An insightful & thought provoking interview with a member of an anti-poaching unit
It’s World Rhino Day today, a day to celebrate and raise awareness of the dangers faced by the five species of rhino. Firstly, I will admit right now that I don’t know much about rhinos, at all. As you’ll probably know, great apes are my thing, so this was an exciting opportunity for me to learn more about the beautiful animals. I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about them, just incase you’re like me and just learning.
Going back to the beginning, rhinoceroses, or rather, their woolly conspecifics, have their origins in the Miocene, around 25 million years ago. These hairy giants roamed Africa and Eurasia and have been found depicted in Palaeolithic cave art at archaeological sites like Chauvet, dated to around 33,000 years bp. Woolly rhinos went extinct around 15,000 years ago and their remains have been found preserved in ice. At the start of the 20th century, there were thought to be around 500,000 modern rhinos on earth, fast forward to 2021 and we are faced with the shocking realisation that there are as few as 28,000 individuals left.
There are five species of rhino; Sumatran, Javan, black rhino, greater one horned rhino and the white rhino. The Javan rhino is currently the most critical with only 74 individuals left, but of course each of the species is severely under threat and there is a chance that rhinos will become extinct during our lifetime if we don’t do more. In fact, the subspecies of white rhino, the northern white rhino is already functionally extinct, with just two females surviving under 24-hour guard in Kenya. This is a heart-breaking reality and the reason why learning about rhinos and celebrating world rhino day is absolutely vital for their survival now.
So, why are populations declining so rapidly? Poaching. The last decade has seen a record demand for rhino horn on the black market and to keep up with this demand, poachers have killed around 10,000 individuals in the last decade. To find out a little bit more about the dangers that the remaining rhinos are facing, I met with Jonny, an anti-poaching ranger who worked at a nature reserve in South Africa. The name of the reserve was kept private to protect the security of the rhinos, but the mission of the reserve is to protect the species they house from poaching and work to boost the population. Jonny and I had a quick chat about the work he was involved with during his time in South Africa.
Opinions and facts in this interview are not my own.
Firstly, how did you get into rhino conservation?
I did a degree in wildlife conservation and as part of that I did some voluntary work at the reserve. I then returned once I had finished my degree to gain more experience and to try and make an active, positive difference.
Can you give me an overview about the work you were involved in and what your role entailed?
I worked directly with the anti-poaching unit, patrolling the reserve in a vehicle whilst teams worked on foot with search dogs to detect any potential trespassers on the reserve. The reserve is protected by a large perimeter fence but it’s a huge area to police and people do still manage to break in. During my time there I did have to respond to poachers. However, most of the poachers that gained entry were not armed with guns and were in fact there to hunt smaller species such as antelope, for meat.
So what are the rhino poachers looking for? And why rhino?
They’re looking for rhino horn. Rhino horn is worth around $65,000 per kilo on the black market, giving it a higher value than gold or cocaine. In Chinese medicine, it’s believed horn can cure all sorts from typhoid to hallucinations, but it’s now increasingly common for it to just be displayed as a very expensive status symbol. The poachers have no thought for the animals suffering, they literally hack the horn off at the ‘root’ and leave the animal to die a very slow, painful death.
(At this point, Jonny showed me some harrowing video footage of a rhino who had been murdered for her horn, that image will stay with me forever.).
So what is this particular reserve doing to try and stop this?
The reserve practices ‘horn trimming’. (I looked into this controversial practice which seems common among reserves in several African countries). The rhino is put under a light sedation and it’s horn is trimmed by trained professionals. The horn is like human hair and nails, it’s made of keratin and grows continuously, this process causes no harm to the rhinos at all but I understand why people question it (animal welfare activists argue against unnecessary distress for the animal in question). The horns are then transported to secure locations, far away from the reserve. It’s a really expensive process which is why a lot of the national reserves can’t afford to do it, they tend to have more animals to look after and it requires equipment, time, staff, funding, that the national parks just can’t do.
What is the point in horn trimming? Can’t they just work to protect the rhinos through guards and anti-poaching patrols?
Poachers are very determined, no matter what levels of security are in place. The idea is to deter. By performing this painless procedure on the rhinos, the idea is that the poachers will not try and break into the reserve for a horn that is maybe a third of the size of a full horn. Unfortunately sometimes they will still break onto the reserves in order to hack off the remaining horn and growth plate.
So what are these reserves in South Africa doing to try and stop the unnecessary murder of these beautiful animals?
Well, it might surprise you, (it did surprise me) ¸to know that there are organisations within South Africa that are fighting to legalise the international trade in rhino horn. It’s currently illegal to trade internationally but legal within South Africa. (Jonny clearly saw my puzzled expression and quickly worked to explain the idea). The reason that rhino horn is seen as such a status symbol is because it’s a banned product. The idea being that having a rhino horn which is potentially worth over a million USD, shows high status. But, if you were to legalise the trade of rhino horn then this would immediately lower the value of it and reduce the demand for poaching, with the view to eliminate poaching totally of course. There are lots of reserves who practice horn trimming and who have huge amounts stored in secure vaults. If the international ban was lifted, these organisations could coordinate to flood the market with this ethically sourced horn and bring the value crashing down. The money traded on the black market goes into the hands on criminal organisations who are making a wild profit out of the senseless killing of rhinos, if the ban was lifted then the money could go back into the reserves and straight back into the conservation effort. The mission is to essentially buy whatever time we can for the animals to rebuild their populations, while the people in positions of power agree on what we can do to secure their future.
That’s certainly a lot to think about, it’s clearly a complex issue and I’ll definitely be reading more about it. Thanks so much for meeting with me today, do you have any advice for any people who may be interested in pursuing a career in conservation?
Aside from the educational part, degrees etc, I’d just recommend putting yourself out there and getting as much experience under your belt as possible. A varied skill set is so useful in this line of work and you can do this by approaching organisations and volunteering for as much as possible.
Getting the chance to interview Jonny was a brilliant insight into the world of rhino conservation. As I said at the beginning of this, I don’t know a lot about rhinos and it’s clear that like with every aspect of conservation, it’s a very complex and dangerous situation. There is a lot of work being done to fight against the needless suffering of thousands of animals and to preserve them. But there is still a long way to go. I have done a lot of research into the horn trimming practice and the issues discussed in this interview, and I will leave a selection of sources in the ‘further reading’ section at the bottom. Perhaps when I have collected my thoughts in a coherent manner, I will write a post about my own thoughts and a more detailed discussion on this complicated and challenging issue!
For now it remains to say, Happy World Rhino Day, use this day as an opportunity to learn about the beautiful giants, and about how we must work now to protect them for generations to come.
A special huge thanks to Martin Meyer, a South African based photographer with a passion for wildlife conservation, for allowing me to use his beautiful images. Visit https://www.martinmeyerwild.com/ to see more of his amazing work.