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Poisoning horns is not a solution to the rhino poaching crisis

By David Braun Circulating on Facebook today is a news report that purports to come from the “Bangkok Star,” a newspaper that doesn’t seem to have a website. “A woman mourns over the body of her deceased husband after he had purchased apparently purposely contaminated Rhino horn on the open market in Bangkok,” says the...

By David Braun

Circulating on Facebook today is a news report that purports to come from the “Bangkok Star,” a newspaper that doesn’t seem to have a website.

“A woman mourns over the body of her deceased husband after he had purchased apparently purposely contaminated Rhino horn on the open market in Bangkok,” says the report, which is accompanied by a photograph ostensibly illustrating this situation.

According to the report:

“The source of the contamination is still to be verified but it is thought to be from a private game farm somewhere in southern Africa. Officials in Thailand are frantic to identify the source, as the powdered horn is sold in miniscule amounts and they have no idea how much has already been distributed thoughout Bangkok. Local hospitals are on standby for an unprecendented influx of new cases. Officials are unable get information as the rhino horn dealers in Bangkok are being unco-operative. They neither want to be fingered as being the provider of the poisoned horn, not do they want to reveal their illegal international sources. It is believed that private game farm owners in southern Africa are colluding between themselves to distribute an effective poison that is harmless to the animals but harmful, or even fatal as in this case, to those that ingest the contaminated horn.

“A game farm owner from the North West Province who obviously wishes to remain anonymous, has admitted to using the poison on 4 of his animals.”

The report is questionable, and not least because of the attribution to the mysterious “Bangkok Star.”

Is it really feasible to impregnate an entire horn with sufficient quantities of poison to make it lethal to anyone who consumes a tiny shaving of it in traditional medicine?

Consumers of traditional medicine containing rhino horn have only the word of the criminal syndicates who poach rhinos that the so-called medicines actually contain rhino horn. How could they verify that what is bought covertly under the counter is what the crooks say it is?

Users are probably being fooled twice–rhino horn contains no medicinal properties (Rhino horn: All myth, no medicine) and the traditional medicines they’re buying almost certainly don’t contain rhino horn anyway. It’s a perfect scam: Rhino horn is utterly useless as a medicine or tonic so you could bottle any powder and call it rhino horn–either way it won’t have any effect so there is no way users can tell the difference.

The unscrupulous people involved in this bloody trade feel nothing about slaughtering rhinos by the hundred, depriving South Africans of their natural heritage and exterminating a noble animal from the Earth. They would not feel any obligation to actually sell rhino horn to the gullible who think the horn can boost their health or sexual vitality. The ghastly trade is fueled by superstition, greed and skullduggery.

Rhinos are being exterminated for no reason other than to make wicked people rich. And the riches to be made boggle the mind. It’s been reported that buyers in Vietnam and China are willing to pay as much as U.S.$1,000,000 for a single rhino horn. It’s the kind of money that can fund poaching with helicopters, night-vision scopes, assault rifles, bribes for crooked security and conservation officials, and “mules” to smuggle horns across international borders.

Rhino poaching has become such a crisis in South Africa that some owners of private game parks and conservation activists have been threatening to poison rhino horns with cyanide or some other toxin that would be lethal to anyone who consumed products containing horn.

The motivation behind such thinking is that if the demand for rhino horn can be dried up out of fear of being poisoned the poachers will have no incentive to kill rhinos. Many good people have applauded the idea.

But we should think this through. Poisoning a consumer of rhino horn would be murder. People who have been taking rhino horn for decades could be hurt or worse. Innocent people who might not even know they are taking rhino horn could die. The people who actually do the poaching and smuggling–and who finance the whole sordid business–would probably be unharmed.

A better way to tackle the consumer side of the rhino trade is education. The governments of the consumer countries need to promote general awareness that rhino horn is completely useless as a medication. There needs to be high-profile publicity of the scams involving using fake rhino horn in traditional medicine, so users may think twice before they part with their money.

Illegal wildlife traders and smugglers should be dealt with harshly–but each country’s judicial system must decide how best to do this within the law and due process.

Mass stealthy poisoning is not a good solution to the rhino poaching crisis.

Rhino horn: All myth, no medicine


Related reports from the rhino war zone:


International park becomes frontier in Southern Africa’s rhino war

South Africa vows to fight rhino poachers to “last man standing”

Elle Macpherson a voice for rhino conservation?

“Conservationists” behind rhino poaching spree, newspaper reports

South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

South Africa, Zimbabwe epicenter of rhino poaching


NGS stock photo of South African poster by Steve Raymer

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Comment (received via

From the Black Rhinoceros Foundation:

Calling the horn-treatment by farmers murder seems a stretch to me, since the animals are privately owned and never sold for consumption. Hence I would expect that the farmers are legally free to do with their horns as they wish.

The closest comparable situation which comes to my mind is the poisoning of cleaning alcohol which many governments require, and which is normally not seen as murder.

The good news is that if people don’t like the idea of consuming stolen poisonous horns, then they can simply stop doing so.

Turning the responsibility around is saying that rhino farmers have the duty to supply good quality horns to the thieves who kill their rhinos.

I find it equally difficult to understand the suggestion that the horn poisoning is especially unfair towards people who have consumed rhino horn for decades and now may get hurt, as if their persistent consumption of stolen horn in the face of the almost extinction of the species gives them an entitlement to continue their destructive and illegal habit.

Similarly questionable seems the idea that consumers may not know that they are consuming rhino horn. Given the high prices and exclusiveness of real horn it would make no sense to add it to a preparation without informing the client.. that would be like selling diamonds while pretending its quartz.

Let’s not forget that about 99 percent of the rhinos population died along with many people who tried to protect their rhinos against poachers. If the cretins who are knowingly responsible for this choose to continue this habit, I can only applaud their death due to horn-poisoning.

From Steve Maidment, South Africa:

We know that rhinos are being poached and the horns taken. South African newspapers regularly show graphic photographs of the slaughter. If, as you say, the medicinal preparations purporting to contain rhino horn often do not, then where are the horns going? And if unscrupulous traditional healers can get away with fooling their customers, then why go the expense and risk of hunting the rhinos in the first place?

It is obvious that somebody is buying rhino horn. Education would clearly be the preferable way to stop the trade, but who should be educated if the traditional medicine consumer is not actually getting any horn? It seems unlikely that education would work before the rhino goes extinct, at least in the wild, given the (apparently) large size of the market for horn, the small size of the rhino population and the enormous task of educating all possible consumers. Not to mention the big money involved.

The tourism industry in South Africa employs many thousands of people and depends to a great degree on its unique wildlife, rhinos included. Apart from the ethical and the conservation issues around rhino poaching (or any poaching), theft of rhino horn also implies theft of a heritage and a livelihood. I guess this is why I haven’t yet met a South African who doesn’t support poisoning the horns (if it can be done).

From Bill Cody:

Want to end poaching, end the demand. Several decades ago we had a Tylenol scare, concerning tainted Tylenol, it caused quite the panic, do the same.  Put word out that your dumping poisoned rhino horns on the market that you removed from living animals. People wont want to buy a product if they think it will make them sick.

The other option is to find a way to produce bogus horns to dump on the market.

Short of putting poachers heads on stakes I don’t see a nice way of ending the slaughter.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn