A radical new approach to protecting southern white rhinos from poachers is a gamble that appears to be paying off.
A private wildlife reserve has teamed up with the Rhino Rescue Project in a bid to save the species by infusing rhino horns with a mixture of toxins and dyes
The goal of the initiative: Make rhino horn less desirable for poachers and potential buyers.
Dr. Lorinda Hern, who oversees the Rhino Rescue Project, told the Associated Press that the tubular structure of the horns makes it possible to infuse liquid compounds capable of contaminating them without doing any harm to the animals themselves.
"You can see quite a lot of seepage from inside the horn some distance away from the infusion device," says Hern. "And so there is quite clearly is movement within this horn, which would obviously be impossible if horns weren't permeable."
The Rhino Rescue Project started testing the method on their own animals in 2010 and has carried out approximately 700 infusions since then.
Since 2010, more than 8,000 rhinos have been poached, with roughly 20,000 southern white rhinos remaining in Africa.
So far, only two rhinos with a toxin-infused horn have been poached, a total that reserve owner Anthony Baber is thankful for.
"We believe that there is merit in doing this," Baber told the Associated Press. "There is nothing else that you can do apart from de-horning the rhino."
"No one wants to take a photograph of a rhino without a horn."
An international ban on rhino horn trade has been in place since 1977, but according to the World Wildlife Fund, rhino horn has become a party drug and a health supplement believed to be a cure for everything from hangovers to cancer in countries like China and Vietnam.
Hern says rhino horns are still leaving South Africa's borders at an alarming rate, but the Rhino Project and the University of the Witwatersrand hope to develop an implant to better track rhinos trafficked to other countries.
"We have partnered with Wits University in an attempt to improve on the procedure by the addition of radioactive isotopes," says Hern. "So now you can make rhino horns that have been treated highly detectable, even by using benign sources of radiation, so that across international borders, they can't be smuggled at all."
The South African government said that most provinces in the country have experienced "dramatic declines" in the killing of rhinos," saying poachers killed 508 rhinos in the first eight months of 2018, a 26 per cent decrease from the same period in 2017.
With files from The Associated Press