Rhino poachers, meet your match: poisoned pink food dye

With rhino poaching on the rise, efforts to eradicate the practice are getting more creative. Dyeing rhino horns pink and tinging them with non-lethal poison is one way to discourage consumers from buying them.

James Morgan/AP
Rhinos are being hunted systematically by well-armed and well-organized poaching crime syndicates for the profits to be had from rhino horn in the illegal wildlife trade. Perceived by organized criminals to be high profit and low risk, the illicit trade in wildlife is worth at least US$ 19 billion per year, making it the fourth largest illegal global trade after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.

•A version of this post ran on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.

Demand for rhino horn increased exponentially over the past few years. The market is heavily concentrated in Asia, particularly Vietnam. Rhino poaching has leapt to keep pace with demand, and South Africa’s rhinos are among the most affected.

According to the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), between 2010 and 2012 the number of rhinos killed for their horns went from 333 to 668. So far in 2013, 216 rhinos have been poached in South Africa’s Kruger National Park alone. That is more death the past five months than in the years 2000-2008 combined. The rhino population in Mozambique, which was wiped out by large game hunters a century ago and later reintroduced to the national parks, has again been eradicated, this time with the connivance of some of Mozambique’s own rangers.

Convictions for poaching and trafficking in rhino horn are rare. But the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, California announced on May 16 the conviction of Vinh Chung “Jimmy” Kha, and Felix Khaon for, among other crimes, smuggling rhino horn into the United States with the intent of selling it to Vietnam.

In Vietnam, and other parts of Asia, powdered rhino horn is considered a cure for everything from a headache, hangover, or cold to cancer, and is also often advertised as an aphrodisiac. It holds no such properties. In fact, rhino horn is keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails. Despite this, rhino horn sells for between $25,000 and $40,000 per kilogram.

A Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference in March 2013, appears to have invigorated the international community to act to save these creatures. South Africa is threatening to re-erect the boundary fences between the South African and Mozambican halves of Kruger.

Some game parks in South Africa have taken the additional measure of poisoning their rhinos’ horns to deter consumer demand. The poison is combination of a parasiticide normally used against ticks on livestock and a pink dye that can be detected by airport scanners and is visible even when in powdered form. That means potential consumers will know what they are buying.

The parasiticide is not lethal, but it does make the consumer seriously ill. A logical next step is campaigns to raise awareness of rhino horn’s complete lack of medicinal properties and that the animals die, horribly, through the process. Similar campaigns are running in Asia against elephant poaching. They are spearheaded by celebrities such as China’s Li Bingbing, an actress, and United Nations Environmental Programme goodwill ambassador and retired NBA basketball player Yao Ming.

These initiatives are key because they focus on a crucial truth – anti-poaching and conservation efforts must be holistic to be effective. By addressing conservation efforts not just at halting the poachers, but also in decreasing the demand for rhino horn altogether, poisoning the horns and educating consumers is an important step forward.

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