By Axel Hunnicutt,
Wild Tomorrow Fund, Ecologist

This last week I was involved in what sounds like a horrible act of poaching: taking a chainsaw to the face of a rhino.  However I was not acting to poach or maim the rhinos in any way, in fact it was to help save them from such an act. Currently in South Africa we are fighting a war against what feels like an unstoppable wave, rhino poaching. Since 2007 the poaching of rhinoceros for their horns has increased by 9000% and has claimed the lives of well over 5000 rhinos. The country of South Africa is home to 74% of all of Africa’s rhinos with less than 19,000 white rhino and 2000 black rhino left within it’s borders. As such it remains the last stronghold for these animals on the African continent.

Let me quickly bring you up to speed on potentially one of the worlds most pressing conservation crises.  Rhino horn has long been used by eastern cultures, particularly the Chinese, dating back as far as the 2nd century. The consumption of rhino horn has been said to treat anything from fever to sexual incompetence and has been well ingrained in traditional medicinal practices. In Asia there are three species of rhino, all which used to range widely across the Asian continent. Today two are critically endangered (Sumatran & Javan) and the other is only found in 10 sites in two countries (Greater One-Horned). With Asia’s rhino populations basically non-existent due to overharvesting, overhunting, and poaching illegal markets have turned their eyes on a new supply; Africa.

Prior to 2008 South Africa was losing only a handful of rhinos a year to poaching, suddenly in 2008 that number shot up to 83. The quick establishment of criminal syndicates in the region and a myth in Vietnam and China of government officials being cured of cancer due to rhino horn treatment in 2006/07 initiated the takeoff.  The rise of wealth in southeast Asian countries, drastic increases in cancer rates in the region, increasing demand for rhino horn from traditional medicinal users, pre-existing criminal systems in southern Africa, and rampant poverty in the countries bordering South Africa’s most concentrated rhino population all combined for a perfect storm. In 2014 some 1215 rhinos died in South Africa’s parks, as the price of horn surged to $65,000 (USD) per kilogram. Now more expensive than gold or cocaine, rhino horn has switched uses to becoming a status symbol in Asian countries.

Studies done by the World Wildlife Foundation in Asia on the illicit trade of rhino horn have shown that upwards of 90% of “horn” sold in Chinese markets is in fact fake; it’s actually water buffalo horn.  The real horn, which is literally worth more than it’s weight in gold, is being sold to the new upper classes to display their wealth. It’s become a “party-drug”, where rhino horn powder is mixed in cocktails in upscale clubs and bought by businessmen to share at important business meetings.

The one important fact they’re all missing? Rhino horn is the same material as our fingernails: keratin. Years of medical research have resulted in zero evidence that consuming rhino horn in any way has any medicinal benefits or properties. If anyone is interested in what rhino horn does or tastes like they can eat their own toenails.



Make no mistake we are fighting a war and today we are losing this war for rhinos in South Africa. Everyday poachers enter parks and reserves across the country heavily armed, mercilessly slaughter rhinos, hack off their horns with axes and machetes, and hightail it to the nearest border to deliver the horns into the criminal network that transports them to Asia. Security costs for anti-poaching personnel and equipment have skyrocketed as parks that used to only have to worry about local people poaching for meat, now have to hire private armies. The few parks that can afford adequate protection are guarded like castles with attack dogs, guard towers, snipers, and aerial surveillance all constantly watching the fences for the next incursion. Parks employ private security teams to spy in local communities, pay out informants, and set ambushes for potential attacks. The parks that cannot keep up with the Jones are easy targets for a well-informed poaching network that swoop in and clean out a reserve leaving nothing but the bloated carcasses of their prey, orphaned baby rhinos, and pools of blood of both rhinos and humans.

Private wildlife parks in the country are no exception to this battle. Together the rhino population under the care of private parks in South Africa is larger than the population left in the rest of Africa. Unlike the public parks, the massive security costs are not covered by taxes or supplemented by support from the South African army. Instead these parks much fund their rhino protection through tourism and private donations, leaving many private owners to give up their rhinos. However some private parks are at the forefront of the rhino war and are in fact leading the fight for rhino conservation and protection.

The private reserve I am based in, Phinda Private Game Reserve, is in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and is surrounded by several government wildlife parks. In the last three years that’s I’ve been here, we’ve seen almost every rhino outside of our borders be poached, a testament to our anti-poaching teams in our reserve. Our research camp where I live sits on the border of one of these public parks.  I have had the unfortunate opportunity to witness this area go from a rhino haven to a barren desert. It was not uncommon to see several rhinos a day pass through our garden. Today we haven’t seen any live rhinos in over a year, but we have seen their bodies poached just a few hundred meters form our house.  Bringing the war literally to our doorstep.

A few weeks ago one of the toughest decision was made, to remove the thing that makes a rhino a rhino: their horns.  This verdict was not made lightly or quickly, as it is a massive undertaking. Make no mistake although the rhinos feel no pain, dehorning them is a traumatic and graphic spectacle to watch as we take power tools to the face of an animal.  With almost all the rhinos within a few kilometers of our border gone, we have been left as not just a strong target, but the ONLY target for poaching in the area. It was decided that we must dehorn in order to balance the fight. Dehorning does not stop poaching, but it does decrease the incentive for poachers while we increase security and thus the risk to them. This begins to shift the scales back to our side, where wildlife managers regain control of the situation.



Beginning two weeks ago we started one of the largest dehorning operations of it’s kind here at Phinda. The goal: to dehorn all rhinos in our high-risk sections of the reserve. This amounts to dozens of animals. The task felt enormous and most of us had reserved feelings of what we were about to do. Despite that, we all now the recent statistics in the area, that as of just last week 56 rhinos were poached this year in the region. Our commitment to make sure our rhinos were not another one of those statistics was resolute.

Our team included five of us from the research and management department, wildlife veterinarian Dr. Mike Toft, and our helicopter pilot.  To being we loaded all the necessary equipment into the back of a truck; ropes, water, chainsaws, petrol, oil, medical bags, stretchers, and our research equipment.  The helicopter, it’s pilot, our research technician armed with binoculars, and Dr. Toft armed with his dart gun all took off in search of our first rhino. In the meantime the rest of us loaded on the back of the truck and sped off in the direction of the chopper. From the radio communication with the chopper we can hear “we have a large male here, we’re going to put a dart in”.  Our driver, the parks manager, cuts off the road into the bush following the rhino as the helicopter flies just above the trees next to us to push the now darted rhino into an open area.

Soon the rhino bull begins to slow down, his little tail curls, he starts to lift his feet as he walks, and eventually stands with his head extended upwards. Our manager and myself jump out of the truck armed with a blindfold and earplugs. We sneak up on the rhino from behind and cover his eyes and ears. The chopper lands just near us and Dr. Toft disembarks, running to the rhino to ensure check on the effects of the extremely strong drugs he has to use. Less than a single drop of this opiod drug, M99, is enough to kill any of us within moments so we all are careful of the site where the dart went in.

As the drugs take full effect, the massive bull’s muscles begin to shake. The whole team now pushes against the wall of creature to topple him to the ground. It takes all of us to push him back up to a relaxed and reclined position.  It’s now that we can begin the dehorning.

Dr. Toft measures and marks from the base of the horn to ensure he does not harm the animal.  He then uses the chainsaw to remove the bull’s massive 27” front horn. He carves the horn down to the growth plate so that less than 200 grams of horn are left. He does the same to the back horn and then takes a grinder to both of them to smooth it out. When the rhino is done it will have virtually no horn left, but it will grow back evenly over time.

As the grinder turns off the equipment is all packed up and Dr. Toft administers the reversal drug to wake up the animal. We remove the blindfold and ear plugs and within a few minutes the rhino wakes up as if from a long sleep, stumbles to his feet, looks at all of us, turns, and walks off back into the bush. As we watch him walk off all of us stand in silence. Speechless as to what we are seeing, a magnificent creature robbed of the feature that brings reverence to his pose and place in the wild.

However as Dr. Toft said, “I’d rather see these rhinos without horns and standing on four feet, than see than feet up, bloated in the sun with their horns hacked off”, a sobering statement for all of us to hear as we watch what could be the future of how we see rhinos in the wild.  

We reenacted this whole process day in and day out until sunset every day, stopping only when it got to hot in the middle of the day. We did cows and calves, large males, sub adults, any rhino we could find. In total we removed horns from over 70 individuals!

For now we will have to continuously go back and remove the horn that grows back on these animals, perhaps every year or two, however hopefully some day soon, when the poaching stops, we can let them be true rhinos again and leave them to grow full horns once more.