On the dilemma over the Rhino Horn

This first appeared here.

Discussion: protecting Rhinos is bloody and tiring business. The battles are not fair, with the poachers being better armed. Should India move towards de-horning rhinos, in order to give the animal a fair shot at life? I argue no, as this sets a wrong precedent for both the rhino and other animals (would we consider de-tusking elephants, if we are de-horning rhinos?). What are your thoughts? Leave them below.

On the dilemma over the rhino horn


SAVING THE RHINO: While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Hindu: SAVING THE RHINO: While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Intervening to remove a rhino’s horn, in response to a patently illegal activity, may set a dangerous precedent

In the luscious wet forests and golden grasslands of Assam, a keratinous debate is brewing. The debate is about the Rhinoceros unicornis, the One-horned Rhino of India, and its single horn. The rhino, short-tempered and evolutionarily ancient, is an animal with enigma: one which writer Rudyard Kipling described as wearing a suit of armour, a great beast which survived the Pleistocene Mass Extinction of animals, and whose single, mounted horn is both a mystery and a product of exceptional evolution. Tragically, this defining characteristic is also the reason for the rhino’s continuous decimation: rhinos are poached for their horns, with mounted, gunned battles leading to losses of forest guards, conservation effort, and the very lives of the animals in our states.

The Assam government now has a proposal to take away the ostensible source of death and illicit trade: the rhino’s horn itself. An expert committee has been constituted by the State to consider the ‘feasibility and necessity’ of de-horning rhinos, in a move to ‘save’ them. At the moment, the proposal suggests that the horns of rhinos that ‘stray’ outside protected areas, or rhinos that need to be translocated, should be ‘trimmed’ (‘Assam Government awaiting expert opinion on trimming rhino horns’, The Hindu, February 13). Comments on this issue are open till the end of the month.

At one level, this move signals the desire of the State to address a long drawn out and exhausting battle. In Assam itself, rhinos are poached every few weeks, and 11 have been killed this year. Poachers are known to carry sophisticated weapons like AK-47s, and are ruthless. Yet, in the protection of rhinos, the forest department’s role is legendary: Assam became the first State in India to issue ‘shoot at sight’ orders for poachers in Kaziranga National Park, boosting the rhino population.

Of one horns and poachers

However, the battle to protect the rhino, whose horn is seen as nothing less than gold or cocaine in the illicit market, only starts with healthy populations. Poachers strike opportunistically. Being a high stakes and high-risk trade, it is unlikely they will stop until the last rhino is gone forever.

And here is where the decision to de-horn rhinos needs to be put into broader perspective: the ecological role of the horn, the open question of addressing poachers as an audience, and the very ethics of intervention.

Unlike the African rhino, the Indian rhino has a single horn. This horn is made of keratin and if cut in a way that includes the skull, it will not grow back. If cut in a manner which excludes the skull it is likely to regrow. While the Assam government stresses that the proposal being considered is only for temporary trimming, I don’t believe the most significant question is whether the horn is removed temporarily or permanently. Rather, the essential question is: who is the audience for this exercise?

The rhino is considered the most coveted animal in the illegal trade. By removing its horn, we assume that there is perfect complicity between demand and supply of this product, the horn. But this is not the case. Evidence suggests that poachers kill anyway, being part of a violent, and ultimately dangerously illegal occupation.

In African countries, where de-horning has been tried as a measure to protect rhinos, poachers have killed dehorned rhinos out of vengeance. In India, poachers have killed female rhinos for their horns, even though they have horns significantly smaller than those of males. In a nutshell then, poachers trap, shoot or kill opportunistically, and the size of the horn (or even its presence) may not be a deciding factor.

The second, much more complicated problem to mull is that of protection of rhinos that don’t get dehorned. This is on the same lines as the first question: if the audience for the dehorning exercise is the poacher, then we cannot assume he will leave poaching altogether because stray rhinos (which are technically easier to poach) don’t have horns. In fact, this may victimise regular rhinos more, and it is most likely that rhinos with horns inside protected areas like Kaziranga, Pobitora and Manas may be attacked with greater gusto.

The ethics of intervention

The debate surrounding rhino conservation in Assam today is a direct response to the social reality of rhino poaching. The ecological consideration of the role of the horn for rhino reproduction and feeding may not have been the primary deciding factor in this debate. Indeed, the role of the rhino horn has been poorly understood.

But field observations confirm that successful males are also those who have large horns, and the horn has been seen as used in foraging for food. Even if we consider a deficiency of data on the role of the horn — while the animal possesses it — it will be difficult to consider the answer to the opposite question: can the rhino lead a normal life without the horn?

Here is where the most difficult question of all comes in: the very ethics of our intervention. Intervening to remove a rhino’s horn, in response to a patently illegal activity, may set a dangerous precedent. There are several species which are highly prized in the poaching trade, and these include tigers, lions, tokay geckos, and elephants. Tigers and lions are killed for their skins, nails and bones, tokay geckos for their body parts, and till recently, elephants were slaughtered in India for their ivory.

Dehorning rhinos may or may not stem poaching of rhinos. But it may set a precedent for similar such exercises, which are seen as a management tool, but have unknown impacts on the actual life and ecology of the animal. If we dehorn rhinos, we may at some time also consider de-tusking elephants. Finally, the impact intended on the ‘audience’ of poachers itself is unknown. In the absence of rhinos, will poachers pack their bags, or will they move towards capture of other species?

Animals do not live in the boxes or bestiaries we make for them. The rhino’s horn has been seen as a symbol of power, and in our human imagination, the horn has pride of place, as in the symbol for Assam Oil, and many other Assamese metaphors. In effect, the rhino did not ask for its horn to be understood as power, and transference of this power to humans, whether as a sheath for a dagger or under Traditional Chinese Medicine.

While proposals for dehorning the rhino demonstrate intent to solve the rhino poaching problem, it is also a complete admission of defeat, and that too, to unregulated forces. These are forces which we should not buckle to, for reasons both logical and ethical. The answers will lie in demonstrating seriousness in solving the actual problem: through higher conviction rates for poaching cases, enforcement, vigilance and carrying forward the commitment the Assam government has already shown. There is no other means of saving the unfortunate rhino.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal. Email: n.sinha@bnhs.org)


George Schaller Interview

An interview with legendary conservationist and field biologist extraordinaire, George Schaller. This interview I did of him appeared in the Indian Express in 2008

George B. Schaller is an award-winning conservationist and field biologist who has been working on conservation issues around the world since 1952. Here in India in the wake of the tiger census, Schaller — currently vice-president of the Science and Exploration Programme, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx — advocates the protection of the Indian tiger through the protection of tiger landscapes — areas where contiguous habitats are a possibility. The first westerner to be allowed into China’s Chang Tang region in 1988, Schaller is currently working on a transfrontier reserve spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. He shared his views on US environmental policy and the Indian tiger in a conversation with Neha Sinha

George Schaller

Photo: from here 

Does the tiger count 1,411 cats left in the wild in India — surprise you?

For me, the issue is not if there are 1,400 Indian tigers left in the wild or 1,800. The issue is that the tiger in India needs immediate and focused conservation. The Tiger Count has conducted the census by dividing the country into six landscapes (Western Ghats, Central India, Eastern Ghats, Shivalik-Gangetic, North Eastern Hills and Brahmaputra Flood Plains, Sunderbans) and this should be the approach to save the tiger. The focus has to be on preserving the landscape as a contiguous habitat.

The US has the largest number of captive tigers in the world. How do you respond to that?

My main concern is with tigers in the wild.

Do you believe the Forest Rights Act, which allows tribals to live in forested land, might lead to further deterioration of the situation?

Environmental education is very important. If the community is very remote, most people in it like to move out. Local communities can be stewards of their land. Ecotourism is a good idea, because the same locals will keep outsiders out. Landscape conservation can only exist with community participation. In Tibet’s Chang Tang area, we have involved local communities to help preserve their wildlife like the yak, the bear and the Chiru antelope. There, we have involved the local llamas in spreading the message. We can also make a set of moral values part of conservation. In the Buddhist faith this is easy to do. It’s possible also to involve spiritual leaders from Hindu and Islamic faiths to spread the conservation message, as the holy texts in both faiths have extensive passages on protecting wildlife and the environment.

At the same time, for India’s future and its tigers, we do need certain tracts or areas, which are not degraded by people. We need to make sure out grandchildren will be able to see the Indian tiger.

Has India done enough to save her wildlife? How has the US fared?

The Indian Supreme Court has really made some unprecedented decisions in favour of wildlife and the environment. For example, the decision to not collect deadwood from natural sanctuaries is a good one. India has endless problems but there have been efforts. It’s highly unusual for the courts to intervene in environmental areas as the Supreme Court has done. It’s unprecedented. I wish America had a similar body.


People here and there don’t really care about conservation issues. They need laws and education to guide them.

The American courts are not doing enough. George Bush is the worst president for the environment the US has ever had. The Congress is so divided. The Republicans always vote for Bush. Over 400 executive orders, and additions to bills have been passed or are being passed which will impact the environment. For instance, the government wants oil drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. They are okay with putting roads through reserves and timber cutting, violating some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Why is the US silent on the Kyoto protocol?

That’s because we have an uneducated president who thinks that saying ‘no’ to everything will make the US a powerful state. It’s frustrating. In the ’60s and ’70s, people looked to the US for guidance. India, China and the US will not fight together for climate change but working together is required.

When will things change?

The situation will change with the change in the White House.

What are you working on now?

We are working on a transfrontier reserve, an International Peace Park, through Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. The reserve will be for nomads and wildlife. We are also looking at a lot of scientific exchange, and capacity building. We are working with communities and the local mullahs.

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