The Sabi Sand Game Reserve has launched South Africa’s first large-scale operation to counter the ravages of rhino poaching. The horns are infused by a non-lethal chemical mixture designed to sicken anyone using it as a “traditional medicine”. A key additive to the Sabi Sand treatments is an indelible pink dye which exposes the presence of smuggled horns on airport scanners worldwide and warns consumers that the ground-up product is hazardous. The picture shows the toxification process under way at Sabi Sand this month. Dean Riley-Hawkins and Lorinda Hern of the Rhino Rescue Project, who has co-developed the ectoparasitacide treatment since 2011, are busy collecting DNA from the rhino horn.

Cape Town - Owners of private game reserves on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park have upped the stakes in the rhino poaching war by infusing a toxic drug cocktail into the horns of their rhinos, made from non-lethal parasiticides used to control ticks.

Anyone using ground “medicinal” powder from these horns will become seriously ill, suffering from nausea and vomiting.

Says Andrew Parker, chief executive of the 42-member Sabi Sand Wild-tuin Association of property owners: “We’re not aiming to kill the consumers, no matter what we think of them. We want to kill the illegal trade that is preying on our herds.”

The horn will also be infused with an indelible pink dye that will expose it to any airport scanner.

Inserting a toxin into the horns of rhinos was pioneered by veterinary surgeon Dr Charles van Niekerk at the Rhino and Lion reserve at Kromdraai, north-west of Johannesburg, and the technique has been used on more than 100 rhinos in the past 18 months, according to the association.

Now it’s going large-scale in the Sabi Sand area, following a decision by the association’s members in February. First to step up has been the 49 500-hectare Sabi Sand Wildtuin.

The association says its members are facing “predatory gangs, heavily armed and highly motivated to meet the insatiable demand in Asian markets for rhino horn. That market is currently paying an estimated $65 000 (R600 000-plus) a kilo for mature horns, which average 4-to-4.5kg in weight when sawn or hacked off close to the skull of the harvested carcass.

“The poachers themselves, the starting point of the criminal traffic inside and around the Kruger Park, receive a mere fraction of the R2m-to-2.5m value of each horn from the syndicates that plan the raids and export the material. Yet the size of their pay-offs in the neighbouring low-income communities is ample enough to keep the poachers safe from being identified.”

Parker said Sabi Sand Wildtuin alone had budgeted R6.5m on security operations to intercept and head off rhino poaching incursions this year, and that “compromising” the product was the most effective deterrent.

“Poaching syndicates are here in large numbers and we are vulnerable as a western buffer between them and the Kruger Park... We are sending a message through the supply chain that rhino horn from Sabi Sand will endanger the health of anyone who uses it as a medicine. And it also raises the stakes against agents smuggling it through airports.

“… overcoming this present scourge is a fight in which we must prevail. Our strongest available response against poaching is to cripple the business of illegal rhino horn trading before it sabotages our own existing businesses.” - Cape Argus