Jeff’s View – From poachers to protectors to poachers
Every week Jeffrey van Staden provides his own very personal perspective from the tourism frontline in Africa. Whether positive or negative feel free to comment
There is more wildlife in southern Africa now than a hundred years ago. Although even at that time the idea of conservation was in practice. Zulu kings, Shaka and Dingiswayo, hunted in the region of South African, a stone’s throw from where I grew up, which is today known as Hluhluwe /umfolozi National Park. The park is the oldest nature conservancy in Africa and was established way back in 1895. The 96000 ha park became world renowned in the 1950’s and 1960’s as the home of Operation Rhino, which was established to save the dwindling numbers of white rhino whose numbers had fallen to a very dangerous count of 500 by 1960.
The conservation effort was very successful and the white rhino has reached more sustainable numbers. The black rhino has however seen a massive decline from 14000 to 2550 in the past decade. The pace is quickening however as poaching has increased rapidly of late. The poaching epidemic has reached the point where animals are being lost on a daily basis. In fact all five of the world’s diverse species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of human appetite for their distinctive horns.
The poachers themselves vary between subsistence, low-skilled hunters who randomly shoot animals and hack out the horns with an axe, to those who are highly skilled and organized professionals, who systematically target properties, fly in with helicopters or fixed wing aircraft and snipe the rhino from the air so that ground teams can easily move in and de-horn the animals. It is the latter which poses the greatest threat to the species as they are taking rhino poaching to a new level of organized crime. Rumor has it that those involved in these activities, such as the pilots themselves, may be the very same people who are entrusted with conserving the rhino; an idea unimaginable to myself and many others with conservation in mind. These individuals are supposed to be protecting the very creatures they are helping to destroy.
I have heard of projects in the past where poachers have been arrested and given the choice of a jail sentence or to become protectors of the very animals they had been killing. After all who would better know how to catch a poacher, than a poacher? But this new twist of protectors turning to poaching is beyond my comprehension.
You are probably asking yourself why anyone would want to kill a rhino for its horn. The scientific analysis teaches us that the horns of most animals have a bony core covered by a thin sheath of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails. Rhino horns are unique, however, because they are composed entirely of keratin with dense mineral deposits made of calcium and melanin in the middle. In many countries, notably Yemen and China, rhino horn has traditionally been used to carve dagger handles, cups and other ornaments. Far more pervasive, however, is their use in the traditional medicine systems of many Asian countries, from Malaysia and South Korea to India and China, to cure a variety of ailments. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the horn, which is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, is used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout, and other disorders. According to the 16th century Chinese pharmacist Li Shi Chen, the horn could also cure snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, carbuncles, vomiting, food poisoning, and “devil possession.” (However, it is not, as commonly believed, prescribed as an aphrodisiac).
So what do we do about this problem? There are many efforts underway and many means of helping to fight the problem. I found a great website where you can inform yourself on the problem and donate funds to the cause: www.stoprhinopoaching.com
But I have a better idea. A dear friend of mine contacted me this morning from Mozambique and asked me if I couldn’t organize tourists to spend time on their property which borders the Kruger National Park as they have found that the mere presence of people deters poaching activity. This is a kind of “Voluntourism” which I actually think it’s is a great idea. Rather than merely donating money, why not travel to the region and get some return on your investment? You get a working holiday and you may even save a rhino. “Voluntourists” would help with collaring, darting and general work on the 30 000 ha property.
It may sound cynical, but it is only because of tourism that there are more animals in southern Africa now than a hundred years ago. If tourists were not bringing in foreign currency what would be the incentive to save animals? It’s the hard truth unfortunately. This is just one more reason why Africa needs tourism to grow and that’s the best way you can help.