Dehorning Unicorns


Rhinos are my favorite. Everyone that knows me has no doubt about this. There was a time in my life when I knew exactly what they smelled like, what their voices sounded like, how soft the back of their ears was… These memories, just as rhinos themselves have started fading in the last couple of years. We don’t see as many because there aren’t as many. Human greed is killing them.

About a year ago I was fortunate enough to witness rhinos being brought back to a reserve for the first time in a long, long time and although the area had had rhinos in the past, the rhinos brought in were different from what anyone could remember: they were dehorned. In an effort to protect the rhino and deter poaching, many game reserves and national parks across Southern Africa have taken to dehorning as a way of helping rhinos have a fighting chance. These creatures have walked the Earth for over 50milion years and now find themselves increasingly threatened due to the constant increase in the demand for their horns (mostly) in the Asian black market.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many reserves saw and are seeing their tourism-related revenues constantly decreasing (if not entirely coming to a stop); while revenue for reserves and hence anti-poaching efforts, rhino poaching has anything but halted and continues to threaten the survival of the species. The fight for survival, conservation, and preservation of white and black rhino populations in South Africa is an ongoing battle where passion, creativity, and vet procedures are combined in order to ensure future generations get to see this species in the wild.

Ironic, isn’t it? Humans removing an animal’s natural tool for defence as a tool to protect them. Dehorning isn’t simple and as with every procedure where an animals needs to be anesthetized, there is a level of risk involved as well as a high cost.

The general procedure to conduct a dehorning is to identify and dart the animal from a helicopter unit and then guide the ground team to the area. This can be quite a lengthy process, but once the rhino is found by the ground team, the effort is to keep the “downtime” short, closely monitoring the animal’s vitals and temperature. While the animal is down, the horn is cut off by means of a chainsaw and then stored and transported to an offsite location for safekeeping.

Rhino horn is basically made of keratin – the same substance as human fingernails and our hair  – and its removal doesn’t hurt the rhino or negatively affect its survival in the wild. While rhinos are able to survive in the wild without their horns, the horn will however regrow and the operation will have to be repeated within 18-24th months. Dehorning isn’t a silver bullet for the species’ conservation but a drastic measure put in place to buy extra time that needs to be coupled with the right anti-poaching, and management efforts if we are to save rhinos from going extinct in our lifetime.

Once removed the horn stump is smoothed using an angle grinder and painted with tee tree oil to avoid any potential infections.

During these trying times worldwide, tourism stakeholders and local communities are working ever so closely in order to give these animals a fighting chance –  it’s truly humbling to witness as a person and as conservationist the lengths we can, and will go to preserve our natural heritage.

While so many are working tirelessly to save them, I have been amazed at how many will shy away from a dehorned rhino and not deem it worthy of a safari sighting.
If this has been you, next time you see a rhino, don’t shy away. Stay, ask questions, take their photograph; don’t just dismiss it with an “Agh it’s horrible seeing them without their horn” and move off.

I agree, a rhino without a horn sucks. But a rhino without a horn is also a symbol of hope.


The lack of a horn, although ugly to witness, shouts to the world that behind all the greed there is also good and that there are humans fighting tooth and nail to keep them alive. A rhino without a horn is one more fighter that has a chance of roaming the Earth.

Don’t stop taking their photos, don’t stop talking about them – what we don’t talk about eventually fades and rhinos don’t deserve to ever be forgotten. Ever.

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