Durban - South Africa has deployed a powerful and poisonous new weapon to stem the flow of rhino blood soaking into the country’s soil.
On Tuesday Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife took the step of being the first state conservation agency to inject a chemical cocktail into the horns of several rhinos in an effort to contaminate an illegal black market wildlife product, the price of which has shot through the roof in the Far East and fuelled a deadly war that has claimed another 620 rhinos in the first nine months of the year.
Although the poison is not intended to kill people who swallow crushed rhino horn potions, wildlife officials warned that it was “extremely toxic” and poisonous enough to make users of the illegal product seriously ill.
Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, nerve disorders and other dose-related health problems.
The first animals to undergo the treatment are on the front line of KwaZulu-Natal’s rhino war in the Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve which lie on the northern border with Mozambique.
The horns will contain a bright red dye similar to the indelible marker dyes used to stain banknotes.
Apart from warning international crime syndicates and those using rhino-based traditional health remedies that the horns could be deadly, the dye can also be picked up on airport X-ray scanning machines – even if the horn is ground to powder.
Wildlife veterinarians Charles van Niekerk and Lorinda Hern, who have pioneered the “horn infusion” technology with several privately owned rhinos near the Kruger National Park and other poaching hot spots, said there was no evidence that the toxins could seep from the horn into the rhino’s flesh.
The first of several rhinos would be “infused” over the next few days and, depending on the results of the pilot project, Ezemvelo may extend the treatment to rhinos in other reserves.
The hope is that the illicit product will lose its commercial value to the extent of deterring poachers.
Ezemvelo chief executive Bandile Mkhize said he recognised that poison infusions were not a “silver bullet” which would end poaching, but it was one of several strategies to deter poaching.
“We cannot sit back and watch this species disappear on our watch,” he said.
While the strategy has been hailed by several conservationists as a bold and daring response to poaching, the deliberate poisoning of a product which can cause health problems has raised ethical and legal issues.
But Meshack Radebe, provincial MEC for Environmental Affairs, brushed these concerns aside.
Instead of querying whether conservation agencies could be held liable for criminal charges if any rhino horn-users became sick, Radebe said the emphasis should be on the “real criminals” slaughtering rhinos and profiting from the illegal sale of their horns.
“Let us arrest and deal with the poachers instead,” he said.
He urged Mozambican government officials and journalists in Tembe to take back a message to their country about what had happened in KZN.
Nevertheless, a Durban-based environmental lawyer has questioned the ethical and legal dimensions of poisoning a product which could be used for human consumption, regardless of whether the international trade in rhino horn was illegal.
“As much as I would like to see a more aggressive approach to poaching, the use of poison as a deterrent to poaching is akin to the use of chemical weapons in war,” he said.
“Under our common law, any person who creates a dangerous situation or condition is liable for the consequences if a person is hurt or killed.”
The cost of poisoning Ezemvelo rhino horns is being sponsored by the Stellenbosch-based Peace Parks Foundation, which was set up under the patronage of Nelson Mandela and international conservation donors.
Chief executive Werner Myburgh said a dedicated fund had been set up locally for the public to make donations to further rhino horn infusions.