EXTREME MEASURES: Damian Vergnaud, the owner of Inverdoorn Game Reserve near Ceres, had a vet immobilise and inject dye and poison into the horns of his three rhinos in a bid to prevent the animals from being poached for their horns. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

Melanie Gosling

Environment Writer

WHILE several private game reserve owners are cutting the horns off their rhinos in a bid to save the animals from poachers, a local reserve owner believes they should follow his example and inject the horns with dye and poison.

Damian Vergnaud, owner of Inverdoorn reserve near Ceres, did this to his three rhinos in December last year, made sure it was well known, and has not had an attempt on his animals since.

The poison will not kill, but is designed to make anyone who consumes the ground-up horn feel sick.

Most rhino horn is smuggled into Asia and used as traditional medicine, although it has no proven medicinal qualities.

The injected dye effectively defaces the interior of the horn, making it unusable for ornamentation. Rhino horns have been used, particularly in Yemen, for dagger handles.

The dye and poison was developed by Denel, and is designed to bind with keratin which horn is made of, but is not visible from the outside. The tactic relies on word getting out that the horns have been poisoned.

Vergnaud resorted to these measures when poachers began hitting Western Cape game reserves last year. The provincial rhino death toll jumped from zero in 2010 to six in 2011.

“My proposal is this should be done for every privately-owned rhino. It’s easy, quick and not more expensive than darting rhino to dehorn,” he said.

Another advantage is not having to worry about keeping the stockpile of sawn-off horns in secure storage, as sale is illegal, nor about having to redo the dehorning once the horn regrows.

But it appears there is no panacea to stop rhino poaching. Vergnaud says those who keep rhinos for commercial hunting are afraid his method will affect the value of the trophy.

Clarke Smith, board chairman of the Nambiti private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, where the rhinos have been dehorned as an anti-poaching measure, also would not use the poison and dye method, as he has reservations about putting anything in the horn intended to make people sick.

“And if the horn still appears intact, it will still attract poachers. We’ve looked at all angles and still think the best option is to dehorn,” Smith said.

However, neither method would work in Kruger National Park, a massive area of two million hectares, home to around 1 200 rhino.

The park’s communications manager, William Mabasa, said such measures were simply not feasible for this number of animals in such a vast area, nor was it in keeping with the parks’ principle of keeping wildlife management as close to natural as possible.

“On small game farms it could be a success, but I have seen rhino killed which are already dehorned, just for that little bit of horn left. Also, poachers are shooting in the dark so may only see that it has no horn once they have killed it,” Mabasa said.

In Kruger the attacks on rhino are relentless: 146 were killed in 2010; 252 in 2011 and 362 this year so far.

The park has increased the number of rangers, and brought in soldiers, police and dogs, who work with night vision equipment.

“We’re going to reach a stage where we curb it. Organised crime is not something you can wake up and say: ‘It’s going to stop here’.”

Mabasa believes the tough jail sentences will also have an impact. Recently prison sentences of 25 years, 29 years and 40 years have been handed down to those involved in the illegal rhino horn trade.