Joe Cloete | Conserving rhinos is about more than just stopping poachers

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Africa's rhino population is severely under threat. Photo: Supplied
Africa's rhino population is severely under threat. Photo: Supplied


Saving Africa’s rhinos will require a multidimensional strategy, with private game reserves and national parks cooperating, and anti-poaching efforts working in tandem with education campaigns.

This, according to Joe Cloete, CEO of Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, isn’t a new approach but one that needs to be developed and expanded.

“It’s what General Johan Jooste did in the Kruger National Park and what he detailed in his book Rhino Wars, where the national park integrated its anti-poaching efforts with those of nearby private reserves. He understood the need for education campaigns to get the surrounding communities onside and challenge the myths that create a demand for rhino horn.”

READ: Kruger National Park head ranger tackles astronomical challenges

He says this approach - tried and tested at the Kruger National Park – is being rolled out in other regions.

“For example, at Shamwari, we cooperate with all the surrounding reserves, including the Addo Elephant National Park, sharing intelligence and expertise. We also do a lot of community work on the reserve, as well as running outreach programmes. The aim of these is to inform the community that a living rhino is an asset that keeps bringing employment and income to the region. One that’s killed for its horn brings little, if any, benefit to surrounding communities.”

But, says Cloete, even well-coordinated efforts by game reserves, national parks and effective community-engagement programmes aren’t enough. An intensive, concerted international science-based campaign involving governments and global conservation NGOs is required to debunk the fiction about rhino horn. They should use every tool at their disposal, including influencers and social media.

While it may be difficult to convince a current generation that long-held beliefs about rhino horn curing cancer or increasing virility are untrue, breaking the chain that perpetuates these fallacies in successive generations could be more effective.

Cloete says that events such as World Rhino Day on September 22 are important to focus attention on rhino conservation and that while poaching is an immediate and serious threat, it is not the only one.

“At the moment, the poaching of animals for their horns is rightly the primary focus of rhino conservation, but there’s little point in winning this battle if we lose the war.”

Human encroachment on rhino habitat is also a problem and over the long term, ensuring sufficient wilderness spaces for rhinos to survive and flourish is also important.

It's an objective Shamwari has championed for the past 30 years, since it began buying up farms and restoring the land to the wilderness it had once been. Fittingly, rhinos were an important part of this story.

Along with elephants and hippos, white rhinos were one of the first animals to be reintroduced to what had once been one of southern Africa’s richest wildlife areas. As the large herbivores began moving through what had been chicory and wheat fields, these ‘engineers of the bush’ began restoring the soil, fertilising it with their manure and dispersing seeds.

READ: War on rhino poaching – a never-ending bloody battle

As the land was restored, it could support more species. Black rhinos and buffalos were brought back in 1993, with cheetahs, lions and brown hyenas being reintroduced in 2000 and servals and leopards the following year. 

“Rhino Day focuses attention on a species under threat, but to conserve these magnificent and important animals in the wild, we not only have to tackle the immediate issues but also holistically consider other factors that put rhino populations at risk.”

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