India’s Assam state, the last home to the greater one-horned rhinoceros, incinerated 2,500 rhino horns at a public ceremony on Wednesday to dissuade poachers from killing the animals.
The one-horned rhinoceros was on the brink of extinction after being hunted for decades for its horn, sought for supposed medicinal qualities or as a status symbol.
More than 10,000 people gathered at a stadium in the northeastern state to celebrate the World Rhino Day and watch the burning of 2,479 horns near Kaziranga National Park – the only habitat for the one-horned rhinoceros.
The state government claimed the burning of the horns was the biggest such exercise and aimed at sending a strong message to poachers highlighting the futility of killing the animal for an anatomical feature that is wrongly believed to have medicinal values.
The mythical properties place the rare horns – a mass of compacted hair – among the most sought-after items in the global illegal wildlife trade. They can fetch up to $65,000 a kilogram on the black market.
The horns were burnt in six specially-designed gas-powered furnaces in a typical Hindu funeral ceremony as scores of priests wearing saffron coloured robes blew conches and prayed for the souls.
“We want to tell the world that rhino horns are just a mass of compacted hair and there is no medicinal value to them. We want to urge people not to kill these rare animals or buy their horns based on superstitions or myths,” Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said before setting fire to the furnaces.
Mr Sarma’s government last week approved the destruction of the horns country's wildlife protection laws and termed the decision as a “milestone towards rhino conservation”.
The horns were stockpiled for decades in high-security state treasuries that also included animal organs confiscated from poachers and horns collected from rhinos that died of natural causes.
Authorities ordered a re-verification process of the entire stockpile, marking each horn with an identification number and collecting DNA samples.
Each horn was cleaned, weighed and photographed. Of those, 2,479 were approved for burning, while 94 were kept for preservation. Those included the longest horn, at 51.5 centimetres, and the heaviest at 3.05 kilograms.
Another 50 horns were preserved for legal proceedings against suspected poachers and smugglers.
“These horns were stored in different treasuries collected since the 1980s, almost four-decade old stock. We did DNA sample studies and today we got the permission to burn them,” P Sivakumar, field director of Kaziranga National Park, told The National.
The greater one-horn rhinoceros is the largest of the species and only adult males grow a horn.
The animals use the horns to protect their calves, digging for water and defending territory.
Although the horns made of keratin are like hooves of horse or human hair and nails, they are widely smuggled in the belief that they have medicinal and aphrodisiac values.
The rhino horns were traditionally used in Chinese medicines and are increasingly being seen as a social status in Vietnam. They are also used in powder form in party drugs and hangover cures.
The poaching of the one-horned rhinos almost led to their extinction in early 1970s. By 1975, they had been declared an endangered species after their numbers had dropped to a few hundred.
Each rhino death has been recorded since 1976 by police and wildlife officials, and the horns were preserved by the government to avoid their misuse.
About 550 were killed by poachers between 1980 and 1997, according to the government data, before a crackdown and conservation programme was launched by the authorities. The rhino population now stands at about 3,700.
They were regraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in the 2008 Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
While cases of poaching have dropped from 12 in 2016 to one in 2021, experts said the threat remained.
“This event has sent a strong message to the world that we do not give value to rhino horn but we care for our live rhinos,” Rathin Barman, the joint director of the Wildlife Trust of India, a nature conservation organisation, told The National.