In the first in a series of articles about the rhino horn debate, Professor Keith Somerville reports on a fascinating research trip to look at the trade and the coming tussles at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference, which will be held in South Africa at the end of September.

The large bull rhino, accompanied by a couple of rhino cows, was about a hundred metres away. The jeep carrying the darting team moved closer, there was a popping sound and the bull twitched and moved off with a dart clearly visible in his upper leg. Within two minutes he was down on his knees looking groggy. The dehorning team was out of the jeep and over to him, attaching blinkers to cover his eyes and a group of ranch hands held him down and attached a rope to his back leg.

Things then happened quickly but with an assured and rapid routine that was impressive to watch. The vet monitored the animal’s vital signs – it was sedated but not unconscious and not obviously alarmed or in any pain. The dehorners measured and meticulously recorded the circumference and height of the horn and calculated how much to remove. All the while the rhino was breathing loudly but steadily and made no attempt to get up or even shake off attention.

Once the measurements were taken and recorded, a line was carefully drawn around the horns (both the large front and smaller rear ones) leaving about four or five centimetres below the cut line to ensure growth would continue and there would be no damage to the horn bed where it joins the skull. A battery driven saw was then used to cut through the horn, which took little longer than a minute – all the time someone was spraying cold water on to the horn as it was cut to prevent over-heating and burn injuries.

Then the horn was off. The team cleaned up the edges of the stump and brushed off any shaving or dust – which all went on to a big plastic sheet under the rhino and was gathered up in sealed and marked bags. The two horns were measured, weighed and marked with indelible ink and their specifications recorded. When a rhino (all of which are tagged and ID chipped) is first dehorned, DNA samples are taken so in future any horn can be clearly identified.

The main horn from the first rhino weighed 565g, the smaller 67g and the shavings 45g – at the estimated market price in Vietnam and China (the main markets for poached ivory) this would be worth about $40,000. But these and the shavings were not bound for the smuggling syndicates and illegal trade, but for a safe in a bank or secure depository in a secret location in South Africa.

The two dehornings I saw took place at the huge rhino ranch at Klerksdorp, in South Africa’s north-west province, belonging to the world’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume.  His 8,000 hectare property carried 1,405 mainly white rhinos and he has successfully bred 951 over the last 25 years. To give an idea of the importance of this for maintaining numbers, South Africa has 18,796 white rhinos and 1,916 black ones (Save the Rhino), but 6,000 have been poached since 2016. Poaching is done by a variety of groups that range from poor Mozambican peasants to local South Africans, to rogue professional hunters and even former vets and senior wildlife officials from the Kruger Park, I was told by Nicholus Funda, the head ranger at Kruger National Park.

John Hume is a very determined and pugnacious man, who since retiring from a successful holiday property business, has devoted his time and considerable funds to raising rhinos and fighting to find ways to save them. His ranch is not a national park or sanctuary but a massive breeding operation with more rhino than you’ll see gathered together anywhere else. He told me, though, that it is not like a rhino factory farm with animals squeezed in and he estimates that in the vast bull enclosures, there is just one to every 9 hectares and cows have about 8 hectares each. Only at feeding time do they gather in huge numbers – a variety of feedstuffs is brought in to supplement grazing; vital now that South Africa is in the grip of a severe drought.

Each month Hume pays out two to three million rand for feed and another three million on security. He is currently trying to build a radar tower and install sophisticated camera systems to supplement existing surveillance and patrolling capabilities.

Hume and other private breeders in South Africa dehorn their animals to deter poachers. It doesn’t totally stop the activity as the remaining band of horn could be hacked off, but evidence from peer-reviewed studies has shown that dehorning, when widely advertised, is a deterrent (see Lindsay and Taylor) as poachers generally avoid farms/ranches with dehorning and good security. Even so, Hume has had attempted incursions by poachers.

The horn grows back and Hume dehorns his animals every 18 months to two years. Rhino horn is chemically complex and contains large quantities of sulphur-containing amino acids, particularly cysteine, but also tyrosine, histidine, lysine, and arginine, and the salts calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. It has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for millennia and now is believed, erroneously, in Vietnam to cure both cancer and hangovers.

Currently, the international trade is banned and the booming demand in China and Vietnam has created a huge and lucrative black market with horn fetching $60,000 a kg. This is a major threat to rhino numbers. John Hume believes that in the future only a combination of good security, dehorning at least on private ranches (few national parks and reserves want to dehorn) and the development of a regulated and closely monitored legal trade will save the rhino in the wild.

This is a view strongly opposed by many conservation and animal rights NGOs and is unlikely in the near future to get sufficient support from international governments to end the 39 year old CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) ban on trade. It will be debated at the CITES Conference in Johannesburg at the end of September, when Swaziland applies to be allowed to trade in rhino from legal stocks and natural mortality – but no change is remotely possible at this stage. John Hume and a growing number of rhino breeders and conservationists believe it is the only answer. They have a mountain to climb to prove it can be done. But what is clear, is that dehorning is a very useful tool and one that can reduce the attraction of a rhino to poachers without any ill-effects for the animal.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and teaches journalism at the University of Kent. His book – Ivory Power and Poaching in Africa is published in November 2016. Professor Somerville is grateful to the Comanis Foundation for funding and organising his research trip. In the coming weeks he will be writing more on the rhino horn debate and Swaziland’s bid at CITES.