Rhino Poaching in South Africa, Up Close and Personal

A white rhino cow (at left) grazes with a bull that has become her companion after a poaching attack in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. This photo was published in the March 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine. (© Brent Stirton/National Geographic)

Working for Conservation International, I occasionally have the opportunity to travel and see first-hand some of the magnificent and biodiverse places remaining on our planet. Such was the case in December when, following the international climate conference of the United Nations in Durban — where CI worked to advance funding mechanisms and cooperative agreements on global climate change — I gave myself the gift of a post-summit vacation near the beautiful South African Cape Coast.

Not one to relish fancy tours or well-trodden roads, I discovered a quiet, special place halfway between Cape Town and Durban called Kariega Game Reserve, which offers volunteer opportunities to assist on conservation projects. Perfect, I thought. I can give back a little while also getting some sun, fresh air, rest and hands-on experience.

My first day on the project, I was given the rare opportunity to see a juvenile white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) be released back into the wild after he had recovered from a vicious poaching that killed his mother several months earlier. Although Kariega is a private reserve offering economic benefits to the local communities through ecotourism, managers and rangers still struggle to protect their wildlife from the opportunistic attacks of people looking to make quick money.

The poaching of rhinos has become a veritable national crisis in South Africa, and according to the International Rhino Foundation, a rhino is now killed every 18 hours in that country. Perhaps driven by limited economic opportunities and financial need or greed, the perpetrators resort to hacking off the horns of rhinos to sell them to ever-demanding markets in Asia. There, the horns are ground into a powder-like form and sold for use in traditional Asian medicines; some cultures believe rhino horn is an “irreplaceable pharmaceutical necessity” (PDF – 59.46 KB). As any wildlife expert will tell you though, the horns are little more than dead compressed keratinous tissue, such as the kind we have in hair and fingernails —yet they are reportedly sold for more per ounce than gold.

Watching the rhino’s release from an open-air Land Cruiser with camera in hand, it was exciting to see the truck and trailer pull into the reserve carrying its precious young cargo, and settle into a quiet green valley where the juvenile rhino could once again find his footing. A team of about six people stimulated the rhino back from its sedated slumber, lifted the door and coaxed it out into open air.

The little guy looked momentarily dazed and confused, but then quickly pranced uphill, away from the human crowd. His name, they told me, was Clint — as in Eastwood — because he had shown such gritty toughness in surviving the attack and coming back to live another day. Seeing him surely “made my day.”

While Conservation International doesn’t specifically work on rhino protection, safeguarding biodiversity is part of our broader mission and that of our colleagues at Conservation South Africa. Like all wildlife, the rhino is part of the complex web of life that makes our planet so special — and like every unique species, helps to balance the ecosystems we rely on for food, water, fresh air, arable soil and many other ecosystem services.

So I was particularly upset when I learned just two weeks ago that poachers had once again invaded the reserve and mauled three adult white rhinos for their horns, brutally hacking them down to their skulls. One of the rhinos died in the attack. The other two are struggling to survive, thanks to the daily care of a dedicated team of medical and volunteer assistants who have been treating their wounds, monitoring their food and water intake, and sharing constant updates about their critical condition with concerned supporters around the world via the reserve’s Facebook page.

The graphic pictures and video of these two survivors, who have since been given traditional Xhosa names meaning courage (Thandiswa) and hope (Themba), is not for people with weak stomachs. But it is important to see.

In its March issue, National Geographic is highlighting this complex and urgent crisis in a special feature, “Rhino Wars,” that I encourage you to read and share. Here’s an excerpt from author Peter Gwin:

And so goes a night on the front lines of southern Africa’s ruthless and murky rhino war, which since 2006 has seen more than a thousand rhinos slaughtered, some 22 poachers gunned down and more than 200 arrested last year in South Africa alone. At the bloody heart of this conflict is the rhino’s horn, a prized ingredient in traditional Asian medicines. Though black market prices vary widely, as of last fall dealers in Vietnam quoted prices ranging from $33 to $133 a gram, which at the top end is double the price of gold and can exceed the price of cocaine.”

Black, white, Javan or Sumatran, the rhino is a very special animal that has survived on Earth for more than 50 million years. It is magnificent and humbling to observe, and an inspirational reminder of how we are but one large mammal on this richly diverse planet. Are we willing to let it disappear in our lifetimes or our children’s lifetimes, and relegate its only existence to history books and archival footage? I truly hope not. But we will not turn around these troubling trends without also convincing poachers — and the market drivers behind them — to realize the longer term economic benefits that we all derive from nature when it is managed sustainably.

To me, it comes down to the quick buck versus long-term savings. Prosperity ultimately relies on long-term investments. Our natural wealth and heritage is no different.

Kim McCabe is CI’s senior director of news strategy and media relations. To learn more about rhino poaching, check out this National Geographic photo gallery, as well as Peter Gwin’s upcoming eShort book, “Rhino Wars: The Violent Underworld of Poachers and Black Market Medicine.

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