Witnessing a Rhino Dehorning in South Africa | African Impact Blog

Author: Natalia Gaal & Samuel Cox

Before coming to Africa, I had little to no knowledge of the constant efforts being made to save our precious rhinos – one of Africa’s most iconic animals. Not long after arriving, however, I had the opportunity to photograph and assist in a rhino dehorning operation, a somewhat controversial method of hopeful poaching prevention, and got to witness first-hand how the process is done. It was a day full of adrenaline and mixed emotions, and looking back, it is hard to describe all the feelings that came and went whilst being on the ground and amidst the thick of such a delicate matter.

How the rhino dehorning procedure begins

Early in the morning, the day of the rhino dehorning, we joined a group on the boundaries of the reserve, full of different specialists ranging from photographers, researchers and vets. It was cloudy and cold, rather symbolic of the harsh realities we were about to face, but there was a sense of excitement too, if not just from the circling helicopter flying low and kicking up dust. The lead vet had briefed everybody on every detail and aspect of the operation, what we were after, why, and how every step in the procedure was so important. After that run through, we got in to our vehicles and waited as the helicopter took flight to find the first ‘patient’. Within only a few minutes the radio crackled to life, and we were off…

Volunteers carefully watch as helicopter searches for rhinos to prepare for the rhino dehorning

Volunteers carefully watch as helicopter searches for rhinos for dehorning procedure

How the dehorning procedure is carried out

Dust plumes covered the roads as we drove hastily in convoy to the area where the rhino had been tranquilized from the air. We quickly arrived to the scene and approached once the vets had gotten into action. It was a blur of freneticism, but perfectly organized and communication between everyone was flying as the white rhino lay on the ground surrounded by people who just a few minutes ago were all sat in waiting. Everybody lent a helping hand, whether it was carrying heavy equipment, administering antiseptics or supporting a supply of oxygen, but the brute strength came in maneuvering the immobilized giant so he didn’t lose lung capacity or feeling in his legs (2000kg is a lot of weight, after all). His eyes were treated with a moisturizer before being covered and the ears were plugged before the buzzing of the chainsaw ripped through the air. It’s impossible to convey how quick this all happened, as before we knew it the horn was being sawed off, with shards and dust flying everywhere. It initially surprised me to see how much the shards resembled nail clippings, before realizing it’s the exact same material after all – keratin.

Quick Rhino Facts

  • “Rhinocerous” means “nose horn”
  • Rhinos, especially white rhinos, live in groups called crashes
  • Rhinos have no natural predators
  • It is estimated that there are only 29,000 rhinos left in the wild
Rhino dehorning taking place

Rhino horns are made out of keratin, the same substance as human hair and nails

The smell produced during that moment eliminated any feelings of excitement and made me question exactly why we have to do this to these beautiful animals. That we must take something so iconic and important to them to ultimately protect them from ourselves. I had to think for a minute about the lengths conservationists go to because of the cruelty of poachers, and seeing the chainsaw, the tubes, syringes and surrounding vehicles caused a momentary emotional retreat from the scene.

The rhino is marked with orange paint after the procedure

The rhino is marked with orange paint after the procedure so the helicopter does not mistake it as a new rhino from above

“I had to think for a minute about the lengths conservationists go to because of the cruelty of poachers.”

After the rhino dehorning, the remaining stump was smoothed down to prevent any future damage and was treated with antiseptic. Orange paint was applied as a marker for the helicopter and a dose of adrenalin was administered to counteract the immobilizing drug. We were back in our vehicles moments before the poor rhino stumbled up to his feet, no doubt confused, disorientated and slightly unamused. It was a beautiful moment to see this animal back on his feet again, but it wasn’t time to relish the victory as there were more rhinos to find. This was just the first of many to be done in this reserve.

The thoughts that go through your mind

Throughout the morning four more rhinos were dehorned, including a calf, and a few days later a black rhino too. I couldn’t shake my mixed feelings; that of pride of what we were doing was for the best, but at the same time feeling shame for being part of the same species that causes all of this pain. There are few remaining species left in the world, and if poaching continues to happen at the rate it is today, by the end of 2020 more rhinos will be killed than are born per year.

“By the end of 2020 more rhinos will be killed than are born per year.”

It seems like an impossible task to tackle, with a demand that doesn’t seem to be shrinking. However, it inspires me and reaffirms my faith in humanity when I got to see, document and lend a helping hand to the people who are the closest to them. Who spend countless hours and pay whatever cost is needed to protect and prolong the survival of these animals. It’s hard to imagine a world without the iconic rhino, and despite its rapid approach, there are many out there who are fighting for them and need not just our recognition, but our support.

Volunteers support veterinarian in dehorning procedure

Volunteers support veterinarian whist he immobilizes rhino before the dehorning procedure

F.A.Q about Rhino Horns

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about rhino horns and poaching.

How many rhinos are poached every year in South Africa?

In 2007, a mere 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa. Fast forward to 2017, this number has skyrocketed to 1028.

Why are rhino horns poached?

Rhino horn is a popular ingredient in traditional medicine, particularly in East Asia. While it is thought to have healing properties, there is no evidence to prove this. Owning rhino horn is also considered a sign of wealth and success in these regions.

How much is rhino horn worth?

African Impact do not agree in publishing the value of rhino horn as it has the potential to put current rhino populations at even greater risk. The current rate is very difficult to establish and is unlikely to be accurate anyway.

What is rhino horn made of?

Rhino horn is made from the same type of protein as human hair and fingernails – keratin.

Do rhino horns ever grow back?

Rhino horns do grow back if the rhino dehorning procedure is done correctly. However, when poached illegally, the majority of rhinos will die in the process as poachers are not equipped with the equipment – or time – to remove the horn properly.

What would happen in rhinos go extinct in the wild?

If white rhinos went extinct in the wild, it would have a huge impact on the ecosystem. As very large creatures, they maintain the grasslands they graze and stop invasive plant species, or forests, from expanding across these plains. This increases natural plant biodiversity and keeps the ecosystem functioning for other animal species too. On a wider scale, the extinction of rhinos would have an enormous impact on wildlife tourism in the countries they inhabit and thus, would affect local employment.

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