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 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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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.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David 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. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs 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. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Mario de Pinna

    Poisoning rhino horns is an excellent idea and should be implemented on a large scale. After only a few deaths in each of the consuming countries, panic will spread and the trade and poaching business will surely collapse. The farmers who do the poisoning are safe because international legal procedures and investigation in such cases will be infinitely morose and will drag on for all eternity. Besides, the legal situation is on their side: will you be guilty if a thief steals your purse and eats a poisoned sandwich he found in it?

  • rhinodefence

    it is not murder it is common sense. Agree with sandwich analogy. If they are accessing the south african poisoned product, then they are doing so illegally. So this reader is not sorry to say toug cookie if you buy rhino horn and choke and ur eyes pop out from ingestion of poison. Your point about the poachers continuing to make money while consumers die is not valid i feel, as the demand drives the murder of the rhinos. Government education will do ef all. As long as there is demand in asia, and unemployed in mozambique, they will continue. Therefore we must cut the demand. would personally be glad to see someone ingest rhino horn, eyes pop out, and die a slow death. Live action would be good.

  • Marche

    This article needs some serious research!! Go look at Lorinda Hern’s page – where the treatment all started!!! This is utter nonsense!! The horns are treated with pesticides (like you would treat your dog or cat with anti flea pesticide). It is NOT harmful to the rhinos but, LIKE ANY PESTICIDE USED ON DOGS OR CATS, can be harmful to humans … wake up!!!

  • Nicholas Stiger

    Unfortunately David Braun has no idea of how we do things in Africa. In reality we always have to get our hands dirty if you want to solve a problem of this nature. South Africa has a poorly functioning police force and as a result the people who care for these mighty beasts must act somewhat alone. I see the Hern family has taken the fight to this illegal trade and has found the legal loop hole to accomplish what they set out to do. I suggest updating your article so as to promote the threat of sickness to consumers of rhino horn.

  • Kcalb Onihr

    So when the very last Rhino is butchered what are you going to say then David? The human race is not an endangered species, if they’re stupid enough to believe the horn has any powers, then they deserve the consequences! Poison all the horn now.

  • Thomas Schneider

    I AGREE with all the poster here what they say about David Braun. As much as i agree with that poisoning rhino horns doesnt curb poaching like recent cases showed because poacher still kill them as they just care about the Money they can make not the welfare of rhinos or the customers, i ” like it so much” that he like so many others before make the owner who try to protect their rhinos and south africa´s natural heritage to the culbrights and the culbrights to the victims. clear that such Scenarios are described now ” the Lady was mourning over the dead Body of her husband”… normally i would have pity as well no question but not in this case as they are the guilty ones who drive this crisis with their fairy tale believes. I can just laugh about this comment that some customer might not even know what they buy!! are you going to a pharmacy and dont know which medicine you buy??? common. The same The Thailand Government who also just acts like the victims now. They want to know who it was that he will hold responsible…… they committe the crime without scrupul and than they are surprised if they have to pay the Price. its like with thugs who always go around , Messing with People and if they ones come to the wrong People they mourn and are the “victims”. same here, does Thailand expect everyone is watching, doing nothing while they and other asian countries kill the whole african heritage with their greed and fairy tale believes? i think its a huge attrocity saying they want to hold the Person who did it responsible at court while being the reason that this had to happen as they are the People who demand it. if THEY wouldnt make the demand and custome it this wouldnt have to happen. And here we go again with David Braun´s ” great new ” idea instead of making this measurement we should educate the asian customer . A better way to tackle the customer side to the rhino is education and global awareness. sometimes i really ask myself where some People are and have been in the past. As if These would be a NEW idea and attempt. David Braun, i ve been always interested into wildlife especial African and when i was a Little Boy 25 and 30 years ago i heared exactly the same. and it has been attempted with documentaries who where adward winning etc. I just wait till some one Comes up one day telling he tries to make us Aware that Smoking cauzes cancer. everyone knows that Smoking cauzes cancer and drinking Alcohol in mass damages the liver. same as People know what is going on with our nature and wildlife but they dont care, are ignorant and will continue being. The global awareness making about the threat of nature and wildlife has been attempted over decades, we see with which success. Your “better way”. thats so ridicolous to think that this is a good and effective, better way. From 333 poached rhinos in 2010 to 444 in 2011 to 668 in 2012 to around 900 this year while it is not even over??? Sure education all over the world is a nice idea and would be the best if it would work but it proved it doesnt. get it David most People in the world gave to understand that they dont care and dont want to care about as we do and we cant Change it as we cant force them. People who are not compassionate about wildlife, live overseas and ve no Close Connection or personal benefit of it the majority of them has no reasons and see no reason to care about when we come to the issue of global awareness. While you are typing that the customer should be educated, Experts are in Asia trying to educate the People about it and that not since yesterday either. its a thousands of year old believe along with greed of the Distributor and rhino or elephant life will never be put over this as Long as they can make Profit. if you are against poisoning okay, but than please come up with a real better way not one which has been tried over Ages doing if this idea would be something new . i totally agree with Kcalb and Nicholas, when i told other People who say the same like you that education steps Need tobe taken , telling them People ignored it over decades till now, you hear it will work with the time now, we are going to reach them, it will last time but it will happen. how Long? when?? when every rhino or elephant, tiger is killed. may i remember you that rhinos dont exist in numbers like human and some species became extinct in the last years through poaching when you guys say it lasts time. the only People which can be really reached by education are local Folks, who can makes benefits out of wildlife conservation by getting Jobs in game reserves. that was the way it was done in a park i volunteered a couple of times and theirfor this park being one of the very last remaining parks Holding a bright future for wildlife. but all other trying to make People all over the world care, Forget about it.

  • Michael Collins

    This is part of the answer. We need the following:
    1. In Information Campaign: peer reviewed double blind studies that show rino horns have no medicinal properties.

    2. A disinformation Campaign: sustained and well funded media, images, video, etc showing an every increasing plague of poisoned rhino horn users. 95% of this is completely fictional. However, many of our sensation oriented news outlets will be only to happy to carry the stories for the page views it brings.

    3. Really poison some rhino horns. Don’t dye them. The average joe must be convinced that it’s not possible to discern whether it’s been poisoned or not.

    4. Begin spreading fake rhino horn powder. This should look as real as possible and contain something that makes users moderately ill. I don’t want to kill anyone. The fake news reports can exaggerate the situation and claim many deaths and the lucky few that recovered after being ill.

  • seo hizmetleri

    I prefer your useful information and facts a person provide within your content articles. I most certainly will take note of your blog post and view all over again right here routinely. We are marginally positive I’m going to be informed lots of innovative stuff perfect the following! All the best for the next!

  • Robert

    This is wonderful. If the word gets out that people are getting sick and/or dying from ingesting Rhino horn, they will stop or die…and then they will stop. Great news.

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