Pink Rhinos and Elephants?

Poisoning ivory horns tagged with pink dye to deter poachers.

When I read this old news on Facebook, at first I thought, “How does this affect survival among other wild animals?” Then I remembered that this is limited to animals living in fence reserves and human kill far more than the lions do. Then there are other questions, like how long does the dye last? Horns are like fingernails. And dye doesn’t permeate through dense tissue. Poachers can use wait for the dye to wear off or cut the part that is dyed and use the interior.

This turned into an interesting web search! The dye is mixed with poison. Reserve animals are anesthetized (young, old, and sick can’t undergo this procedure), the horns are drilled and filled with the poison and dye. The procedure, only a few years old, will have to be done again after a few years when new horn tissue grows in.

It’s a desperate effort–the procedure is expensive and the horns are valued enough that even cutting out the parts that the poison and dye didn’t reach can yield high profit. However, the dye, even after the horn is grounded, is detectable and a red-alert for airports.

Rhino face
Close up photo courtesy of John Picken on Flickr.

I’m curious how it works down the line–who’s to say by the time powdered ivory is sold in a Chinese shop anyone knows where the ivory came from? The toxin is meant to give a healthy person gastric distress (toxic effects tend to be exaggerated and even dangerous in unhealthy people), and the toxin is publicly known to be used by the reserves but no one will ever know who the poachers were. Maybe the middlemen will know and ask for pure horns? Then the poachers will be looking for free-roaming rhinos and elephants.

All speculation though. Most articles on this are a few years old.

I also initially thought, “Surely we have more common sense than to put a bright color on a wild animal. Many a wildlife biologist has learned that’s a good way to get animals selected by the predators.” Yet, “Poachers kill way more than the lions ever could.” Still, something didn’t seem right. Too simple. So I looked it up.

Rhino post-procedure
A rhino post-procedure, posted on Facebook by Rhino Rescue Project. Not too pink…unlike the photo-altered versions floating around the internet.

The pink dye is only on the surface and is meant to be a warning that the horn carries an injected toxin that might, if the right people got upset, middlemen would not buy from poachers that sold them toxic ivory that made the medicinal industry take heat for making people sick (the toxin causes extensive nausea and diarrhea, which would be fine for a healthy person living in an area where there’s proper medical care–there’s a lot of controversy on this method).

The toxin procedure is $600-$1400 per rhino (depending on which article I read) and would need to be done every few years because of new horn growth. The toxin is injects into a hole drilled into the horn while the animal is anesthetized. Considering how many thousands of rhinos and elephants there are, only a vast minority would be able to receive the procedure (the ones living in reserves).

Long story short, the toxin doesn’t permeate through the horn tissue and stays on the surface. Middlemen processing horns can easily leave the toxic parts (well marked) and use the clean parts.

The idea was to provide a proactive, not reactive, method of tackling the ivory trade that has led to an almost 10 fold increase in rhino deaths from eight years ago. For now though only select research animals have undergone the procedure, so the overall annual death numbers–thousands–won’t change. Consider this research and development, non-profit style.



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