Decade of rhino poaching

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Poaching may be declining but the fight to save a species is not yet won. Grant Fowlds has seen the best and worst of the rhino-poaching epidemic, but there is hope for the future in the form of eager, young South Africans. Louzel Lombard Steyn tells us more.

The facts

• In the last ten years, close to 8 000 rhino have been poached in South Africa leaving fewer than 19 000 white, and 2 000 black rhino in the country.

• South Africa has by far the largest population of rhino in the world. From 2007-2014 the country experienced an exponential rise in rhino poaching, a growth of more than 9 000%.

• The Lebombo mountain range stretching from KwaZulu-Natal through Limpopo and up to Swaziland and Mozambique is home to the largest concentration of wild rhino in the world.

It’s been 10 of the darkest years for conservation in Africa. In one decade, more than 7 900 rhino have been killed for their horns in South Africa alone. That’s more than two rhino per day – and those are the numbers we know of.

 

Saving the Last Rhino book

But Grant Fowlds, co-author of Saving the Last Rhinos, is hopeful. This Eastern Cape goat farmer, turned conservationist, has seen the worst of human nature. He has seen the nasal cavities of a living creature hacked open to obtain the last fraction of horn. He has weighed in on whether to keep animals in agony for the sake of saving a species or to ease them out of excruciating pain.

“If we want to really save this species, we cannot think that the fight is over just because rhino-poaching numbers are declining,” Fowlds says. “Poachers are running out of rhino to kill.”

There is still work to be done and some of the most courageous South Africans are stepping up to do it. In 2015, 25-year-old, Phelisa Matyolo was one of five South African youth rhino ambassadors who visited Vietnam to appeal to its people to bring an end to the rhino-poaching crisis. “Our visit made a big impact. It was young people, speaking to other youngsters. The children never understood the importance of rhino on our continent. Now the Vietnam youth are spreading the word to stop the killing.”

Nadav Ossendryver, founder-CEO of the wildlife-tracking app Latest Sightings, has put his weight behind anti-poaching. At age 19, he joined Matyolo and three ambassadors in Vietnam and says that most of the people didn’t know that animals were killed.

It’s no coincidence that, in 2016, we finally started seeing the first downward trend in poaching. “More global exposure created more pressure to put our animals first. By that time, the anti-poaching squads had also had breakthroughs on how to combat poachers,” Ossendryver says.

At the moment, the first – and sometimes only – information children have about rhino is that they represent a mere R10, as printed on our smallest Rand note. A project called Rhino Art, aimed specifically at South Africa’s youth in the remotest parts of the country, challenges this.

Project Rhino and the Kingsley Holgate Foundation joined forces in April 2013 for an expedition across the Lebombo mountain range. The expedition used art and soccer and involved local communities to increase conservation awareness among the youth. The Rhino Art – Let the Children’s Voices Be Heard campaign has since reached more than 500 000 youngsters.

 

Youngsters play a crucial role in protecting the rhino. Photo: Rhino Art

It’s the most thorough rhino-poaching survey ever carried out in Southern Africa and has caused some of the greatest anti-poaching breakthroughs. Fowlds remembers being pulled aside by a nervous young boy who pointed out the location of known poachers in his village. “That scrawny boy for me was the symbol of the grassroots fightback when we needed it most,” Fowlds says. It showed that there is hope for the future of our rhino, and our children. “At the height of poaching, many marginalised communities didn’t even know that rhino were threatened.”

Ossendryver agrees. “I still think it’s a long battle, but I believe we will win the fight. It’s hard to say if it will be within the next 10 years. We need more success stories before the end of the decade because, at this rate, I don’t think there will be 10 more years’ worth of rhino.”

Matyolo says there is hope in the new generation. “We are raising conservation-minded people and in the coming decades those children will be the leaders. They know we are fighting for our legacy.”

Written by Louzel Lombard Steyn
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