1. IS HORN A SUSTAINABLE RESOURCE THAT CAN BE PRODUCED WITHOUT HARMING RHINOS?

Rhino horn regrows at a yearly rate of about a kilogram in males and 600 grams in females. Horn, therefore, can be harvested via dehorning—a process by which a rhino’s horn is partially removed, always leaving the stub to protect the germinal layer, the region where the horn attaches to the bone of the skull. Can this be done without harming rhinos? And is horn, therefore, not a renewable resource that can be harvested non-lethally and sustainably?

Photo credit: Taylor Lee

NO TRADE

It is true that part of a rhino’s horn can be removed time and again as it regrows. But there are risks: dehorning is a highly invasive procedure and the anesthetic needed to immobilize the rhino can cause breathing difficulties. A pregnant cow should not be subjected to an anesthetic.

Given the high rate of regrowth of rhino horn, the dehorning process would have to be carried out regularly. Whereas this might be feasible for smaller, accessible populations, it would be impractical, logistically and financially, to dehorn all rhinos everywhere. 

The long-term impacts of dehorning on rhinos’ reproductive and social behavior are not known and further research is needed regarding such issues. In situations where the threat of poaching is high, these concerns could be secondary to saving the rhinos’ lives.

Dehorning is a valid strategy in the quest to protect smaller rhino populations at very high risk from poaching. But it must be done in conjunction with effective security – with horn fetching such high black market prices, it might still be worth poachers targeting dehorned rhinos for their remaining horn. For example, in Zimbabwe’s

Hwange National Park where some 90 per cent of rhinos had been dehorned, poaching continued because of a lack of adequate security.

PRO TRADE

The risk to rhinos during the dehorning process is hugely overstated. In the early days of dehorning there were greater risks, but by the early to mid-1990s, the immobilizing and capturing techniques were much improved

For example, zero mortalities were recorded during immobilization of 37 White Rhinos in 1991. Only one Black Rhino died during immobilization for dehorning in Zimbabwe (a mortality rate of 0.6 per cent). Similarly, in Namibia, no mortalities were recorded during the immobilization of 30-40 rhinos. 

Furthermore, the process is well regulated and carried out by or in the presence of a registered vet and a government environmental officer. Risks to pregnant cows are also overstated. Certainly cows in their third trimester should not be anesthetized, but there is little risk in the earlier stages.

It has never been seriously suggested that all rhinos should or could realistically be regularly dehorned, especially in an area as vast as the Kruger National Park. 

Regarding the cost of dehorning and security, in a legal trade situation these would cease to be an issue as they would simply be incorporated in the cost of production and funded out of the revenues received.