Rhinos are getting a makeover, and it may save them from extinction.

People have been poaching the animal for centuries. In some traditional Chinese medicines, the rhinoceros horn is used for a multitude of cures from nausea to snakebites. Some of these recipes date back 2,000 years. Many in Vietnam say that rhino horns can be used to cure both hangovers and cancer. Once the horn is ground into a powder, many ingest it to use it as a medicine. They are also used in several kinds of jewelry, the “ivory” horn considered beautiful and rare.  

Despite the fact that poaching of rhinos is illegal, poaching is driving the rhino toward extinction. A rhino horn can be worth up to $30,000 per pound on the black market. Many poachers see it as a risk well worth taking. With the value of the rhino horn on the rise, poachers are often heavily armed (and sometimes protected by armed gangs), making them dangerous to approach. So rhino conservationists needed to find a more wily way to save the animal.

What they've come up with is called "Pink Poison," a dye that's injected into the horn. The name is alarming, but the technique doesn’t actually hurt the rhinoceros. In fact, it is only dangerous to humans, as it is "eco-friendly, biodegradable, and vulture-safe." Veterinarians approach a rhino, and then tranquilize it. Once asleep, they drill a hole into the horn, and inject the "pink poison" dye, which discolors the inside of the horn.

This initiative has been accompanied by an ad campaign warning poachers that the dye makes the horn indigestible. To add an extra kick of irony, symptoms include the very ones the rhino horn is supposed to cure, including nausea and diarrhea. It renders the rhino horn useless as a medicine, and discourages any poacher from trying to sell the horn.

The point is to lower the value of the rhino horn. Currently, they’re near equal in worth to gold and cocaine, making even pet rhinos almost impossible to insure. The dye only lasts four years, but it is one of the first real plans to stop poaching.  Rhino Rescue Project reports "losses of treated rhinos (to poaching or otherwise) total less than 2 percent of all animals treated." It's an unlikely solution, but now there is a way to help save the rhino. 

While poisoning the rhino horn greatly reduces "medical" poaching, it hasn't had the same impact on the jewelry trade. The rhino horn, often thought to be ivory, is often carved into jewelry or sculpture. As the pink can be bleached out, it hasn't lowered those sales. But while opportunities for innovation remain, the Rhino Rescue Project is still very happy with the positive results it's received so far. 

Image credit: fkalltheway / Flickr