Its Christmas 2013 and the end of the year is fast approaching. I am planning my next South African trip for February and reflecting on past adventures as I do so. Many people and animals have been part of those adventures. Charging elephants, wild dogs on kills and monkeys stealing my food to name a few. But one animal has always been very special to me, and as I plan and read up on news, this particular animal could be facing possible extinction. So far this year approximately nine hundred and fifty rhinos have been poached for their horns. The figure could reach a thousand by the end of the calendar year.
A war is being fought to save a species and alongside scientist and conservationists others are playing their parts. Actor Tom Hardy featured in a two part documentary on ITV. Whilst on Animal Planet American US Navy Seals joined an anti poaching unit in the series Battleground. Now a shoelace salesman from Northants, England, is adding his thoughts and words towards the cause.
Nineteen years ago in February 1994 I was in South Africa for the very first time. My now wife Melanie, a local girl from KwaZulu Natal, had taken me on my first ever game reserve visit. We had only been in the reserve for a few minutes when we came across three rhino. These were the first game animals I had ever seen in the wild. There they stood only meters in front of us and not at all bothered by our presence. I was still reading the reserves guide book as Melanie turned off the engine and we watched them through the open car windows. “Do not at any point turn your engine off, have the windows open or get out of the car” I read out loud!
I now have many memories of rhino from many reserves. But that memory, my first encounter, will always be with me. Since that initial visit I have been travelling to and from South Africa on regular visits for nearly twenty years. My passion, maybe even addiction, for game viewing has led to many encounters. It has been a privilege to view these magnificent mammals both on foot as well as from the safety of a vehicle. On a wilderness trails walking adventure in the world famous Imfolozi Game Reserve I experienced a mock charge from a particularly large white rhino. More recently on an early morning game drive a mother and baby just trotted up to me and my guide. We stood leaning against our vehicle enjoying tea and rusks. They were so close I could have touched them.
If you have never seen a rhino in the wild I know you could still describe one. They are world renowned, horned, prehistoric looking creatures. In KwaZulu Natal there are two species of them, white and black. The white is a grazer and the larger of the two. The black is a browser with a hooked upper lip rather than broad flat lip like the white. Being a relatively placid creature the white is approachable and is often found grazing in the open or wallowing in water or mud. Where as the black can be aggressive, very territorial, and is hard to spot as its nearly always taking refuge in thick bush. I would not recommend anyone approaching any rhino at any time.
That first encounter was in a relatively small and little known reserve called Weenen Nature Reserve. I have probably revisited Weenen every year since 1994 and am planning to go again next year to mark my 20th Anniversary trip. I have self driven the small network of roads many times. I have walked there with a former officer in charge and his wife, John & Natalie Llewellyn. I have even spent a few nights sleeping in the reserve though its only forty five minutes from wifes parents farm.
Now the news from Weenen is extremely sad. In early October game guards discovered five dead white rhino, poached with both horns removed. Two more were found alive, their horns removed to by poachers driven by money. I had family and friends visiting Weenen at the time who came across one of the dead de-horned rhino. These included my young niece and nephew who are both not yet teenagers. Rhino horn has a value higher than that of gold. The market for the horn is mainly China and Vietnam where it used to treat many ailments from impotence to cancer. And what is this wonder drug? Its keratin, rhino horn, the hooves of some mammals along with our own human hair and nails are all pretty much the same. Research of course proves there is no medicinal benefit what so ever from using rhino horn to treat any condition or illness.
In March earlier this year Melanie and I arrived at Nambiti Private Game Reserve to stay at one of the lodges within the reserve. This was our fourth visit to the impressive big five reserve which again is close to my in-laws farm. On arrival we were greeted with disturbing news, two rhinos had been poached only hours before our check in, their horns removed and left for dead. The reserve that morning was a hive of activity with representatives from the owners, the police and EKZN Wildlife starting their investigations. Even on our game drives our ranger was looking for anything unusual that may help with the investigation. Footprints on dirt roads were showing someone had walked in trainers and not boots like all employees. Small cairns of rocks neatly stacked just a few feet from the same road. Even long golden grass had been tied into a knot, yet another possible point of communication between poachers.
Not only did both these incidents take place in reserves very close to what I call my second home. They happened in stunning places that conserve a vast array of flora and fauna. These special places also mean an awful lot to us and many more people who appreciate the role they play in conservation. These incidents also show the sophistication of twenty first century poaching. A helicopter was almost certainly used in one if not both incidents. The rhinos were not shot with high powered rifles but tranquilised and overdosed with a drug called M99 which is only available to practising vets. All horns were also neatly removed and not hacked off with a machete. With poaching today nothing is left to chance. Meticulous planning is involved; it has to be with equipment such as helicopters being used. And although rhinos are being darted poachers are still heavily armed. A war is being fought o save a species.
My voice is just one of thousands around the world hoping to raise awareness of the plight of a creature that has roamed the earth for over fifty million years. In my opinion anybody can help and join the war on poaching. Support a charity that is funding conservation such as Save the Rhino. Or take the opportunity to visit somewhere where these magnificent animals still roam free. I have always worked on the theory that the more people that visit protected areas the more value will be put on them. An increase in visitors will have a knock on effect in the communities that neighbour protected areas. More visitors will mean more employment opportunities and more wealth creation. Can we afford to lose such an iconic and ancient species?