To slow the impending loss of wild black (Diceros bicornis) and white (Ceratotherium simum) rhinos, three African countries have resorted to dehorning, a practice designed to remove the incentive for poachers to kill the hornless animals. The efficacy of this controversial conservation action remains unknown, in part because much uncertainty exists about the functional significance of rhino horns. We assessed the current utility of horns in Namibian black rhinos from phenotypically altered and intact populations in the Namib Desert, and we collated data on mortal fighting among horned females living in Etosha National Park. Infant mortality was 100% when dehorned mothers were sympatric with spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). In contrast, infant survival was 100% for both horned mothers living with hyenas and occasional lions (Panthera leo) and 100% for dehorned mothers in the absence of dangerous carnivores. These data suggest that female horns can have direct fitness benefits in terms of calf survival. However, because lethal wounding due to fighting may account for up to 33% of the mortality of horned females, dehorning may improve adult survivorship. Our results (1) suggest that, where the aim of conservation programs is to improve population viability through juvenile recruitment, dehorning is unlikely to be a prudent strategy if practiced in areas with dangerous predators, and (2) illustrate the value of experimental approaches to onerous problems in conservation.
Conservation Biology – Wiley
Published: Sep 1, 1994
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