To Protect Its Rhinos, Dvůr Králové Zoo Has Started with Cutting off Their Horns

On Monday 20th March, Dvůr Králove Zoo cut horns off its first rhino. It is one of the safety measures to reduce the risk of any potential poaching attack. The zoo’s decision follows the incident in the French Zoo Thoiry, where one of the white rhinos was killed by poachers for its horn in the beginning of March.

„The decision to remove rhino horns was not made easily at all. However, the risk that the rhinos currently face not only in the wild but even in zoos is too high and the safety of the animals is our first concern. The dehorned rhino is definitely a better option than the dead rhino,“ explained Přemysl Rabas, Director of Dvůr Králové Zoo. „Any other measures are not so deterring as the fact that in our zoo there are no rhinos with horns left,“ added Přemysl Rabas.

The first rhino that went through the cutting off his horn was Pamir, the southern white rhino male. „Pamir was anaesthetized. The whole procedure was led by our experienced veterinarian with the team of experts of Dvůr Králové Zoo. The intervention took less than one hour and it was performed without any complications,“ said Jiří Hrubý, Rhino Curator of Dvůr Králové Zoo.

Dvůr Králové Zoo holds 21 rhinos at present. „We will cut the horns of all rhinos that need it. For instance, male Natal rubs his horn on his own, so in his case it is not necessary,“ added Přemysl Rabas. There are examples in the wild when rhinos break their horns off or rub them as well.

It is not the first time when the Dvůr Králové Zoo undertook a such step. „The horns are sometimes trimmed for rhinos‘ safety during transports or for other health reasons. The procedure is painless as the horn is made mostly of keratin (which our fingernails or hair are made of). Moreover, the removal is not irreversible, the horn gradually grows back,“ explained Přemysl Rabas.

Dvůr Králové Zoo is not the only institution which has already conducted the cutting of the rhino horns to keep animals safe. In response of the French attack, the Senegal Bandia Reserve also decided to remove the horns off their rhinos last week. The experts from the Dvůr Králové Zoo were assisting with the intervention there. Another zoo, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, has announced that they are going to proceed to the same step, whereas other institutions are considering it at the moment.

Necessary Is to Reduce the Demand

Rhino horn has no real value. Inspite of this fact, the illegal trade in rhino horn for its fictious medical properties is the main reason why the rhinos are still poached and why they were wiped out of many places. In recent years, more than 1300 rhinos have been poached annualy in Africa.

The rhino horn is demanded and bought mostly by consumers of Vietnam and China. „However, the experts proved that rhino horn has no properties that people believe in,“ said Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects of Dvůr Králové Zoo. „Furthermore in countries of East Asia the horn is regarded as a status symbol. But the demand reduction would considerably help to make rhino’s lives happier. Only the small change in the lifestyle  of East Asian population could help to save rhinos from the extinction. And in fact, we would not have to make this radical decision to cut off their horns then,“ added Jan Stejskal.

The Dvůr Králové Zoo has been trying to protect not only its rhinos in captivity but it also spends a large amount of money and make strong efforts to the campaigns for the rescue of the wild rhinos. More information you can find in the Frequently Asked Questions below.

Frequently Asked Questions associated with cutting horns off rhinos

Isn‘t cutting horns off rhinos overreaction to one lone incident in the French zoo?

The shooting of rhino in the French Zoo Thoiry is unfortunately not a lone incident, in fact it is another evidence of still increasing threat to rhinos from criminals that are involved in poaching and illegal trade in rhino horn.

Already in the year 2013, the British police warned their local zoos that their rhinos may be under threat from organized poachers. Across Europe, various criminal gangs have been operating since at least 2010. They have targeted rhino trophies in museums and castles. In 2011, the Dvůr Králové Zoo lent out its rhino horns for an African exhibition at the Napajedla Castle. These horns were stolen – whereas the criminals were tracked out, the horns were never seized.

Thanks to the activites of The Czech Environmental Inspectorate, The Customs Administration of the Czech Republic and the Police of the Czech Republic it is proved that there are several criminal groups in the Czech Republic that are involved in rhino horn smuggling through the Czech Republic to the Vietnam. This means that rhinos in other zoos face the same threats as in France including the Czech ones, too.


Why did you decided to cut off the rhino horns instead of taking any other safety measures?

Dvůr Králové Zoo has been aware of the risk of the attacks for a while. All our electronic, mechanical and personal measures that have been already running, were tighten up after the recent attack. The horn cutting is just one of another measures how we try to reduce the risk of any potential attack. No safety measures will provide one hundred per cent security to our rhinos. So it is necessary to show that anybody who would set out to Dvůr Králové Zoo to poach our rhinos would find no horn here. Apart from that, Dvůr Králové Zoo is also supporting efforts to reduce demand for rhino horn especially in countries of East Asia.


Is the horn removal painful for rhinos? Does the animal have to be anaesthetizied? Which tools are used for cutting?

The cutting is absolutely painless for the animal, because the horn is made mostly of keratin (which our fingernails or hair are made of). In fact it is something like cutting of hair or nails. However, most of rhinos are not so calm or patient to stand their horns cutting while being fully conscious. For this reason, veterinarians have to use anaesthetics. But it is a standard veterinarian intervention. The horn is removed by a chainsaw.


Have you ever cut horns off rhinos?

Yes, in the past, we trimmed the horns, for example for animals‘ safety during transports or for medical reasons.


What does the horns serve rhinos for? Is it not limitting for them to live without their horns?

The function of rhino horns is various, for example to defend territory or in fights for the dominance. If the horns are cut off all rhinos who live together in one group, it is not limitting at all. There are examples in the wild when rhinos break their horns off or rub them as well.


Do the reduced horns grow to rhinos back?

Yes, the horns gradually grow back, a few centimeters a year. The horns removing is just temporary solution then. If the situation gets better in future, there will not be a problem to let the horns grow back.


What happens with the cut horn now?

The horn will be stored at a safe place out of zoo.


How many rhinos are currently in the Dvůr Králové Zoo?

Dvůr Králové Zoo holds currently 21  rhinos – 17 black ones and 4 southern white ones. It is the largest group in Europe.


Has the Dvůr Králové Zoo taken any action to help with the protection of rhinos in the wild?

The Dvůr Králové makes strong efforts and spends a large amount of money for the campaigns for the rescue of the wild rhinos. As the only zoo in the world it succeeded to breed the northern white rhino. Due to poaching, there are only three animals of this species left on the planet now. Unfortunately, no individual from the group is capable of the natural breeding at the moment. The zoo with its colleagues from top scientific institutions tries to develop techniques of artificial reproduction which could give the northern white rhino a chance to survive. Also, the Dvůr Králové Zoo has already returned eight rhinos from captivity to Africa. The last one, black rhino female Eliška, was transported in June last year to Mkomazi, Tanzanian national park, to enhance a local population of rhinos. In the zoo, 44 calves of black rhinos have been born so far.

Moreover, the zoo struggles to approach even consumers in East Asia. It organised the burning of more than 50 kg of rhino horn in Dvůr Králové in 2014. Two years later, the zoo got the invtitation to participate in demonstrative destruction of the historically largest amount of horns and tusks in Kenya and several months later in Hanoi, in the centre of the consumer country itself. The aim of these actions is to bring attention to the plight of rhinos and make clear that neither horns nor tusks has any real value.


How high is the value of horns on the black market?

Rhino horn has no real value and its price on the black market is artifically created for the purpose of the profit of traffickers. It is very difficult to estimate if the reported price on the black market corresponds with the reality.


How often do poachers kill the rhinos in the wild?

In recent years, more than 1300 rhinos were killed annualy in Africa. In 2007 there were „only“ 13 rhinos poached, whereas one year later it was 80 dead individuals and the numbers were increasing rapidly year by year.


How many rhinos live in the wild presently?

In Africa, there live about 20 000 southern white rhinos and about 5000 black ones. Approximately 3500 great one-horned, several tens of Sumatran and Javanese rhinos are found in Asia.


Could the problem with increased demand for the horns be solved with legalization of horns trade or stricter punishment for poachers?

The trade in rhinoceros horns was legal in the past, and that period can only be called a period of slaughter during which thousands and tens of thousands of rhinoceroses were killed. It wasn’t until after the ban on the international rhino horn trade and especially after domestic bans in important consumer countries that the numbers of certain rhinoceros species could be stabilized.

Permitting the trade in rhinoceros horns would not reduce demand, as some people erroneously believe, but would increase demand and thus lead to the even greater killing of rhinoceroses. Merchants and traffickers would try to sell as much as possible, meaning that they would advertise their goods and try to get as many customers as possible to buy them. For instance, in recent years they came up with the entirely unfounded claim that rhinoceros horns are an effective treatment for cancer. What is more, legalization would cause some people to believe that there is nothing wrong in consuming rhinoceros horns.

The domestic ivory trade in China is a clear example that legal sellers are merely a front for the sale of an enormous amount of ivory illegally acquired through poaching, and that legal sales do not reduce demand but increase it. In all likelihood, the legalization of the rhino horn trade would have the same effect – the demand for rhinoceros horns would increase and might result in the eventual extinction of rhinoceroses.

In addition, in the case of legalization, customs officers and other government agencies would find it very difficult to differentiate between legal and illegal rhinoceros horns, and traffickers would find it relatively easy to pass off horns acquired through poaching as legal. In such a situation it would be difficult for the responsible institutions to identify and punish poachers and traffickers.

Above all, we need to limit demand in countries where people buy rhinoceros horns – today, this means China and Vietnam in particular. At the same time, we must put pressure on the countries with the highest consumption of rhino horns to enforce existing laws and to take effective measures to halt the trade in rhinoceros horns. Another important measure is to reduce corruption in the source countries and transit countries, and in the countries where rhino horns are illegally sold.