Educating the East

2012-04-20 00:00

OUNCE for ounce, rhino horn is more valuable than gold, which is why wildlife campaigner, Lawrence Anthony believed there was no “silver bullet” solution to the scourge of rhino poaching in South Africa, which has seen hundreds of animals slaughtered for their horns in the past few years.

The only way to tackle the issue, he said, was through education and now the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation is working on two educational films about poaching and the devastating impact it is having on the rhino.

Filmed in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, these films will be screened in the Far East to teach people in China, Vietnam, Taiwan and other countries, how the horns are acquired through violence, sometimes even being removed from living animals. They also hope to debunk the myth that rhino horn has any medicinal properties.

Rhino horn has been used as a traditional medicine to treat ailments for centuries, but in the past its cost put it beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy. Then the Chinese government embraced capitalism and with more and more people on the continent having disposable income, the demand for rhino horn skyrocketed.

Speaking to The Witness shortly before his death on March 2 this year, Anthony, who was known to millions as the elephant whisperer, said: “To put the extent of rhino poaching into perspective, in 1900 there were a million black rhinos in Africa and now there are between 3 000 and 4 000 white rhino left.

“And it’s not just rhinos that are being affected by the increase in poaching. In the last decade tens of thousands of elephants have also been slaughtered for their tusks.”

Lawrence, whose family own Thula Thula Game Reserve, said the Northern White Rhino, which he had tried to save through his expeditions into the jungles of southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now extinct in the wild; while the Western Black Rhino in Cameroon has been wiped out completely.

“The poachers have finished the easy ones — the ones in countries that were chaotic and where they were not well protected — so, now they’ve moved their attention to ours,” he said. “There is no question that we are likely to be the last generation to see rhinos in the wild, unless something is done.”

In a statement, the Earth Organisation said it had an agreement, in principle, from a representative of the Chinese government, to air the films on Chinese television. It also plans to post them on the Internet and other outlets as part of a viral education campaign, and will be setting up a fund for whistle-blowers to reward people who report and help convict poachers, making it more valuable to expose them than to help them.

Other projects include educating the communities around game reserves about the financial benefits the animals can have in terms of tourist revenue, and showing them the importance of biodiversity to human survival.

But even Lawrence admitted that while education is the conservationist’s best weapon, they still need to use guns to protect the rhino from extinction. To do that the game guards need to be better armed.

“I’ve been in fire fights with poachers and they don’t mess around. They have automatic weapons, like the AK47. The guards, who protect them, work for wages that most of us wouldn’t get out of bed for in the morning. They are using shotguns and outdated rifles against automatic assault rifles,” he added. “The government also needs to educate the courts to get tougher. Poachers will shoot to kill, rather than go down for 25 years.”

Lawrence and his staff have themselves had to fight poachers who shot and killed two of the rhino on the Thula Thula reserve, but he told The Witness that thanks to the efforts of people like King Goodwill Zwelethini, the message was getting through that the protection of rhinos is important.

The Zulu king has spoken passionately on the issue and at the opening of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature in February this year called for a war against the poaching of rhinos, which had seen 310 rhinos killed in 2011 and 330 in 2010.

“Without any preventative measures, these numbers are set to increase,” Zwelethini said. “It is true that war is immoral, but a war against the poaching of rhinos is worth it.”

Lawrence said he was also inspired by a new game guard at Thula Thula, who had come to the reserve with no experience of guarding animals.

“I went out to see him and asked him what he thought about protecting rhinos 24 hours a day. He said it was very important because they are our cultural heritage. We hadn’t taught him that — he learnt it while living in a remote village in Mtubatuba,” Anthony said. “That word ‘heritage’ gives people a sense of ownership, and it’s something which is growing both in the government and the communities.”

He also takes hope from the two young rhinos brought to Thula Thula as orphans: “They came to us as babies and symbolise that the battle is joined in South Africa. It is a battle that we need to win. It’s part of a battle for the soul of the planet in my opinion. We need to keep rhinos, tigers, all these magnificent, charismatic creatures, alive.”


• If you would like to find out more about the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation’s campaigns log on to www.earthorganiza

It is true that war is immoral, but a war against the poaching of rhinos is worth it.

— King Goodwill Zwelethini

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