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Updated: March 28, 2014 02:04 IST

On the dilemma over the rhino horn

Neha Sinha
Comment (18)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
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:

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India is a banana republic. If you can't solve the problem well
kill the problem. kill all the rhinos. No?. God only knows who are
these bright people with these wonderful ideas. Its like you can't
remove poverty well remove the people who are poor.

from:  Vijay
Posted on: Mar 29, 2014 at 13:49 IST

Rhino dehorning - should be done like it is done with cows.

It is all well known that forest guards/ officials and poachers are hand in glove.

If I was a guard with Rs 12,000 salary - one rhino kill with Rs 200,000 is certainly worth
Whether it is opportunistic killing or otherwise - as long there is market demand for the
horn. The killing will not stop. It is worth considering dehorning the rhino or we loose the
rhino forever. Having travelled to Assam over 2 decade - I personally believe that this
initiative will go a long way to preserve the population of the Indian rhino.

from:  Cyril Das
Posted on: Mar 29, 2014 at 09:50 IST

Will the rhinos without their natural horns will attract tourists
anyway? Certainly not. Instead Government must take strong action
against poaching like improving intelligence network, spending more for
anti poaching activities, creating special task force etc. Poachers
should get punishment equal to the rapist, they are raping our nature

Posted on: Mar 29, 2014 at 09:39 IST

In my view i don't think that Dehorning will solve the problem more over
its horn must have it's own role that we are unaware of it ,the
uniformed personnel must move closer to the locals understanding their
ethics and values.The locals must be educated about the importance of
Rhinos,The services of the locals can be utilized for Rhino
conservation with proper incentives as few uniformed personnel cannot
monitor the entire park round the clock .

from:  chandramohan
Posted on: Mar 29, 2014 at 00:06 IST

it got success in African countries then why not in India, at least
government is trying to control the Rhino, negative point is in every
thing but we should try , I thing if it give us desired result then
what is the problem,And if problem is in trimming then it should not be
an issue because it will grow after some time.

from:  ashish
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 23:58 IST

IT's means removing natural beauty of an animal. suppose in
human case if beautiful girls were raped mostly it doesn't mean that one
should made her face ugly so that she will be safe. it's a stupid
thinking. and i m shocked that how can some one think like this.

from:  aditya
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 23:11 IST

Very thankful to the author for bringing this up. Every species has
equal rights to live its life. We as higher intelligence should respect
it and help with all have. Commercial drones could be used and act upon
the poachers. I am sure there are lot of research or projects going on
institution like IITs which we can make use of. All we need is an good
idea that will do no harm to Rhino.

from:  Muralidaran S
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 22:52 IST

If dehorning rhinos is going to deter poachers ????
assam govt can also try these:::
ban vehicles all of them 2, 3, 4 wheelers >to bring down rta.
ban storing gold and jewelry nack home > to deter robbers.
ban electric appliances and gas cylinders> to bring fire accidents.
ban all paper related articles > to protect environment and to address
global warming .

Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 19:30 IST

Trimming a rhino's horn for fear of poachers is like asking women to
not venture out of their homes after 8:00 pm for they might be
raped.”Instead of spending money on trimming, the Assam government
could do well to spend those resources on training its forest guard
cadre and providing them with necessary fire-power to deal with the
menace or radio tag the rhinos for identification, tracking and
monitoring. Succumbing to the pressure of poachers will ruin the ethos
of India Rhino Vision 2020 which seeks to increase rhino population to
3000 in Assam by 2020.

from:  Siddhi Bangard
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 18:00 IST

I don't agree with author's opinion that dehorning rhinos will not
discourage the poachers. Acts of vengeance, without any financial, can't
go for long.
But trimming rhinos horns can have adverse consequences for rhinos
survival and population growth. A proper research is required to
ascertain and that is what the 'expert committee' is supposed to do.
Nevertheless the proposal itself represents a failure on the part of

from:  Adil Azeem
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 17:59 IST

Try hard to protect Rhinos from poachers but please do not do what is

from:  Rajendra Patidar Khargone
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 16:40 IST

This proves that the government whether be it Central or State is insanely stupid. Have they
done any study on what might be the implication of doing this to the life of the rhino, and the
effect on its evolution henceforth.
It reminds me of the popular Sanjay Gandhi's case of forceful "Nasbandhi Program" to control
Human population.
I won't be surprised if the government started to think on similar lines for rape cases also.
Can't we have a genuine government which can atleast THINK.

from:  Sachin
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 16:30 IST

Assam government insulating itself from failure to protect the peace
loving animal and diverting itself from securing its right to life of by
handicapping them (from their weapon of protection of life). Trimming of
horn does not solve the problem of poaching. It needs effectively
planned and efficient implementation of policies and stringent Act. Both
Central and State government should protect our natural wealth
collectively with the use of modern surveillance technology like cctv
drones, etc and well equipped guards.

from:  Sagar
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 15:55 IST

We are thankful to the Author for raising the issue. It is really shame on the government of Assam for adopting such an easy path to solve the issue. There are many more methods possible to tackle the poachers. The people around the Rhino habitats can be educated about the importance of Rhino, how to deal with the Rhino poaching issue and strict actions should be taken against the poachers and the people who help them. Vigorous checking can be done by security forces on NH 37 near Kaziranga. Government can take up plans for reorganisation of human habitat near the areas where Rhinos reside. It should be a collaborative approach involving forest department, district administration, security forces and local people. Instead of adopting any such measure, we should not go for punishing those innocent Rhinos by taking out their symbol of identity. Not only as an Indian, but also as a human being we should be ashamed of taking such a proposal. Please don't do this Mr CM of Assam

from:  Gauranga Dutta
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 15:23 IST

Pity and shame to surrender before poachers. Aren't these rare species unique to India and aren't they precious to us? Damn.. Its an easy answer I would think. Couldn't army or CISF be deployed to save national resources?

from:  Feroz
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 14:46 IST

Intervention in the ecology will prove fatal anyways.Assam government is
trying to mollify world by incorporating measures of African government.
On a lighter note it's like beheading heads of ill minded so that they
can live a healthy life !!

from:  Shrinivas Deshmukh
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 13:37 IST

I remember reading few months back..initiative by south africa or
kenya..regarding inducing some sort of colored ink in rhino horn..that
renders it useless when cut from rhino and is detectable even on
powdering the horn.
Can't we look toward less agrressive ways of solving the problem,
together with campaigns raising/incentivising protection

from:  jaideep singh
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 11:41 IST

I think the proposal of dehorning the rhino is an excellent idea.
We can try it out for the next 100 or so years. It is very unlikely that this procedure will have any evolutionary consequences, since 100 years is an extremely minuscule amount of time in the evolutionary time scale.
In 100 years the rhino will be saved, and perhaps there will be better aphrodisiacs and hopefully by this time it will be the poachers who would have become extinct!

from:  E.Kumar
Posted on: Mar 28, 2014 at 10:07 IST
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