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23 December 2011

Beware: Horns poisoned to save rhinos

Image: Wildlife vet Alex Lewis injects a mixture of dye and poison into the horn of this drugged rhino on Inverdoorn Game Reserve near Ceres. Picture: Matthew Jordaan

A Western Cape game reserve owner has resorted to desperate measures against rhino poaching and has injected poison into the horns of the three rhino on his Inverdoorn reserve outside Ceres.

In a nine-hour operation at the reserve yesterday, the three rhino, two males and a female, were darted separately, had holes drilled into their horns, and poison injected into them.

Inverdoorn owner Damian Vergnaud hopes this will deter poachers, who have begun targeting Western Cape rhino.

The poison will not kill, but is designed to make anyone who consumes the ground-up horn feel sick. Most poached horn is smuggled into Asia where it fetches sky-high prices in the traditional medicine trade, although it has no proven medicinal qualities.

The horns were also injected with a bright-red dye that effectively defaced their interior, making them unusable as dagger handles or other ornamentation. Rhino horn has been used, particularly in Yemen, for dagger handles. The dye and poison combination was developed by Denel and has been designed to bind with keratin, the substance horn, hair and nails are made of.

The third part of the anti-poaching cocktail was barium, injected into smaller holes, which will show up on X-rays if the horns are smuggled through airport security.

Inverdoorn owner Damian Vergnaud, who was present throughout the operations that began before dawn yesterday, said yesterday: “I wanted to destroy the market value of the horns, and I hope other game reserve owners will follow what we’ve done. That way we can destroy rhino horn as a product. I think it will work if many people do it. I want everyone to know that we have done this to the horns.”

Wildlife vet and consultant Alex Lewis flew from Hoedspruit to do the operation, assisted by Ceres vet Mark Walton. “When poachers attacked the rhino at Aquila, I thought it might be a one-off, but we increased security. Then when Fairy Glen was attacked we took it very seriously. But I don’t have the funds for this level of anti-poaching.” He contacted Lewis, who has spent a week at Inverdoorn discussing options which included cutting off and burning the horns and inserting tracking devices in them. Eventually, he decided on the dye and poison option.

They made a wooden horn replica and experimented with injecting the cocktail.

They also made a circular metal device, which screws on to the horn and allows the dye to be pumped in under pressure, so that it penetrates the horn.

Around noon, the vets and rangers headed out to search for the male.

Lewis and ranger Gert Bobbeje tracked it and darted the animal.

The Cape Times followed and saw the rhino “high-stepping” as the drug took effect, and then it sank to its feet. As soon as it was down rangers tied a blanket around its eyes to protect them and reduce stress. While some trickled water over it to keep it cool, others off-loaded the small generator to power Lewis’s drill.

He measured the horn, started the generator and used a grinder to flatten a section. The air was filled with the smell of diesel and burning hair. When he used the drill to bore a large hole into the horn, little white flakes spun off and fell into the dust like flakes of dried coconut. Then he attached the metal circle around the horn and put the nozzle of the pump through a hole in the metal. Bobbeje then pumped the dye-poison mix into the horn.

Meanwhile, Walton took blood samples and then drilled smaller holes to inject a combination of glue and barium, which shows up on X-ray. Then they filled the holes with glue, and bound the horn in tape to allow the glue to dry. The rhino will rub the tape off eventually.

The operation took about 40 minutes. Lewis gave the animal the antidote to the immobilising drug, everyone got on the vehicles, and the bull stood up. It looked a little whoozy, but then trotted off.

l Two rhinos were dehorned at Aquila Game Reserve in August, one of which died. Two were dehorned at Fairy Glen, near Worcester, two weeks ago. The male is still on the danger list.

- Cape Times