Rhino horn is made up primarily of keratin, the same protein that our nails are made of. Its composition is very similar to a bird’s beak or a horse’s hoof. Rhinos sometimes lose their horns naturally, for example when they are knocked off in territorial fights. The horns simply regrow.
Dehorning is a 20-minute procedure and is painless for the rhino.
The animal is darted with an anaesthetic by a veterinarian. When the animal is asleep, the vet cuts the horn off, generally with a reciprocal saw, above the growth point of the horn. This growth point is similar to the quick of our fingernails. The matter above this growth point is essentially dead matter and this is why the rhino feels no pain and does not bleed when the horn is removed correctly. The rhino’s horn is not its nose.
The rhino’s vital signs are monitored throughout the procedure.
The horn is measured, weighed and micro-chipped. Fragments of the horn are sent to RhoDIS – the national Rhino DNA Index System. RhoDIS archives horn DNA, so that they can match poached rhino horn to their genetic stock and ultimately assist with information in poaching-related crimes.
The rhino is then woken up and released. The horn is permitted by provincial authorities and transported to a safe facility.
Rhino horns that have been cut off grow again, just like fingernails. A male rhino's horn grows back at a rate of about 1kg per year and a female's at about 700g per year. One rhino may produce 6 - 8 horns in its lifetime, making rhino horn a truly sustainable wildlife product.
When poachers remove rhino horns, they cut deep into the base of the horn in order to get as much of it as they can and this is why poaching is cruel, painful and gory. It is very different to a true de-horning procedure.
There is a risk to the animal when it is anaesthetized, much like when we are placed under anaesthetic during an operation. John Hume, who owns more than 700 rhinos and who has de-horned hundreds, reports that his mortality rate due to anaesthetic-related complications is less than 0,3%.