Thoughts on World Rhino Day 2014

by Marie Dahl (September 22nd 2014)

South Africa is one of the last strongholds for the African rhinos. The country has the largest population of rhinos anywhere in the world, but the rhinos are in grave danger of extinction – once again! I have had the privilege of visiting the Kruger National Park in South Africa on a regular basis over the past decade and a half; one of the few parks with a healthy rhino population. I have never visited the park without taking at least one photo of these iconic animals. And I enjoy spending time observing them in their natural habitat. Sometimes, however, I forget what impressive initiatives have been taken to make the park what it is today. When that park was founded over 100 years ago there were virtually no rhinos left. They had become a thing of legends, with so few remaining rhinos that the local people thought they were just a myth. Greedy seekers of fortune had hunted them to the brink of extinction during centuries of uncontrolled culling and harvest, and in 1936 both species of rhino were officially declared locally extinct.

When you view rhinos in the Kruger Park today you could easily think that they have been roaming these parts for millions of years, however, this is not the case. The current rhino populations in the Kruger National Park all originate from individuals transferred from other parts of South Africa, where a few core populations had been kept safe from harm (hunting and poaching). After reintroductions in the 1960’s, rhinos once again began to thrive in the Kruger Park. For many years hereafter the rhino story was one of great conservation success. Although there have been a few years of heavy poaching since then the overall population numbers were steadily growing. —That is up until 2008 where the poaching situation spiraled out of control once again.

The horn of the rhinos has historically been regarded as a status symbol, especially in Yemen where the horn is used for shafts for traditional daggers. In Asia the horn is believed to have medicinal properties, such as lowering fever, curing cancer and enhancing sexual performance. Thorough research has disproven any medicinal properties in rhino horn; the horn consists exclusively of keratin – the same material as hair, nails, feathers, horns and hoofs. Despite extensive research proving the uselessness of rhino horn (for anyone other than the rhino that is) the demand for rhino horn as a remedy has risen dramatically in resent years. The increased demand has escalated the price of horn to the point where it is now more valuable than gold pound for pound. In turn this increase has made rhino poaching virtually irresistible to many poor people around the globe, resulting in declining populations worldwide. Currently as many as 20 rhinos are poached per month in South Africa; should this trend continue there would be no more rhinos left in the wild by 2026!

The resent increase in rhino poaching has started a war; A war on poachers and the syndicates involved with organized poaching. A war dedicated to protect what remains and to make sure that there will be a future for rhinos in Africa. I have heard it mentioned many times over the last couple of years: “We’re at war against the rhino poachers”. And up until recently I thought it was perhaps a bit overrated to call it a war. The people in Afghanistan and Syria can talk about being at war. But I thought that surely in this day and age it is possible to prevent people from entering a National Park and shoot an animal the size of a car without the need for an actual war. I was wrong! It is an actual war out there. They fight against ghostly enemies such as, Mozambicans sneaking across the border at night, poachers disguised as tourists driving into the park during broad daylight, and even rangers hired to protect the rhinos, who have succumbed to the alluring price tag swinging from every rhino horn walking around. It’s a confusing war, because the enemy is so well camouflaged that it’s almost impossible to know who you’re supposed to target. Today I read that even a section ranger of the Park had been arrested as an accomplice of poaching. And there are stories of the executive top of the Kruger Park being involved and taking bribes from well-known poaching syndicates. How on Earth do you fight that?

I recently found myself in the middle of this war. No bullets were fired in my presence, and my guides assured me that I was safe from harm, but none-the-less I could feel it and I could see the war all around me. I was on the Sweni Wilderness Trial in the easternmost part of the Kruger National Park. Only a few kilometers from the Mozambican border, the Sweni area is a unique part of the park where wildlife roam in abundance. But so do the anti-poaching units and the military. We met the rangers out on patrol several times a day and we heard them chatting, as they set up camp at night; the same time as we were busy sipping our sundowners enjoying views of elephants and talking about the days most exciting sightings. It feels quite absurd that two so very different lives can be led right next to each other: One of war and one of leisure. One day they were actively searching for poachers around us. There had been shots fired in the early hours and they suspected rhino poachers. A helicopter with armed rangers in search of the culprits came close enough for us to exchanges smiles and greetings. On the ground we met them in vehicles and on foot. They were all around us, and yet we carried on looking at tracks, flowers, and stalking giraffes, elephants and other game to get the next good shot (photo). How very bizarre it was to be in the middle of this obvious war going on all around us and yet just carrying on as though it doesn’t concern us.

However, finding ourselves in the middle of this war zone did make us think and talk about the current plight of the rhinos. We hadn’t seen any rhinos so far, nor had we seen signs of them; dung or tracks. So why were there such huge efforts put into this particular part of the park? Why shouldn’t they rather increase efforts in the Southern part of the Park, where there were many more rhinos? The questions remain unanswered, but possibly the fact that tourism thrives in the southern part would make the war much more obvious and perhaps scare away some of the much needed income from visitors. Or perhaps the Sweni area serves as one of the major poacher entry points to the Park? We don’t know and our guides were reluctant to share much information, as though they suspected we were informants or poachers ourselves. Such is this war – no one can be trusted, not even bright-eyed tourists.

After long hours of walking in the bush during the day, we spent the evenings by the campfire. We talked about what we had seen – or in case of the rhinos had not seen. There is something very special about the African bush at night; A whole new array of wildlife comes to life. And we sat by the fire enjoying the majestic roars of the lions nearby, the nervous howls of hyenas and jackals calling excitedly. A cheeky genet came into camp looking for leftovers and it decided that our milk was a worthy treat to run away with. But the full 1 L milk carton proved too much for the dairy thief and he left us laughing at his futile attempts. It’s safe to say that we had a good time by the fire in the evenings. But then one night someone spotted something by the nearby waterhole. Could it be? Was it really there? Binoculars were fetched in a hurry, but despite the full moon it was difficult to make out the shape by the water. Did it have horns? Yes! Yes, there were two horns – “It’s a rhino – it definitely a rhino” someone announced excitedly!

I was so thrilled to witness such a beautiful creature having a drink in our proximity, but as soon as the initial excitement wore off, I was left feeling powerless and saddened. This gorgeous creature that stood so peacefully there in the moonlight going about its usual business was in grave danger. And although I felt like shouting “Watch Out!” and “Be careful!” there was absolutely nothing I could do to help him.

The vision of the rhino standing in the moonlight will be forever engraved in my memory as one of the most powerful sightings of rhino. The emotions I went through at the time of the sighting are still stirring, and I can’t help but to feel a bit overwhelmed by my own powerlessness and the magnitude of the issue. There are currently more than 280 organizations at work to protect the rhinos. They collect millions and millions of dollars per year, but the situation is continually worsening, leaving rangers to find more and more dehorned dead rhinos lying about the bush every day. Since 2008 the number of poached rhinos has escalated exponentially – why can’t we stop it? What will it take? Awareness campaigns in Asia? More war in the parks? Longer sentences for the poachers? Poisoning of the horns? Dehorning the remaining rhinos? Rhino farming? What is it going to take for people to start caring enough about the destiny of these species to take appropriate action?

The current state of affairs really stirs something deep within me, but I wonder do rhinos even matter to people? I mean, I know many people who care about the plight of rhinos, but I might be biased in my relations — I’m a biologist with many connections in the industry and I live in an area of Africa, where this is happening right now; A few years back I heard the killing shots of a rhino slaughtered for its horn in Swaziland, I’ve found the skulls of two rhinos with clear marks of the dehorning process in Northern Kruger, and I’ve noticed the tell tale decline in rhino sightings in the Kruger Park. It’s happening all around us and we who live here are aware of it. But I’m thinking about all those people who are not involved with rhinos or wildlife – do they care about the declining rhino populations? Or the polar bears? Or the tigers? Or the panda? All these iconic animals are under threat… People do care – all the support towards awareness campaigns and the NGOs suggests so. And the fact that South Africa considers itself at war with the poachers suggests that serious measures are being taken. But then WHY can we not beat this?