Poaching of
the horn

In traditional Chinese medicine, the rhino horn is used as a healing agent. With the current scarcity of rhinos, however, the horn is increasingly being used as a status symbol to show success and wealth. Poaching affects all five rhino species, however, because the largest populations are in South Africa, the two African species are currently the hardest hit. Now more than ever, different programs must invest in anti-poaching activities to prevent extinction.

The horn.

What is the horn?
Horn is the hard material and comparable in structure to horse hooves, beaks and finger and toenails. Some mammals have a horn that is partly made of bone, but the horn of a rhino is made entirely of keratin. The horns of a rhino are made of keratin, keratin is a soluble protein that occurs in both humans and many animals. Cells containing keratin are constantly being shed and replaced with new cells. This also means that when the horn is broken off, the horn automatically grows back. Keratin molecules are fibrous and twisted around each other, forming fine intermediate fibers. The solid structure is partly due to a high percentage of sulfur-containing amino acids, mainly cysteine ​​but also tyrosine, histidine, lysine and arginine, and the salts of calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate.

The poachers.

How do poachers get their weapons?
Poachers receive advanced equipment from international criminal gangs to track down and kill rhinos. The team often consists of two or three men with a weapon, a few bullets, old cell phones and an ax. Packed with a backpack with some food and drink, they can infiltrate for a few days and survive on bush skills. Now that access to weapons is becoming easier, the poachers are regularly equipped with small arms or semi-automatic weapons for personal protection. Poachers will not hesitate to open fire on anti-poaching units, putting their lives at risk to protect the rhino.

The poacher profile.

  • Groups of up to 6 people (rarely anymore).
  • Use guides with experience or use the corruption of internal employees of an area.
  • Infiltrate local communities to discover rhino's habitats.
  • Are not afraid of wild animals.
  • Have good bush skills, tracking skills and do not need much to survive.
  • Poachers are often already involved in other dangerous criminal activities.
  • It is a low risk high reward crime, poachers are often poor. 30% of the South African population is unemployed. 81% live below the poverty line.
  • Poachers mainly work at night, often prefer a full moon, which is sometimes called poachers moon. They use the bright light of the moon to their advantage.
  • 80% of the poachers are illegal, they are hostile people who have come on foot from Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

What a poacher earns.

A poacher at the bottom of the ladder can earn around 35,000 rand, which equates to 2,000 euros. They are also partly victims, often poor boys who live in slums on the edges of nature parks. They are actually used, and only think of the money that has been promised to them, often enough money to start a different life. The "big" boys often stay out of reach and rarely go to court. The scarcity of rhinos today and therefore the decreasing availability of horn, only drives demand higher.

The poacher has the advantage.

It is difficult nowadays to arrest and prosecute poachers. They have the advantage.

  • Waiting, they know where, when and how.
  • Have access to bribe staff or officials with money.
  • They often have a strategic network where they also have informants working for the police or politics.
  • Have easy access to a variety of weapons.
  • Nowadays often carry pistols or semi-automatic weapons for self-protection and do not shrink from violence against anti-poaching units.
  • Change tactics quickly when they are cornered.


Poacher groups use different surgery methods. Axes and machete appear to be the most commonly used tools to remove the horns. Flat blades, saws and (less common) chainsaws are also used.

Experienced poachers can neatly remove the horn along the skull with a sharp knife, but some inexperienced poachers can remove the half upper jaw with an ax. The more experience the poacher has, the nicer the horn will be removed. Furthermore, the choice of tools, the available time and the chance of discovery determine how the horn is removed. To prevent carcass discovery, some poachers will cut open the sides of the rhino, which will attract predators and cause the carcass to decay faster.

In most cases the poachers leave some sort of trait, many based on superstitions. The cutting of the eyes will destroy the window to the soul, meaning that they will not be identified for the crime. The tail is removed and used by medicine men to sprinkle muthi. Muthi is a traditional magic medicine in South Africa, and is used to improve sports performance but especially to gain wealth. Not much is known about muthi, because it is believed that it only works if you keep it a secret. The muthi is sprinkled on the poachers and the flight vehicles. Many poachers carry muthi with them, usually wrapped in a newspaper and held together with thread. They believe this makes them invisible & very fast and protected against bullets. In some cases the ears are cut off to see if there is an informant in the group. There are cases where other body parts such as genitals, teeth and eyes have also been removed.

Dealing with the horn is an organized crime with a structure of a company. The handset currently generates around $ 65,000 - $ 95,000 per kg. This makes it, the most expensive product on earth, more expensive than gold and more expensive than coke. The poachers flee with the horn, whereby the horn ultimately reaches Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese buyers through various intermediaries.

The horn and traditional Chinese medicine.

Traditional medicine is a collective name for various medicine and treatment methods from Asia, in particular China. Many of these medical insights have been used for more than 2000 years, including the rhino's horn. It is described as a treatment method for fever, rheumatism, gout, food poisoning, snake bites and headaches. When used, the horn is ground into a powder and dissolved in hot water for consumption. The many millions of people who believe in the tradition of Chinese medicine really believe that rhino powder will cure them from a certain ailment. It is seen as an irreplaceable pharmaceutical necessity. Now the animals are killed to provide nostrum that has been shown to be useless.

In Vietnam it is believed that the horn can also be used as an aphrodisiac, but also as a treatment for terminal diseases. The demand for horn in Vietnam has recently risen. Rhino horn consumers have indicated in a survey conducted by TRAFFIC in 2013 that the motivation for using the rhino horn lies more in the emotional benefit than the medicinal benefit. It would confirm their social status among peers, they buy the horn for the sole purpose of being gifted to others. Image and status are important for these consumers, they are usually highly educated successful people with a strong social network and no affinity with wildlife and nature conservation.