IN A milestone event yesterday, the horns of the two rhino at Kragga Kamma Game Park were surgically removed, to make them safe from the threat of poachers. The outrage of rhino poaching was brought home as top wildlife vet Dr William Fowlds knelt by the anaesthetised mother rhino and used a chainsaw to remove her enormous horn, while her eight- week-old calf trotted around her, whimpering piteously.
In the Eastern Cape this year alone, five rhino have been poached at Dwesa on the Wild Coast and two at Kariega reserve near Kenton-on-Sea.
Asked about de-horning as an anti-poaching measure, Fowlds said it was becoming increasingly accepted. “It's not ideal and each case should be weighed up on its merits. In this case, the threat was so imminent that transmitter technology was not an option.”
The operation yesterday was undertaken under permit from the provincial environment department. In tears at the scene, one of the park’s owners, Ayesha Cantor, said, “It’s terrible we have to do this.”
Earlier, Fowlds used a rifle to dart the 12-year-old mother rhino, whose name is Bella. The dart’s sting but it was enough to make her charge off smartly. She stood inert in the shade of a tree for five minutes and then, as she began to feel the effects of the anaesthetic, she plodded heavy-footed into the sunlight.
To prevent her getting too close to a waterhole, Fowlds walked up behind her and looped a rope around her left hind leg, and pulled it off the ground. As weak and hobbled as she was, it took nine men pulling on the rope to bring her to a standstill. After three more minutes, she sank down onto her belly, unconscious.
Fowlds pulled a blindfold over Bella’s eyes and plugged her ears. An assistant poured water over her back to keep her cool.
White rhinos have a dome- shaped “growth plate” at the base of their front horn. The aim is to cut off the horn low enough such that it leaves nothing of interest to the poachers, but not so low that it will wound the animal, he explained.
Having started up the chainsaw, he used a tape measure to judge the 8cm safe clearance from the base of the horn – and the operation was over in less than a minute, leaving her detached horn, which was stowed in the bakkie, and a pile of horn shavings.
Fowlds’s team then took blood and tail hair samples, which will be used to extract Bella’s DNA. This DNA will be archived with all her particulars in a database of all the rhinos in the country.
Microchips were then planted in the stump of her horn and in the animal herself. The removed horn will also be microchipped. It was taken off the park yesterday and stored in a safe place.
The team then moved on to four-year-old Belita, who went down much quicker, and the whole operation was judged a success. The eight-week-old calf Bembi has no horn and it will be some time before she produces anything that will interest the poachers, park co-owner Michael Cantor said.
The Kragga Kamma Game Park was founded by Garnet Cantor in 2001 and is now owned by the extended Cantor family, headed by his elder son Michael.
In February, a special new communications’ mast was installed on the park to bolster anti-poaching security. But the stress did not ease and only last week specific, reliable information was received that their rhinos were being targeted, Michael Cantor said.
He said the decision to de-horn the animals was agonising.
“My dad felt at first that we were going to deface them and that we would be giving in to the poachers. These are also our flagship animals, there was some concern as to what tourists would think.
“Other members of the family thought the sooner we did it the better. In the end, it was decided that their safety comes first and this was the surest way of getting the poachers to leave them alone.
“We’re hoping that visitors will understand. Maybe it will prompt them to demand that something more needs to be done to protect South Africa’s rhino.”
De-horning diminishes a rhino’s re-sale value but, even without a horn, it remains intrinsically a rhino, he argued.
“It can still breed and we have great hopes in this regard for the future. It’s disgraceful that these animals have had to be defaced because of criminals.
“But the bottom line was we had to do the most we could do to protect them. If they had been killed and we had not done this, we would have felt terrible.”
A rhino’s horn is made of the same material as a horse’s hoof and it does not hurt them at all to have them removed, Fowlds explained.
“But when they wake up they will feel the difference, certainly.”
Rhinos use their horns to defend themselves in the wild against predators like lion. But there are no lion in the Kragga Kamma park, so it is not a dangerous loss in this regard.
But they also use them as “a social tool” to position themselves in the pecking order in relation to other rhinos in their group, Fowlds said.
“One concern when considering de-horning is whether it will interfere with this pecking order. But with the whole group here now without horns, it should not be a problem.”
Garnet Cantor said he had opposed the de-horning “but could not see any light at the end of the tunnel” in terms of a solution to the poaching.
“I was watching Bella yesterday morning messing about in the mud with her horn, and it emphasised to me what I felt about the matter.
“But in the end we acted in the best interest of the animals. That was what it was all about.”