How it Works

 
 

Process

To devalue the horn, we treat it by infusing a compound made up of ectoparasiticides (toxic to humans), indelible dye and SeekerDNA Anti-Poaching Forensic Marker to contaminate the horn. This does not have any adverse effects for the rhino but could for a consumer due to the ectoparasiticides being a toxin (it is registered as not suitable for human consumption). The compound renders the horn useless for consumption or ornamental use. Depending on the quantity of horn a person consumes, the toxins could cause nausea, stomachache, diarrhoea, and possibly convulsions, but this is depending on the quantity consumed.

We are continuously working to improve the chemical composition injected into the horn ensuring it saturates the horn material and offers the best possible chance of devaluing the horns from the poacher’s perspective. The improved infusion process utilises high-pressure infusion and a custom designed non-return valve, which prevents liquids from exiting through the drill holes. In addition, the non-return valves keep the horn at around 30 bars of pressure for up to 10 days; this is to ensure maximum liquid penetration into the large areas of the internal horn structure.

A full DNA sample is harvested from the rhino for RhODIS (rhino DNA indexing system) and three identification microchips are inserted into the horns and the animal itself.

 
 

Rhino Horn Composition

Rhino horns are mainly made of keratin, which is a protein found in hair, fingernails and animal hooves. Most horned animals have a bony core encased in keratin but rhinos have a mineral deposit of calcium and melanin at the core of their horns, which makes it more like hooves and beaks according to researchers at Ohio University. As you can see in Diagram 1 (to the left), a rhino’s horn consists of a tubular structure with a melanised inter-tubular matrix.

The initial idea of infusing the horn was as a one-time tick treatment, which led research into using the horn as a reservoir to help reduce the number of ticks living on the rhinos. Experts decided to infuse an acaricide they concluded is safe for the rhino, oxpeckers, vultures, and other animals in the preserve's ecosystem.

The procedure we will be performing on the rhinos’ horns in order to devalue them is based on both pieces of the research mentioned above. A specially designed cocktail is infused under pressure throughout the horn by using a custom designed non-return valve, which is inserted in to the horns. The valve keeps the cocktail within the horn around 30 bars pressure for up to 10 days, to ensure maximum liquid penetration throughout the large areas of the internal horn structure.  Due to the fibrous nature of rhino horn, the pressurised compound migrates through the interior of the horn but does not generally show on the horns surface (mainly due to rhinos having mud baths) or affect the rhino’s behaviour.

Rhino Horn Structure.jpg
This shows the internal structure of rhino horn. Courtesy of Hieronymus, Tobin L., Lawrence M. Witmer, and Ryan C. Ridgely. 2006. Structure of white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) horn investigated by x-ray computed tomography and histology with implication for growth and external form. Journal of Morphology 267(10)1172–1176.

This shows the internal structure of rhino horn. Courtesy of Hieronymus, Tobin L., Lawrence M. Witmer, and Ryan C. Ridgely. 2006. Structure of white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) horn investigated by x-ray computed tomography and histology with implication for growth and external form. Journal of Morphology 267(10)1172–1176.

 
 

Infusion Compound

The liquid infusion we will be using to devalue and trace the rhinos horn consists of a combination of several different products.

Ectoparasiticides – This is an anti-parasitic drug used to treat an ectoparasitic infestation. The ectoparasiticides that will be used is ox-pecker and vulture safe, as well as being safe for other animals living within the rhino’s ecosystem. Ectoparasiticides are a toxin and are registered as not suitable for human consumption. It is alleged that it is not lethal in small quantities but it is a toxin, and symptoms of accidental ingestion may include, but are not limited to, severe nausea, vomiting and convulsions (all dosage-dependent).

SeekerDNA Anti-Poaching Forensic Marker – This contains a Forensic DNA code that will be unique to both Park and/or rhino. The DNA code has been specifically designed, along with its carrier solution, to ensure maximum distribution and dispersion within the horn. It is a short chain molecule that is very stable, resilient and robust. It is effectively permanent and is non-toxic and environmentally safe. It also contains a UV marker that immediately identifies the presence of the DNA. This is being used as part of the infusion because if the worst should happen and a treated rhino is killed by poachers, the horn can be traced to a specific rhino and will contain irrefutable evidence that that horn was obtained illegally.

Indelible Dye – This stains the interior structure of the horn pink (even if it is ground into a powder) to render it worthless for ornamental purposes and make it distinguishable to end consumers planning to use it for medicinal or recreational purposes. The substance dye also ensures that If the horn is ground into a powder it will still be detectable. And as  it contains silver nitrate, it can be detected by airport security scanners all of which, will increase the risk of the criminals being caught.

 
 

DNA Sampling

One of the reasons poachers get away with committing these atrocious crimes is because the justice system cannot prove the horns that poachers have are not from rhinos that have died from natural causes or are “old” horns.

Along with using the SeekerDNA Anti-Poaching Forensic Marker as evidence that a horn came from a poached rhino, a full DNA sample (tail hair, blood and horn shavings) is taken from each rhino treated and once completed the full sampling kit is delivered to the laboratory for analysis. Like humans, every rhino has a unique DNA sequence and these are recorded on the RhODIS (rhino DNA indexing system) should the worst happen and DNA tracing is required.

 
 

Microchips

We also insert three microchips into the front horn, the back horn, and the shoulder of the rhinos treated. The Microchips used are similar the identification chips used in dogs and cats to trace their owner. They contain a unique identification number, which can also link a rhino and its horn back to a specific property or owner.