Simon presses his hands together and makes a squeezing motion. He is showing us how to survive in the dry Savannah, “You place fresh rhino manure into your hands, press hard and capture the water – then you drink it” Simon says with a straight face. He then proceeds to describe the taste and aroma of the precious liquid. I will spare you the details but will tell you that just about anything tastes delicious if you are thirsty enough.
Durban, a coastal city in eastern South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is known for its African, Indian and colonial influences. The Golden Mile beachfront is a popular destination for surfers, joggers, sunbathers and water-sports enthusiasts. Refurbished for soccer’s 2010 World Cup, the seafront promenade starts at uShaka Marine World, a huge theme park with an aquarium, and ends by the futuristic Moses Mabhida stadium.
I don’t think Simon, in his mid-twenties, has ever had to drink manure juice, but he sure knew his stuff when it comes to rhinos. Having been brought up as the son of a ranger on a South African game reserve, Simon, now a ranger himself at the Tala Private Game Reserve near Durban in South Africa, is on the front lines of the fight for the rhino’s survival in Africa. With their numbers decimated by poachers all over Africa an ever-increasing number of white and black rhinos are slaughtered for their horns every year. The horns, which consist of the same protein keratin substance as our human fingernails, are sought after by Asian (mostly Vietnamese) customers for medicinal purposes. A ground up rhino horn, poured into a drink, supposedly cures cancers, soothes hangovers and detoxifies the body after excessive consumption of food and alcohol. Of course there is no scientific basis for those claims. If there were some truth to these miracle healing properties, all we'd have to do is chew on our fingernails to be cured from cancer. Rhino horns are also cherished by rich Vietnamese for the purpose of displaying their newly attained wealth. With horns being sold at a going rate of US $300,000 a piece, a businessman’s wealth is easily demonstrated with a rhino horn sitting on a shelf in the foyer.
When I detected Simon’s intimate knowledge of the rhino poaching problem in Africa, I was all over him with questions. As a good liberal, I always want the government to help first. “Why doesn’t the South African government send in the troops?” I ask Simon. “Understand that the rhino horn trade is monopolized by crime syndicates” Simon says. “The criminals bribe politicians to prevent laws and government action that will be detrimental to the poaching trade. There is an entire supply chain at work and everybody takes their cut.” Simon points out a good example of government interference: rangers on private game reserves are prohibited from carrying guns. Obtaining gun permits is almost impossible. “Try to take out a bunch of poachers with a Taser gun!” he explains in frustration. After having located a rhino with a GPS, poachers swoop in with their helicopter, tranquilize the animal, and with a battery powered chain saw cut off the horn and lift off before anybody can catch them. The poachers carry guns, rangers on private reserves do not (…or are not supposed to). “Because of its enormous value, poachers take off as much horn as they possibly can, thereby injuring the rhino. On average, the rhino dies within 12 minutes of the attack” Simon explains. Only 8% of rhinos survive attacks by poachers.
Protecting the rhinos from poachers is a logistical and financial challenge. After having lost 2 rhinos a month earlier, Simon and the owners of this game reserve are taking no more chances. Every rhino is now equipped with a collar on one hind leg. The collar monitors the rhino’s pulse rate and notifies Simon of any sudden changes in the animal’s vital signs via cell phone. In addition, wires have been installed inside the horn. The severing of the wire with a chain saw will set off an alarm and immediately notify the rangers of an attack. The reserve has also hired 12 full time rhino patrols. The patrols are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Their job is to keep eye contact with the Rhinos at all times. Will this be enough to deter the criminals? “The poachers are brazen and equipped with the latest technology and equipment. In case of an attack, we might be able to chase them away before they do harm” Simon explains. He continues: “The other day a helicopter approached the reserve and despite our issuing several warnings, the helicopter continued on its course. It was pretty clear that an attack by poachers was imminent. We shot at the helicopter with our guns (Simon obviously decided to ignore the prohibition of guns on private reserves) and while we didn’t down the copter, we persuaded the pilot to turn away.” A shoot-to-kill policy for rangers is a hotly debated issue at this time. It shows the desperation of the men and women whose task it is to protect the precious rhinos.
This definitely sounds like war to me or at least a long, drawn-out battle. With the large majority of the remaining African rhinos living in South Africa, this country plays an enormously important role in the fight against poaching. And there is no shortage of suggestions and ideas on how to curb an ever-increasing threat to this endangered species. Some believe that it will be possible to educate Asians on the ineffectiveness of rhino horns, but to change superstition and cultural practices has always been very difficult. Others believe that a de-criminalization of the horn trade will lower the price and make poaching uninteresting. People have called for “horn farming” whereby rhinos’ horns would be harvested at regular intervals (the horns grow back at a rate of 5 cm per year) and sold on an open market. Some are in favour of poisoning or tainting the horns. Lately, the relocation of endangered rhinos to areas less prone to poaching has been suggested, but the logistics of such an undertaking and the cost of transport can be staggering. A serious plan and negotiations are currently under way to move 1,000 rhinos to the south of Texas, where they can live on private ranches in a climate and on terrain that is similar to that of their homeland. The idea is to allow the rhinos to live freely, to reproduce and hopefully, once the poaching craze has subsided, to reintroduce them back to their native habitat.
The idea receiving the most traction is that of removing the horns of thousands of rhinos in the areas most affected by poaching. While this would not guarantee the end of poaching (poachers might still kill the rhino in order to “harvest” the base of the horn), it would definitely lower the incentive to attack the animals. Apparently, the horn is not essential to a rhino’s survival. It is mostly used by males to scare off other males during mating season. But the de-horning of rhinos is not without challenges. The procedure itself requires tranquilization of the animal, which is dangerous and can lead to the rhino’s death. Also, mothers cannot be de-horned as long as their young are nursing. The cost of de-horning ranges from US $ 650 to US $ 1,000 per animal, a staggering expense considering the large number of rhinos still roaming the African Savannahs. And then there is the question about what to do with the horns. While some suggest that the horns should be sold on the black market and the money be used for rhino conservation, others would argue that burning and destroying the stock piles of horns is the only ethical solution.
Whatever the solution might be, it very well could be a combination of several ideas and approaches. One thing is clear, as long as African countries struggle with corruption, the nations’ governments will be seen as driving with one foot on the gas and one on the brakes. They will say all the right things in the news but will do nothing to curb the poaching problem. It is left to non-profits, conservation organizations and private individuals to fight this evil trade.
Simon does not hold out much hope for a happy ending. “At the current rate of killing, I believe we have a decade before all the rhinos are gone” he says. To me, this sounds like a very pessimistic outlook. Having seen the passion, the determination and the number of people who care about the future of rhinos, I hold out hope that a combination of relocation, de-horning and increased security at the reserves will stem the poaching tide and reverse a very dangerous trend.
Before leaving, I have one final question: “Where do you live, Simon?” He responds while pointing towards a lone house with a red roof high above the plains of the reserve. “See that house up on the hill? That is my place. The owner wants me to live there so I can look across the reserve and immediately notice suspicious activities. I never leave the game farm. It makes for a lonely existence. At this rate, I will never find a wife!”
I quietly wonder how much longer Simon can keep fighting this war, live with the stress and keep up his enormous level of commitment toward the cause.
As I am writing this, I recall another question I asked of Simon: “What is behind the poachers’ willingness to risk their lives for a rhino horn – poverty or greed?” Simon’s response came quickly; he didn’t have to search very long for the right answer. “Greed, of course! You don’t need 300,000 dollars to feed your family.” But as we drive through the poverty stricken regions of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, I can see similarities to the problems the marine trade has had with pirating issues during the past decade. What started out as desperate acts by disenfranchised fishermen in Somalia, got quickly overtaken by crime syndicates and brutal organizations. It is quite possible that the pirates, and in this case the poachers, are the guys who take all the risks and do their overlords’ dirty work. The only long term solution is to educate the end consumer and to go after the corrupt officials and syndicate bosses. They are the greedy individuals who seem to have no conscience or care about the future survival of an endangered species. My suggestion: lock them up with a pile of fresh rhino manure in the jail cell – and then withhold water. Having to drink manure juice for survival seems like a fitting punishment to me.