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Rangers remove rhinos' horns

Pity the poor rhinoceros grazing at this water hole near sunset.

A wildlife professional has chopped off its horn.

"We're trying to protect the rhino," said Michael Kock, 38, the U.S.-educated veterinarian for the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management.

It's a radical program to preempt poachers who have reduced Africa's rhino herds from more than 100,000 in 1970 to 8,712 today.

Poachers shoot rhinos, hack off their horns, then leave the animals to die. They can get about $15,000 each for the horns, which are ground up and sold in China as a traditional remedy for fevers and headaches.

So far, 59 white rhinos in Zimbabwe and a similar number of black rhinos in Namibia have had their horns removed. More are expected to be dehorned this spring, wildlife officials say.

Kock began tracking Zimbabwean rhinos last May. It was slow work at first. Finding a rhino, even using a helicopter, took days. And using his cross-cut saw, cutting through a horn nearly three feet thick took close to two hours.

Five of the 71 rhinos Kock tranquilized at Zimbabwe's 5,700-square-mile Hwange National Park died of heart failure.

"The longer they spend down, the worse it gets," Kock said, shaking his head.

So Kock got a chain saw. By Halloween, dehorning teams were spotting, darting, dehorning, testing blood, painting big white numbers for aerial identification and then gently waking up the nub-nosed rhinos all in an average time of 41 minutes.

The longest horn Kock removed measured 39 inches. Average length was 19 inches.

"It doesn't hurt the rhino," Kock said, "because we're not taking the horn off to the extent that we're damaging any tissue." Rhino horn grows at a rate of about 4 inches a year.

The first time wildlife experts systematically dehorned wild rhinos was in 1989 in the deserts of Namibia. None of an undisclosed number of black rhinos dehorned in Namibia has been poached.

Whether the rest of Africa's rhinos will be dehorned depends on how today's dehorned rhinos behave, Zimbabwean officials say. Rhinos use their horns in battling for dominance, defending baby rhinos and foraging for food.

The rhino's only predator is man.

The full-grown animal, weighing more than a ton and exploding into ground-shaking charges if it detects the slightest motion, is very difficult to study.

Poachers in Zimbabwe come from Zambia, the Texas-sized nation north of Zimbabwe where even staple foods are scarce. They travel in packs of five or six, carrying AK-47s. They are winning a battle against Zimbabwean anti-poaching soldiers. The death toll since 1984: 145 dead poachers; at least 1,050 dead rhinos.

"Anti-poaching has failed," said ecologist Tabeth Matiza of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. She said dehorning at least offers hope. "It's the last resort. What can we do?"

Yet dehorning has left many Africans angry.

"A rhino is not a rhino without its horn," said a man who grew up in a village near Hwange National Park. "How would we like it if Martians came down and chopped off our ears?"

Dehorning should be part of a broad strategy including captive breeding and invigorated anti-poaching patrols, said Russell Taylor, a Harare-based ecologist for the Worldwide Fund for nature.

Ultimately, some park officials envision farming rhinos, selling controlled amounts of horn shaving legally to pay for anti-poaching patrols and maintenance of herds. Taylor suggested using something like a large pencil sharpener.

The budget for Zimbabwe's dehorning project is only $30,100. The black market value of the 530 pounds of rhino horn Kock is storing at Zimbabwe National Parks headquarters is about $500,000, according to a recently-released project report.