Rhinos are in danger of extinction, and the number of rhinos that poachers slaughter goes up every year. Most rhinos live in South Africa, where records for the numbers killed continue to climb — over 200 so far in 2013.
If things continue as they have, at least some of the five rhino species will be killed off. Kenya was home to about 20,000 black rhinos in the 1970′s; today there are just 500. South Africa has managed to move in the opposite direction, from just a few southern white rhinos a century ago to 20,000 today. Poachers’ massive takes are threatening that success.
It’s the horns that poachers want. Their popularity in traditional Asian medicine is on the rise. One activist, Tom Milliken, says, ”there is a whole new market that advertises rhino horn as a successful cancer treatment.” Milliken, Rhino Program coordinator with leading wildlife trade-monitoring network Traffic, continues, ”it’s being marketed in hospitals to the families of the critically ill. In addition, it has also become a trendy hangover remedy.”
Of course these claims are ludicrous — rhinos’ horns are just keratin, the same material as our fingernails. If chewing on our fingernails were a good hangover remedy we would undoubtedly know about it by now.
But logic and reality play no role in the price rhino horn fetches. So authorities try new tactics to foil poachers, and poachers find new ways around them.
A South African political party has proposed legalizing the trade in rhino horn as a way to reduce the slaughter. The idea is to create a system to cut rhinos’ horns off without hurting them. The horns grow back.
So far the government and international authorities have not pursued this option.
So rhinos’ defenders have rolled out a radical new method to put poachers off: dyeing rhinos’ horns pink.
This isn’t just any pink dye. It will set off airport scanners, even if the horn has been ground into powder for formulation into medication. More controversially, it will make people who ingest any of the horn sick. It causes “nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Ironically, these are some of the symptoms which rhino horn is incorrectly believed to alleviate.”
The pink potion may be too good to be true.
“The process of anesthetizing living rhinos to inject the cocktail is time consuming and entails risks; we know of rhinos in the private sector that have died in the process, including one at an event to specifically showcase this particular dye technique,” Milliken says.
Death isn’t the only drawback.
The dye must be readministered every few years. Even if reserves had the resources to catch and treat every rhino once, they couldn’t do it over and over.
On top of that, for some popular uses of rhino horn the dye won’t put buyers off. ”Vietnam has recently emerged as the single largest market for rhino horn,” says Dr. Susie Ellis, Executive Director of the International Rhino Foundation. “In Vietnam, it is now given as a high value gift item. Give a horn instead of a Rolex—it’s worth its weight in gold.” The pink poses no problem — sellers just bleach it out.
Pink dye doesn’t look like the answer, but it does show that innovations are possible and the fight is not over yet.
Photo credit: iStockphoto ("I'm Sleeping, Leave Me Alone")