Project Rhino: How conservationists risk their lives to combat poachers

2018-05-24 08:50
The dehorning of rhino is a temporary measure. (YouTube screen grab)

The dehorning of rhino is a temporary measure. (YouTube screen grab)

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In the picturesque, rolling hills of Northern KwaZulu-Natal there is a group of South Africans who have dedicated their lives to saving rhino.

They work and even reside deep in the heart of the natural beauty of the Somkhanda Game Reserve, between the remote towns of Pongola and Mkuzi.

The reserve is home to the big five, South Africa's most coveted and jealously-guarded tourist attraction.

But this attraction is under constant threat. All that stands between the potential extinction of a species at the hands of poachers, are small teams of up to 10 or 12 devoted individuals who work for the sake of natural preservation.

Project Rhino – a composite of leading environmental entities – contextualises the vital need for partnership, understanding and protection of rhino.

When speaking to key role players on the ground of Project Rhino, one fact is mentioned more than any other – the Gumbi community owns the land, makes the final decisions and benefits from profits.

"Somkhanda Game Reserve is a community-owned game reserve that is run and managed in partnership with the Gumbi community by Wildlands Conservation Trust and African Insight," Wildlands strategic manager for conservation Dave Gilroy says passionately.

On Saturday, May 17, Project Rhino successfully dehorned five white rhino.

The process is simple, yet complex to execute. Old-school trackers on the ground follow the footsteps, and vegetation consumption of the excrement of the rhino to locate its whereabouts.

A highly-skilled helicopter pilot joined by a vet then attempts to chase and dart the rhino, using M-99, a drug that is 10 000 times more powerful than morphine. The animal is only darted when it is chased into an open area where a ground team can begin working. The rhino's ears and eyes are covered while the vet joins the ground team.

He then marks a spot on the rhino's horn and uses a chainsaw to cut through. The horn is sanded down and sterilised before the animal is awakened.

According to vet Dr Mike Toft, even the smallest piece of rhino horn makes rhino vulnerable to poachers.

"The horns go for about $60 000 (about R750 000) to $80 000 (about R1m) per kilogram and a full-grown horn is anything up to 5kg."

Saving rhino

At the forefront of the dehorning is Gilroy, an almost Indiana Jones-type character who exudes passion for nature and the reserve.

He sits down with News24 shortly after a day of dehorning. As if emerging from a warzone, a bloodied and scarred Gilroy says the process of dehorning presents many challenges.

"Game capture and working with a megaherbivore in harsh wild conditions in the bush is never easy. It is difficult on machinery and people. I was caught in a thorn bush while working with the rhino today."

Gilroy and his team had gone nearly three years without a rhino being killed at the reserve – until a few weeks ago.

"More recently we had a good run. Close on 1 000 days without incident. People are generally trying, but we are able to move them off and dissuade them. Unfortunately, we recently lost a white rhino female after poachers got in, in the early or late evening and were able to shoot the rhino and remove its horn before we could intercept them."

Gilroy said the killing of a rhino is always a difficult pill to swallow.

"It is really sad because you put in all that hard work and hundreds of thousands of hours. The teams have done their best for so long and in one moment and one shot, all of that hard work unravels.

"We were so close to apprehending these poachers though. Our guys have confidence, if it happens again, we will get them. The poachers knew how close we were."

How has Somkhanda managed to stave off rhino killings?

While many game reserves in the province are constantly losing rhino to poachers, Gilroy says Somkhanda has managed to mitigate killings through a multi-pronged approach.

"Wildlands and the Gumbi community always tried to be at the forefront of conservation achievement. When we have incidents that shake us to the core, we change the game. We apply some adaptive management principles, looking at bringing in armed rangers, camera traps and gate systems. We work with everyone to keep all our bases covered."

Gilroy said Somkhanda also kept abreast of poaching activities at neighbouring reserves.

"We believe relationships with neighbours are critical. We cannot pass problems on to neighbours. Those will eventually become our problems. We try to help one another."

According to Chris Galliers, the project co-ordinator and head of Project Rhino, private reserves now only make up about 5% of all rhino poaching.

"We believe that dehorning disincentivises poachers."

However, this process does not come cheap. Galliers says that it costs between R9 000 to R10 000 per rhino to dehorn.

"At the moment, it is working. Before dehorning, private reserves made up 25% of all dehorning. We believe dehorning is a temporary measure. It is putting a big hand print on rhino but for now, as we are evaluating the risk of poaching, it is a viable option."

Galliers said 2017 was the worst poaching year for rhino and that 222 rhinos were poached.

What solutions lie ahead?

Looking towards long-term solutions, Galliers said it was positive that police had identified rhino poaching as a priority crime. However, more could be done, he said.

"It indeed has been identified as a priority crime. Whether it has practically got that attention is debatable. Police have their hands full and it is difficult to add wildlife crime onto that."

Galliers said there had to be an understanding from police in terms of wildlife crimes and why they needed to be treated like any other crime.

"We are dealing with people with illegal firearms. They commit a variety of crimes when they attempt to poach rhino."

While more could be done, there had been notable improvements, he added.

"We obviously have challenges in terms of resourcing capacity and finances. We need extensive forensic and intelligence operations to intercept criminals before poaching happens. However, it has got better. There is better communication between police and the Hawks. Conservation agencies are also talking among each other because rhino poachers are moving between provinces."

Galliers said they had also engaged in educating young children from Asian countries on the importance of rhino conservation.

"We find that China is a hotbed of demand for the horns. It was previously used as traditional medicine, but we see this is waning in favour of jewellery as a status symbol. This is why we have brought youngsters over, so the future generation can expand its understanding."

Galliers said that the demand for rhino horn experienced a meteoric rise in 2009. The reason was economic growth.

"One of the things that is interesting is what kicked off rhino poaching around 2009. The instigator was the wealth of China, with that the interest in the demand for rhino horn. As such, it led to being recognised as a status symbol."

Galliers said he hoped there would be sweeping change in years to come.

"Of course, we do not want to do this forever (dehorning). We hope that the people who desire these horns and the people who assist them in attaining it, begin to understand these creatures [are] more than just a status symbol or commodity."

*Kaveel Singh was sponsored by Project Rhino to cover their anti-poaching initiatives.

Read more on:    durban  |  conservation  |  animals  |  rhino poaching  |  good news

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