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