The South African government has around 16,437 kilograms of stockpiled rhino horn and a further 2,091 kilograms more is in private hands. In recent months the South African government has stepped up its pro-trade argument and undoubtedly there will be some private rhino owners who are pro-trade.

Pro-trade requires the value of the horn to be maintained. Toxin infusion in to the horn is a devaluation strategy. Why would a government want a commodity devalued when it is pushing hard to legalise trade? Do you think this could be the reason the only rhino protection method which devalues the horn is being singled out for criticism? Well a lot of South Africans and people around the world seem to think so.

Over the last couple of months there has been several attempts to undermine the infusion process. Given this has largely backfired, big egos are now scrambling to get back some of their lost credibility. The only way to do this is to continue to try to prove they were right about the rhino horn infusion process. Because of money, what they have created is a mess and one that has huge consequences for the security of many rhinos.

As an executive coach I am often asked to solve business turf wars; large egos in competition who both believe they are right. When someone’s status is defined too much by what they do and what they get recognition for, they fight and often try to sabotage rivals or the new kid on the block. It is never pretty to watch and rarely do the opponents reflect on the ‘underling intent’ or the impact of what they are doing.

This looks even more tragic when the fight is between a David and Goliath as is happening between The Rhino Rescue Project (the David) and the South African Government (the Goliath) including scientist from SANParks. Add to that the complexity of hidden agendas and the large amount of money involved and it gets murkier and harder to unpick.

Rhino Rescue Project, one of the organisations that is doing horn infusion in South Africa and the ‘face’ of horn infusion in the global media seems to have been singled out for criticism. I’m sure everyone around the world who was following the rhino poaching crisis was excited at the news that the Dutch/Swedish Lottery Fund was giving 15 Million Euro for rhino conservation. A significant percentage of the donation was to go towards the horn infusion of several thousand rhinos. It appears that the Rhino Rescue Project was involved in the ‘infusion’ part of the lottery fund application but didn’t receive any money. As all of this is unravelling it appears some money has been returned to the lottery fund.

A recent paper written by a group of people including from SANParks on both horn infusion and the economic argument for a pro-trade approach has many critics.

The essence of the economic argument made appears to be that devaluing horn through infusion does not in itself reduce demand for untreated horn, so it will only drive poachers to seek out untreated horn from somewhere else. This is deceptive for 2 reasons:

  1. KEY: The argument used applies in the same way to protection measures such as armed rangers, de-horning, dog squads, drones etc. – you could argue that these measures simply drive poachers to seek out less protected parks and reserves. Where is the difference?*
  2. The true value of horn infusion is that it is the ONLY measure that can quickly impact end user demand. Criminal elements in the supply chain will find ways to wash out the dyes from devalued horns, but can they be sure they can get rid of the toxins? Hence end users will worry about the safety of the product. Health concerns are THE primary reason end users voice when asked specifically what would stop them consuming genuine rhino horn.

*Given this, why are they singling out horn infusion vs other anti-poaching measures? The only difference is that de-horning/protection/security based anti-poaching methods will not affect the value of the horn in a future, legalised market place. But the horn infusion method of rhino protection would devalue the price of rhino horn in a legalised market. This therefore begs the question: Why single out horn devaluation? Could they clarify if their argument is motivated by wanting to save the rhino or by wanting to make money from future trade?

So now let’s look at the horn infusion process and specifically the Rhino Rescue Project. It critics say the horn infusion process carried out by the Rhino Rescue Project doesn’t work as the infusion doesn’t penetrate the horn ‘fully’. This statement appears to be on the basis of looking at ONE horn! On the flip side many people including scientists and rhino owners say it works.

  • People, including vets, say infusion works but the process could be improved and
  • Many scientists say the process works but the results must be measured to make a definitive statement.

So let’s remember that the Rhino Rescue Project co-founders, veterinary surgeon Dr Charles van Niekerk and Dr. Lorinda Hern, tried something new in response to a rapidly accelerating rhino poaching crisis.

Like any new ‘start-up’ their work is innovative and experimental, but:

  1. Did they have the resources to do the infusion as thoroughly and rigorously as the conservation sector could have done. No, but it least they did it.
  2. Are they charging people for the infusion? Yes, it’s a fee for service model but if they don’t they would be asking for donations as the people doing the de-horning etc.
  3. Did they recognise the urgency and the need for action and to try something different when conservation often gets stuck in process, being risk adverse and waiting for something to be scientifically proven? Certainly.
  4. Is this infusion process experimental and evolving? Yes, and for the sack of the rhino it would be great if there were more people doing it and it could be rolled out quicker.

Like any start-up they have proven the process works. I assume they like many others thought the lottery fund money would be used not only to help scale the process up but to also monitor, measure and evolve it.

A clumsy attempt at an exposé by the South African ‘Carte Blanche’ program has triggered outrage in the SA general public and caused people to challenge a normally respected program. For those who would like to see more how the misguided attempt to smear rhino horn devaluation has backfired, you can follow this via the Carte Blanche and Rhino Rescue Project Facebook pages.

A response to the program from the Rhino Rescue Project can be downloaded.

This appears to be one of the triggers for the return of funds to the Dutch/Swedish Lottery. As Allison Thomson ask: “Wonder why they only returned R22m when they had budgeted more than R60m for horn devaluation???? Would they have returned any if they had not been accused of acting fraudulently???”

This is a mess seemingly created by people who either wanted to make money by selling stockpiled rhino horn or keep money donated for one thing to use on another. At best you can call it naïve.

I encourage people to stop wasting time and energy trying to save their own status or making money and to start focusing on the rhino, an animal that desperately needs our help.

I also think the users of rhino horn would be equally naïve if they didn’t see through a strategy focused on maintaining the value of a commodity.

Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking The Brand Project