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Meet the Radical Veterinarians Who Want to Dehorn Rhinos Before Poachers Can

Can a small band of veterinarians who lop off rhino horns with chainsaws save the species from poachers?

by Maddie Stone
Nov 13 2014, 1:00pm

Thandi, a rhino dehorned by poachers, and William Fowlds, courtesy of Paul Mills

It was a hot July day in Hoedspruit, South Africa, when wildlife veterinarian Peter Rogers got the call: A band of poachers had just shot a rhino in the head. But it hadn't died yet—the injured, terrified creature had been running for miles. By the time Rogers and his crew caught up with the rhino, it has collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Before additional medical supplies could be brought in, the massive animal had drawn its last, shuddering breath.

Pioneering vets like Rogers hope to avert future tragedies like this one by getting there first, and lopping off rhinos' horns before the poachers do.

Rogers is among a handful of wildlife vets—less than a dozen in South Africa—whose work places him at the front lines of the rhino-poaching crisis. And phone calls about poaching incidents are nearly a daily occurrence.

"Getting to help a rhino is the exception," Rogers said. "Most often we just find them dead, with half their face hacked off. The poachers are completely barbaric."

Geza the rhino, courtesy of Mike Holmes

The last few years have seen the worst rash of rhino poaching in recent history, thanks to an upsurge in demand amongst wealthy Vietnamese and Chinese buyers, who use the horns for pseudo-medicinal purposes and as status symbols. South Africa, home to nearly eighty percent of Africa's 25,000 remaining rhinos, has been particularly hard-hit. As the situation grows desperate, vets like Rogers have begun implementing what may seem like a radical solution: dehorning rhinos to deter poachers. 

Their ideas have seen some influence: The Namibian government just officially endorsed this strategy. But South African vets—who tend to the largest population of rhinos on the planet—have to rely on the cooperation of smaller, better policed private parks to see the strategy put into action.

For private game wardens, at least, there are incentives to support dehorning. Eco-tourism is one of South Africa's largest industries and dead rhinos don't exactly make for happy vacation memories. On the other hand, some international tourists will pay top dollar to witness a dehorning.

"It's a big money-maker," said Max Emanuel, a veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania who spent this summer volunteering in Rogers's wildlife clinic. "A safari is one thing, but catching a rhino dehorning is a whole new experience for most people."

Rogers began his career doing rhino capture and re-location work in the late 80s. He's now putting his unique skills to work performing an operation that is best likened to a scene right out of out of Jurassic Park. 

It goes something like this: Vet and game warden get into a helicopter, spot a rhino, and shoot it with a dart filled with a powerful opiod.

Rhino being prepped for de-horning, courtesy of Max Emanuel

"The rest of us are in pursuit on the ground. All of a sudden, this dazed rhino bursts out of the brush, wobbles along for a few minutes and collapses, " Emanuel said, explaining a real-life incident.

Then it's a race against the clock. The downed rhino is roped to a tree, and its respiratory rate is carefully monitored while a medical team takes hair and blood samples. Finally, somebody swoops in with a chainsaw and hacks off the rhino's horn roughly 8 centimeters above the base—a safe distance that avoids cutting into the rhino's sinuses.

Rhino de-horning, courtesy of Max Emanuel

Reviving a rhino post-op is the riskiest part of the whole business. Following a healthy dose of naltrexone—chemically similar to the drug used to treat heroin overdoses—the two-ton beast goes from comatose to wide-awake and panicky.

"That's when we all make for the SUVs as fast as possible," said Emanuel.

Dehorning may be a deterrent, but the process is dangerous, laborious and contingent on the support of wardens. While Emanuel helped Rogers dehorn nearly forty animals this summer, rhino horns—made of the same stuff as our fingernails—grow back, and the operation needs to be repeated every few years.

Rhino horns, courtesy of Max Emanuel

Meanwhile, the poaching crisis shows no signs of slowing down. In 2007, 13 rhinos were killed for their horns. Last year, 1,004. This year, 868 so far. In South Africa, this year also marks the first in recent history where rhino killings exceeded live births, according to Rogers.

It hasn't always been this way. In fact, for most African wildlife vets, treating injured rhinos is a whole new experience.

"Until the escalation of the poaching crisis in 2007, the veterinary knowledge of rhinos was practically non-existent," said Dr. William Fowlds, another South African wildlife vet who works in the Eastern Cape Province. "We've had to start from scratch. The rhino is an animal that has never been studied anatomically and there is simply no research on these types of injuries."

When poachers chop off a rhino's horn, a softball-size cavity of fleshy sinuses is exposed. Emanuel recounted one such injured rhino from this past summer: With help from a craniofacial surgeon and a horse doctor, Rogers had devised a metal plate that drills into the rhino's skull, covering up the gaping wound.

Prepping a dehorned rhino for surgery, courtesy of Max Emanuel

Drilling on the face plate, courtesy of Max Emanuel 

The plate, attached, courtesy of Max Emanuel

"The rhino would sometimes knock the plate off and get a bad infection," Emanuel said. "His sinus cavity would be all rotted out, filled with maggots. We'd have to scoop out the necrotic tissue and anesthetize everything before drilling the plate back on."

Fowlds, who first came face-to-face with the poaching crisis in 2011, recounted similar horrors. "The poachers don't know or care where the horn starts and ends, so they hack right into the skull, sometimes chopping off half the rhino's face. Most rhinos die from blood loss, shock and pain. In the rare cases that a rhino survives, we're left to decide whether to try and save it."

In addition to mutilated adult rhinos, wildlife vets now face the growing problem of orphaned calves.

"Very often, the calves are alive to watch their mothers get their faces hacked off," said Fowlds. "Orphanages are now popping up, but the reality is that we do not have facilities in place to handle many baby rhinos."

While police and rangers have struggled to catch up with the recent surge of rhino killings, poachers are becoming ever more militarized.

"The scariest part about the crisis now is how it's being taken over by organized crime," said Fowlds. "These guys love wildlife products because the rewards are higher and the risks lower than trafficking weapons, drugs, humans—anything else."

Emblematic of this shift is the fact that most poaching cases Fowlds now deals with are rhinos that have been darted with veterinary anesthetics.

"Somewhere along the supply chain from pharmaceuticals companies to vets, there's a leak," Fowlds told me. "Every milligram of these drugs should be accounted for, but in practice that's a very difficult thing to monitor. The bottom line is that poachers are now darting rhinos with drugs, which are quieter than rifles and seem to be more effective. Now they can poach two, three, four animals at a time."

Should this aggressive escalation of poaching activity be met with an equally aggressive dehorning campaign? Rogers and Fowlds remain skeptical.

"For the poachers, it's risk-versus-reward," said Rogers. "Will poachers go after a dehorned rhino if there's a rhino with its full horn right down the road? Maybe not. But will they shoot a dehorned rhino if it's their only option? Yes. This is displacement, it's not solving the problem in the long term."

After a pause, he added: "Now, if we could shoot these fuckers on sight like you can in Botswana, that'd be a different story." He meant the poachers.

"We leave roughly half a kilo of horn behind when we dehorn the animal," Fowlds added. "At current market value, it's still worth killing that animal."

Indeed, the fortune that sits atop a rhino's skull has a powerful pull— even those who dehorn rhinos to protect them guard the precious commodity under strict lock and key.

"Everyone saves the horns," said Emanuel. "They even collect the shavings from chainsaw. All the game wardens know that if horn trade is ever made legal, they'll be sitting on a bloody fortune."

Despite its limitations, dehorning seems to be faring better than previous plans to thwart poachers. Dyeing the horns and infusing them with poison once sounded like a great idea, but in practice, this strategy has done little to deter poachers, who, shockingly, don't seem to care whether or not a couple of their clients end up poisoned.

And although the governing bodies behind CITES don't seem ready to go whole hog and create a legal international market, the option hasn't been taken off the table. Dr. Duan Biggs, wildlife conservationist at Australia's University of Queensland, believes the practice of farming rhinos would be a safe, effective and humane way of producing enough rhino horn to meet rising demand in Asia, The Guardian reported last fall.

"One does not have to kill a rhino to get its horn," Biggs said in a public debate organized by Earthwatch last October. "You can get eight times as much horn by regularly trimming as from killing the animal. There is minimal risk to rhinos and they continue living as normal."

In Rogers's view, some form of legalized, regulated horn trade is the only long-term solution.

"People are not going to stop wanting rhino horns," he told me. "You're up against thousands of years of tradition and superstitious belief. Every day, millions more are becoming wealthy enough to purchase it. Hoping the poachers are going to stop would be like putting a hundred grand under a tree and hoping no one will take it."

Others, however, believe that allowing legal trade would further obfuscate illegal poaching activity by making it impossible to tell whether rhino horn came from a clean source or not. And legal trade may actually expand markets by reducing the price and stigma associated with the luxury item.

"The strongest argument for trade seems to be that nothing else is working," said Fowlds. "But it's a very complicated issue. If a trade model is going to work, the price of the product has to be brought down to well below the risk factor for poachers. If we put a trade mechanism in place and the value of rhino horn remains high, illegal poaching will continue."

At the grimy core of the issue is demand in Asia. Whether this demand rises or falls in the coming years may ultimately determine the fate of Africa's remaining rhinos.

"I believe it is possible to reduce demand, but it will require a global response," said Fowlds. "As vets, we've had to bring that component of global education into our lives because it's so important for people to see what these animals go through—to see the impact of poaching on rhinos and humans. Rhinos are part of our heritage and who we are. If we can't save them, we can't save anything."

Thandi, 1 year after being attacked by poachers and treated by Dr. Fowlds, courtesy of Fowlds