This post is a little off the topic of my blog about my life and travels in Chile and South America, but it is about an ongoing problem in my country and continent which makes me SO angry and sad.
Today is World Rhino Day!
What does that mean for the millions of people around the world who have never and will never see a Rhino? – Probably nothing
What does that mean for the millions of Asian people who believe in the mythical properties of the rhino horn to cure illnesses? – Definitely nothing
What does that mean to the people, communities and conservationists in Southern Africa and other parts of the world with rhino populations? – Alot
What does it mean for me? – More than I can describe in a blog, but let me try…
I will get to the shocking statistics later on, but first I want to personalise this issue a bit…
A close family friend manages a game reserve in South Africa (I am being ambiguous on purpose in order to protect her rhino population). This friend is a devoted conservationist and dedicates all of her time to programs such as Earthwatch as well as hosting university groups from some of the best universities in the UK who use the park for their practical research. No one leaves this reserve without feeling attached to its animals and landscapes. For many years I have been lucky enough to be able to visit this place regularly and one of my best memories is from an Easter weekend a few years ago.
The white rhino population on this reserve are part of the family…they all have names and my friend can identify who is who from hundreds of metres away. At the time, one of the females was pregnant and she had not been seen for a few days. Everyone presumed she had given birth and was tucked away in some remote corner of the reserve. When one of the regular patrols finally spotted her, I was privileged enough to go along and be one of the first people to see the mom and new baby. We left the car a few hundred metres away and along with the game scout approached quietly on foot. Now rhinos are dangerous animals in normal situations, but with a baby, they are even more so. I remember the scout asking me if I was good at climbing trees…in a life or death situation I am sure I could get up a tree pretty quickly, but the problem in that part of the reserve was that most of the trees were young Acacias which would never have been able to hold a human´s weight. I put the thought of needing to find a climbable tree out of my mind and we continued to approach slowly and quietly. We stopped about 50 metres away and I will never forget the feeling I had when I caught a glimpse of this tiny rhino standing infront of its mom. It was overwhelming and special and indescribable. After a few minutes watching in silence, we slowly backtracked and left mom and baby in peace.
This is not the only amazing experience I have had with rhinos. Truly, every time I see these huge, prehistoric and awesomely magestic creatures in the wild I feel utterly privileged. I know I am one of a “handful” of people who will ever get to see these creatures in their natural surroundings and for that I am truly grateful.
Justine, Candice and I watching three white rhinos sleep next to a waterhole in a park in Swaziland. Being separated from these creatures by two tiny strands of barbwire fencing was an intense experience.
A white rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. The amazing thing about this sighting was seeing the Rhino standing on the short grass next to the lake. So different to images from Southern Africa where the animals are usually obscured by tall grasses, bushes and trees.
But beyond the joys of being able to see these animals in the wild and hoping that my great-grandchildren can have the same experiences, there are obviously many other, more important reasons that we need to increase awareness of the very precarious position rhinos are in worldwide (and not just the black and white rhinos of Africa). Now for some of the scary statistics which I hope shock you as much as they do me…
The graph above (courtesy of the Stop Rhino Poaching website) shows the population statistics for white and black rhinos in South Africa in 2010. Huge conservation efforts have gone along way in the last two decades to increase the number o rhinos in South Africa, but the results are quickly being reversed by renewed poaching.
For me, based on the graph above, we have to ask ourselves why there has been a dramatic rise in poaching since 2008 when the numbers were fairly stable for the preceding 8 years. What has changed? What are the economic factors driving poaching? According to http://www.rhino-economics.com the main issue is that a ban on rhino horn trade has lead to increasingly high prices for horn which in turns leads to professional sindicates poaching animals using helicopters and with inside help from corrupt officials. These poaching sindicates are not poor locals climbing over fences to shoot rhino…they are well funded operations which are almost impossible to stop with the limited resources that reserve owners and conservationists have. These groups have even now resorted to poisoning waterholes in Zimbabwe to kill animals more easily. Last week the report stated that a poisoned waterhole left 9 elephants, 5 lions, 2 buffaloes and several vultures dead.What an indiscriminate way to get the rhino horn or elephant tusks.
But what is the solution?
– Cut off the rhino horn before the poachers do and at least leave the animals alive – poachers have been known to still kill animals out of spite.
– Poison the horn so that when people use it in medicine they become sick – the effects of the poison on the rhino is still not fully known.
– Have a legal trade in rhino horn in order to eliminate the black market – see http://www.rhino-economics.com for some interesting, yet controversial information on this topic.
– Debunk the myths that rhino horn has medicinal properties – the chances of this working are slim considering that traditional Eastern medicine has valued horn for thousands of years and western science stating otherwise is not necessarily going to stop anything.
So basically, I have no idea what the next step is or should be in the fight to save the Rhino. All I know is that today the media attention is huge and I hope this personal story will help in some little way to spread the word of the very real risks these giant creatures face. I would hate to have my grandchild turn around one day and say “Granny, what is a rhino and why are they all dead?”