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Black Rhinos, Horns Cut Off, Lose Some of Their Gusto

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The black rhino is the litter dog of the African rhinoceros. Although they are not the largest species on the continent, they are known to actively patrol and defend their territory, and will readily charge any person, vehicle, or other rhino they deem as an intruder.

One of the keys to that behavior turned out to be their horns.

research published on monday Black rhinos that have had their horns clipped to deter poachers have been shown to interact much less with other rhinos and have a reduced range.

“It’s definitely disrupting their social networks,” says Vanessa Dute, a doctoral candidate in conservation biology at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and the lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. said Mr.

“It’s like putting a muzzle on a dog,” says Douté. “They don’t have much confidence in themselves anymore. They’ve lost their main defense and confidence.”

Douté says the rhinos seem to feel more vulnerable when their main weapon is stripped of their horns. This vulnerability is manifested by a reduced appetite for exploration and competition with other rhinos.

The study did not address whether the “very strong response” to dehorning in black rhinos had an overall positive or negative impact on the species, Dute added. For example, does it cause genetic changes over time due to changes in reproductive dynamics, or does it alter the ecosystem of the organism? How many animals a particular landscape can support.

Dehorning has become increasingly popular in southern Africa over the past decade as a way to stop poachers from killing rhinos for horns that cost more than diamonds and gold on the black market in Southeast Asia.

Dehorning is a painless procedure in which the veterinarian first sedates the rhino. Blindfold and wear ear plugs on the animal and use a chainsaw to cut off the tops of the horns, but only the parts without nerves. Next, polish the base of the horn. The whole process takes him less than 20 minutes. Like claws, a rhino’s horns also grow over time, and the animal usually has her horns cut off once every 18 months.

Despite the prevalence of this practice, researchers have so far been unaware of how dehorning affected rhino behavior and survival.

More eccentric than the larger and more populated white rhino, the black rhino is listed as an endangered species. Only 5,500 to 6,000 remain, 36% of which live in South Africa. Ms Dute and her colleagues analyzed data from her 15 years of tracking the migration of 368 of these animals at her 10 wildlife reserves in South Africa. Prior to 2013, the black rhinos included in the study were not truncated, but by 2020, 63% were truncated.

The researchers found that dehorning did not make rhinos more likely to die from causes other than poaching. However, the range of the animals that had their horns cut off decreased by an average of 45.5 percent, although there was variation among individuals. For example, one male, Hamba Nyaro, lost 20 percent of his territory, leaving just over 2 square miles, while another male, Shosha, lost 82 percent of his territory, leaving 8.5 square miles.

Those who had their horns cut were also 37% less likely to participate in social interactions, especially those between men.

“This study is robust and good science with long-term data and large-scale observations,” said Sam Ferreira, a large mammal ecologist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Rhinoceros Specialist Group. research. “These results highlight important unintended consequences, including poaching, when attempting to address indirect approaches such as removing horns to address social pressures on rhinos.”

Rhino poaching has slowed down since its peak in 2015. 1,349 animals were killed Out of a total African population of about 22,100 white and black rhinos. But with more than 548 rhinos poached across Africa last year, the situation today remains “really critical and urgent,” Dute said.

While increased dehorning correlates with fewer rhinos killed, a variety of economic, social and security factors also influence poaching. “No one has yet come to a conclusion” about whether dehorning works, Douté said.

However, despite all the unknowns, and new results showing effects on rhino behavior, dehorning still appears to be a valuable safeguard, and “in some cases, We need it,” Dute said. This is especially true for reserves that cannot afford to enhance other safety measures for animals.

Michael To Sass Rolfes, a conservation economist at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, who was not involved in the study, said dehorning is not ideal and is “a bit of a last resort.”

“It is very good to support an ideal solution, but in the short term we have to be realistic if we are to ensure that rhinos survive the ongoing poaching onslaught,” he said. said. “The fact that dehorning is so widespread today shows just how serious the poaching problem remains.”

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