Every day in South Africa, a rhinoceros will bleed to death after its horn has been hacked off by poachers. The horns are sold on the black market in Asia, mostly in Vietnam, where they’re believed to have powerful medicinal properties. Dutch veterinarian Martine van Zijl Langhout works together with local wardens to try and protect this threatened species.
Van Zijll Langhout stalks as quietly as possible through the tall grass at Mauricedale Park in the east of South Africa near the famous Kruger Park. She pulls back the trigger on her special tranquiliser rifle, takes aim and fires. The rhinoceros in her sights wobbles groggily for a few minutes before sinking onto its knees and rolling unconscious onto its side. Van Zijll Langhout and her team, carrying a chainsaw, approach the animal cautiously.
There are some 20,000 rhinos in South Africa, 80 percent of the world population. And every day these animals are slaughtered savagely by poachers. First the rhino is shot to bring it down, and then the horn is hacked off with axes and machetes. The poachers cut as deeply into the animal’s head as possible. Every extra centimetre of horn means more money in their pockets. In 2007, thirteen rhinos in South Africa fell victim to poachers. Last year that number had soared to 448, and the toll so far this year is 312.
Loud snoring can be heard. The vet blindfolds the rhinoceros and then the park manager starts up the chainsaw and proceeds to slice into the beast’s horn. Van Zijll Langhout monitors its breathing: “This is one way to stop the poachers” she explains. “They want as much horn as possible so rhinos with a small horn are a less attractive target”.
Van Zijll Langhout came to South Africa in 1997 when she was still a student and worked at Kruger Park with lions, elephants and rhinos. She knew she’d found her dream job, and five years ago she returned as a qualified vet. “It’s an unquenchable passion, such an adventure, and every day is different,” she says, “It’s such a privilege to work with African animals and an honour to be able to do something for them”.
No better option
The preventive removal of the rhinoceros’ horn takes about ten minutes. Van Zijll Langhout, an energetic woman in her thirties with wildly curly hair, compares the process to clipping nails or having a haircut: “It’s completely painless; we cut above the blood vessels”. Again she checks the animal’s breathing as its snores echo through the bush. “It’s not nice that we have to do this, but I don’t really see a better option”, she sighs, “and the horn does grow back, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.” The fact that visitors to the park might be disappointed and expect to see rhinos complete with proud curving horns doesn’t bother her: “What matters is the animals’ survival”.
The fight against poaching is a difficult one. “These are professional criminals”, explains Van Zijll Langhout. “This isn’t about poor locals living in huts. Poachers have advanced weapons and sometimes even use helicopters.” The horns are worth more than their weight in gold, so it’s a lucrative trade for organised crime syndicates.
The horn falls to the ground; the team will preserve it and register it. The rhino is given an injection. Within minutes he’s back on his feet and walking off into the bush. His newly weightless head is no guarantee of safety though. A rhino was poached in the park the same week as the horns were sawn off. Even the stump that remains after the procedure is worth big money.
Click to watch Elles van Gelder's video about rhino poaching (Dutch language)
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