Horn trimming of rhinos in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve (South Africa)

By May 28, 2020Antipoaching
Media statement from North West Parks Board

Pilanesberg Nature Reserve boast a very important white rhino population, and it is certainly one of the important white rhino populations in South Africa, and even the world. Both white and black rhinos have shown to be adapting extremely well in the reserve and excess animals from this populations have been used to establish new populations across South Africa, and in Botswana.

The rhino population in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve has been plagued by poaching for at least the past 7years. Over this period, the reserve has lost more than 120 rhinos due to poaching. This obviously has had a deteriorating impact on the population, and it is showing a steady decline over the past few years. The current situation has prompted North West Parks Board to take drastic measure of intervention to save the species.

The North-West Parks Board decided to trim the horns of all rhinos in the reserve with the help of a veterinary services experts who arrived in Pilanesberg on the 12th May 2020. The team worked through the park trimming horns of all black and white rhinos, males, and females, and calves they found in the parks. Including treating old gunshot wounds and injuries of other animals.

Over the years, the procedure of trimming the horns of rhinos has been developed into a detailed protocol with almost no risk to the animal. It has been proven that the risk of loss of an animal, as well as injuries or improper removal of the horn is eliminated when it is conducted by a qualified and experienced veterinarian.

The animal is located, darted and immobilized by a veterinarian from a helicopter. When the animal is down, it is located by the ground team in the shortest possible time, the eyes and ears are immediately covered, and condition immediately monitored. The cutline on the horns are marked, and the horns are cut very close to the base with an electric wood saw.

The stump is then rounded with an angle grinder to remove all excess horn. The whole operation takes less than 15 minutes per animal, followed by the team withdrawing from the animal, the animal woken by the veterinarian and stroll off, slightly disorientated, but completely healthy and strong without any injuries or fatalities.

“Although we prefer rhinos to have their horns and be able to roam around safely without any threat, the horn trimming operation was necessary to relieve the pressure of poaching of the rhino population to allow it to recover to the levels it was prior to the escalation of poaching in the reserve” said the Pieter Nel, the Chief Conservation Officer.

Strategically, from a security perspective, Pilanesberg has a few severe challenges. However, the size of the reserve, the mountainous terrain, the size of management blocks, provincial roads surrounding, etc. all makes this reserve a target for poachers. The motivation behind the operation was to ensure the “reward to poachers is reduced” and “the risks to the poacher are increased”. This was also a key finding in a study commissioned by the National Department of Environmental Affairs on the effectiveness of horn trimming as a deterrent to poaching. The Board is in the process of increasing its security efforts in Pilanesberg and other reserves significantly.

There are fears that horn trimming may have an impact on the behavior of the animals, specifically in terms of defending territories and exerting dominance over other inferior bulls. However, data from the Zimbabwe Lowveld Conservancies shows that trimmed rhinos are as likely to retain territories as horned individuals. It needs to be acknowledged that a rhino’s horn is its primary defense mechanism. The bulls use it to defend its territory and dominance, and cows to defend their calves from predators and other bulls. For this reason, all animals in a population need to be trimmed in the shortest possible time to prevent horned individuals of displacing or injuring trimmed animals. However, possible ecological or behavioral problems associated with horn trimming can be justified against the imperative of keeping the rhinos alive.

It is estimated that the total cost of this operation is valued at approximately R2million due to horn trimming being a costly operation. The cost includes veterinary costs, helicopter flying time, as well as veterinary supplies. However, this operation was made possible by sponsorships from Rhino 911, Rhino Pride Foundation, Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust and Copenhagen Zoo who are all registered as non- profit organizations. The Board received additional assistance from Zodiac Dierekliniek, the pilots and ground crew who unselfishly made available their professional time and equipment at no cost to the project who worked hand in glove with the Park staff who supported the operation and whose dedication is acknowledged with pride.