Written by Süddeutsche Zeitung, by Suzy Presutti
Last month, the government in Johannesburg introduced a new regulation that will restrict the trade in bison horns. The development highlights South Africa’s efforts to contain what conservationists refer to as a national health crisis — an explosion in newborn bison antlers in recent years.
In a report last summer, the Johannesburg government said the phenomenon, known as bison antler “eyebrow horns,” was a classic problem of a “population point explosion.” The upper portion of baby bison’s ears is considered especially painful and potentially life-threatening.
South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs has estimated that up to 75% of newborn bison at Fort Hare, one of the country’s largest antler buff reserve in Limpopo province, are suffering from “eyebrow horns,” and that since 2013, the number of displaced and orphaned calves to nearby cattle farms has tripled. There have been no studies to back up the figures.
‘Eyebrow horns’ in their prime. Photo: Lynda Burger
“Mammal and bird diversions,” are often observed when it comes to antler diseases. Bison and deer antlers are commonly used in Chinese medicine, said Paul Keelan, a Sydney-based researcher specializing in bison medicine.
The horns have also been commercialized and turned into decorative ornament. One eastern European manufacturer produces a so-called “squirrel broach,” or “whisker broach,” similar to baby’s ears, described by Smithsonian Magazine as “a handsome abalone broach.”
There are examples of such ornamental items as well. Photographs show a butcher recently selling bison horns for about $500 in a butcher shop in Johannesburg. A local environmentalist in the area attributed the price to both the market and disease fears.
Bison don’t grow eyelashes.
Presutti explained: “From the pre-1994 era, most South Africans, assuming that a horn used by the guide, or hunted by locals, was the greatest body part, a whole for how much money then.” The horns were thought to improve a cow’s fertility, increase an animal’s meat quality, and “clean and lift the skin.”
“It’s indicative of that mentality that there’s no substitution” of the horns for another part of the animal, she said. “That is why you see a lot of other animals, like deer, zebras, and lions, particularly the male lions, having ‘eyebrow horns’ on their horns.”
A South African farmer displays a “neckbeard” of bison antlers collected from his hunting trips. Photo: Lynda Burger
Fully grown, as many as 1.5 million bison antlers, or “manicured tips,” are typically discarded each year. German virologist Udo Berkhuber identified the antler fibers that form when a bison consumes antlers.
Berkhuber said recent studies have suggested that the horns may be infectious, an assertion embraced by conservationists, but viewed as inconclusive by scientists.
The growth of antler mastitis (bison horn disease) in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the main factors contributing to the destruction of herds in South Africa, said Keelan. Antler milk on chickens and cows appears to be the culprit of this.
Keelan said there has been “no molecular work to demonstrate” these fibers as a potential vector for bison horn disease. “I doubt we’ll find any evidence of a disease connection” by detecting traces of the fibers, he said.
Berkhuber has also warned that poaching for animals to wear a grotesque “phantom breastbone” — or pony tail — would prove “practically toxic” to South African antler buffs.
South Africa has been battling “epidemic poaching” of bison antlers for centuries, and it’s a trend that appears to be on the rise again. With increased demand for luxury items by Chinese consumers and Thai and Japanese tourists, there are increasing cases of endangered buffalo horns being traded to supplement income.
A 19th-century manager overseeing parts of the Ramatese river in South Africa, referring to bison antlers. Photograph: World Conservation Union
A white bison antler might be priced at R100,000 ($8