WATCH: How dehorning is used to save rhinos from extinction

20th June 2019 8:21 AM

ON THE Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, a team of experts works out how to best install a chip in the thick ear of a white rhino.

It's no easy feat to get here - immobilising an animal that can weigh up to two tonnes requires a helicopter, a cocktail of incredibly strong drugs and heavy financial backing.

A white rhino is immobilised to have a tracker placed in its ear, and its horn trimmed. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro.
A white rhino is immobilised to have a tracker placed in its ear, and its horn trimmed. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro. Will Hunter

The RFID tracking chip that will be inserted into this male rhino's ear is the latest tool in the fight against this endangered species' biggest threat - poachers.

Rhinos Without Borders is leading the charge to save the animal from extinction, and the conservation organisation is dealing with high stakes.

A rhino is lost about every eight hours and its horn can fetch up to $90,000 US per kilogram on the black market.

Les Carlisle is the group conservation manager for the owner of the Phinda Private Game Reserve, &Beyond.

He says these "unbelievably enigmatic" animals can't survive without initiatives like the RFID chips.

Through the tags, the conservation team can monitor and track the movements of the rhino.

The chip installed to monitor rhinos was previously inserted in the horn, but this created its own problems.

"The problem with rhino horn transmitters is that the horn grows all the time. So that transmitter is growing out of the horn, it grows 10cm every year," Mr Carlisle said.

"Every year that horn implant is getting close to the tip, the aerial starts getting worn down. Eventually the rhino sheds that transmitter out of the horn."

The conservation team works on a white rhino that is having a tracker installed in its ear. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro.
The conservation team works on a white rhino that is having a tracker installed in its ear. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro. Will Hunter

Shortly after the installation of the chip, the buzz of a chainsaw rings out across the reserve - the start of another measure Rhinos Without Borders utilises to keep the rhino population alive.

Rhinos are also dehorned on Phinda to reduce the incentive for poachers.

Dehorning involves cutting off the dead keratin, the same protein found in hair and fingernails, above the animal's growth plate.

 "We know the horn grows back, so if we cut it off carefully and properly, that horn is going to grow back. While the horn is off, the rhino is safe," he said.

"The dehorning is one of the means of keeping the existing free-ranging population safe.

"We have to continue dehorning, but it's a big cost. The way we get the costs covered is we take people with us who pay to have the denorning done."

This male rhino, who has already been dehorned, has his ears covered while the conservation team trims the horn.

It is undoubtedly a difficult process to watch but we're assured it is no different to trimming fingernails.

A white rhino's horn is trimmed to deter poachers on the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro.
A white rhino's horn is trimmed to deter poachers on the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro. Will Hunter

Since the introduction of dehorning, poaching has decreased by 90 per cent and is said to have little impact on the wellbeing of the animal.

"When you dehorn, you dehorn all the bulls first because they are the ones that really fight," Mr Carlsile said.

"When you make that decision, you've got to do it for everyone to level the playing field."

Rhinos Without Borders is also moving animals to more remote parts of Africa, including Botswana.

The organisation has moved 87 rhinos to the country and aims to move 100, at a cost of $45,000 US per translocation.

Through Rhino Without Borders' conservation work, Phinda hasn't had any incidents of poaching in three years.

"We have the highest density of rhino in KwaZulu-Natal, against the highest density of local communities, and we have the lowest poaching incidents," Mr Carlsile said.

"We have to get benefits to the communities. They become our first line of defence in the war against poaching. They tell us when the poachers are coming."

The white rhino after his horn has been trimmed and a tracker placed in his ear. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro.
The white rhino after his horn has been trimmed and a tracker placed in his ear. Photo taken on a Huawei P30 Pro. Will Hunter

After about 45 minutes, the drugs immobilising the rhino are reversed and he stands up in minutes.

With a purple tinge on the end of his horn from the antiseptic, the tagged and dehorned rhino strolls off across the reserve - one of four who will go through the process on this day.

Photos and videos for this story were taken on the Huawei P30 Pro. The writer was a guest of Huawei Australia.