When we touched down on South African soil in January 2014, the situation was dire. The previous year had seen a record number of poached rhinos, in a country that is proudly home to 80 per cent of the world’s rhino population.
In the name of the health-enhancing superpowers their horns are falsely believed to contain, 1,004 animals were brutally maimed and murdered during 2013. From anti-cancer to virility boosting and even the ultimate hangover cure (the latest claim), the medicinal myths surrounding rhino horns keep growing, as do the booming Asian economies that drive this deadly demand.
That situation might be changing thanks to Rhino Rescue Project, a specialized team of conservationists who are racing around South Africa to treat as many rhinos as they can with a unique horn-devaluing procedure.
This essentially consists of injecting the pink liquid used by the banking industry to spoil stolen banknotes into rhino horns, tainting the highly sought-after white trophy. The horn instantly loses its ornamental value.
Along with the dye, the horns are also infused with a cocktail that is completely safe for the rhino but toxic for any human who ingests it, making it a very risky investment for any potential buyer. It all sounds like the perfect poacher deterrent, but it’s a complex and pricey ground operation.
On the day we joined Rhino Rescue project, they were treating rhinos from the Kapama Game Reserve in Hoedspruit, in the east of the country.
Kapama’s 13,000 hectares are scanned from above by helicopter, while a specialist veterinarian, with incredible shooting skills, darts the tracked rhino with a tranquilizer from the air. Once the shot has been made, the ground teams are racing against the clock to find the animal and treat it before the sedative wears off.
It can take over 20 rangers to coax the dozy rhinos down in what can prove to be a challenging task: in one instance, a mother rhino resisted being separated from her calf.
Under time pressure, the Rhino Rescue team vets, all volunteers, run like a well-oiled machine: drilling into the horn, inserting valves, pressure-pumping the pink dye into the horn, measuring and recording the rhino’s vitals and also regularly turning animal – its crushing two-ton weight means it can’t lie on one side for too long.
Once the animal is injected, it awakes from a hazy sleep with no knowledge that it has been worked on by a dedicated team of humans desperately trying to save their country’s iconic species. All that remains is a simple band of duct tape around its horns that will soon wear off.
This unidentifiable procedure means that targeting any treated rhino in the Kapama Game Reserve can turn into a game of Russian roulette for any scheming poacher.
Unfortunately, the innovative programme is not a cure-all for this devastating trade. As the value of rhino horn skyrockets and the demand increases, poachers are getting more sophisticated and ruthless in their approaches.
We’ve already surpassed 2013’s record-breaking numbers. A heart-breaking 1,020 rhinos have been poached in South Africa so far this year: an average of four rhino deaths a day.
Which means that while you are reading this, a rhino could be tracked by GPS or night-vision goggles, pursued by helicopters surrounded by poachers, and hacked in the face with a chainsaw. I wish I was exaggerating the brutality, but these are the sophisticated tools and savage violence poachers are using to get their gold.
In fact, for some time now, rhino horn has surpassed the value of gold by weight, fuelling an entire underground economy. The illegal wildlife trade is worth an estimated $50-$150 billion a year.
The South African government is now considering legalizing the rhino horn trade in an attempt to force prices down and remove the incentive to poach, but the Rhino Rescue Project’s founder, Lorinda Hern, fears it sends out a contradicting message to the world.
‘If anything, by agreeing to trade, we would be reinforcing the idea that it has value, when we all know full well it has no value at all.’
But there is hope. Astonishingly, Kapama Game Reserve has had zero rhino attacks or deaths this year (I’m furiously knocking on my wood desk as I write this).
Under our watch, the Western Black rhino and the Javan rhino subspecies were declared extinct. The northern white rhino is down to its last four adults. There are only 35-45 main Javan rhinos and fewer than 200 Sumatran rhinos remaining. The Black rhino is now classed as critically endangered.
Neighbouring Kruger National Park has lost a staggering 672 rhinos this year. Head of the anti-poaching unit at Kapama, Albe Nel, says this is due to a combination of beefed-up security measures, boots on the ground and Rhino Rescue project’s horn devaluing procedure.
He also thinks it’s a miracle their rhinos haven’t been touched. He is all too aware of the rampant crisis in his country: ‘It’s a really sad situation in South Africa. Until we address the demand, it’s a losing battle for us every day.’
Gelareh Darabi is a London-based reporter with Al Jazeera English’s award-winning environmental series ‘Earthrise’. She traveled to South Africa to join a specialist group of conservationists who are fighting to protect rhinos from extinction. Their project is featured on ‘Earthrise’, airing tonight at 22:30 GMT on Al Jazeera English.