Botswana’s most environmentally-conscious opposition party has trashed the ongoing exercise to dehorn rhinos to disincentivise their poaching.
“With an absence of security, rhinos may continue to be poached regardless of whether they have been dehorned,” says Justice Motlhabane, the spokesperson of the Botswana Patriotic Front.
Rhinos are poached for their horns, which have a lucrative market in China and in an effort to protect its herd, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks is undertaking a long-term dehorning exercise. The rationale is that poachers wouldn’t be interested in hornless rhinos – which Motlhabane says is mistaken. His contention is that poachers continue to target hornless rhinos.
“This is often attributed to the stub of horn that is left after removal,” says the BPF spokesman, adding that if the horn is cut too close to the germinal layer, “this could damage the horn base and lead to deformed regrowth. Current dehorning is estimated to remove 90 percent and 93 percent of horn mass in male and female white rhinos respectively. So during any dehorning exercise, a stub of horn will remain.”
He contends that while dehorning makes poaching less profitable, the sad reality is that poachers will still kill for a horn stub due to its high market value.
Indeed, rhino horns sell very well, especially in Asia where there is cultural belief that they are a powerful aphrodisiac.
In Motlhabane’s estimation, the government has evidently not considered what vengeful poachers would likely do if they come upon a hornless rhino – kill them anyway. More sophisticated poachers use tracking devices but as he states, the lesson from the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is that poachers will kill dehorned rhinos to avoid having to track them. A related point that Motlhabane makes is that where visibility is impaired due to either thick bush or hilly terrain, “poachers may not see if the rhino has an intact horn prior to shooting.”
BPF views dehorning as “an intrusive procedure” that has potential to seriously compromise a rhino’s health.
“While all efforts are taken to reduce risk, there are sometimes veterinary complications while the animal is under anaesthetic that may result in death. The more frequently rhinos are immobilized, the greater the risk,” Motlhabane says.
He is as concerned that the government is interfering with God’s plan because He gave rhinos horns for particular uses.
“It is known that rhinos use their horns for several behavioural functions, including defending territories, defending calves from other rhinos and predators, maternal care (including guiding calves) and foraging behaviour such as digging for water and breaking branches. Male rhinos use their horns during disputes over territory or dominance. So, removal of the horn may undermine the ability of a particular bull to retain territory or status.”
Tourism is Botswana’s second forex earner and Motlhabane worries that dehorning will decrease the value of rhinos, whether for photographic or hunting tourism or as a potential live sale.
“Tourists want to see a complete animal. The horn is what makes it unique,” he says before asking a sarcasm-tinged rhetorical question about the decision-making of officialdom: “Are they also going to cut off elephant tusks because the ivory is wanted by poachers?”