There are five species of rhino in the world – the black and white rhinos of Africa and the greater one-horned, Sumatran and Javan rhinos of Asia. WWF-Norway’s Melissa de Kock has been lucky enough to see both African species in the wild. Here she writes about the magic of rhinos.
These strangely beautiful animals are amongst my favourite wild animals to see when out game viewing. Rhinos have been around for about 40 million years and they still look prehistoric with their thick armour-like skin and large horns. While they may look frightening to some people, they are usually quite peaceful unless they feel threatened or provoked.
The beauty of tracking rhinos
One of my favourite experiences has been to track black rhinos on foot in a community conservation area in Namibia and to see them up close and personal. It is exhilarating to walk through the bush, following your tracker who silently makes his way through the vegetation, looking out for these shy animals, and then suddenly to spot one through the shrubs and trees. Rhinos have very poor eyesight but incredibly good hearing and an excellent sense of smell, but as long as you are very quiet, don’t make any sudden movements and stay downwind of them so that they can’t smell you, they will continue doing what they are doing – allowing you to watch them in their natural environment, with nothing between you but some small shrubs and trees.
It’s a magical experience.
Even watching the rhinos from a vehicle is wonderful. You truly understand the size of them, especially the white rhino, when one stands next to the vehicle and makes it seem small. The white rhino is the largest rhino species: it can weigh over 3500 kg and grow to up to 2 metres tall and more than 3 metres in length.
An important but endangered species
Rhinos not only provide life changing experiences for people who have the chance to see them, but they also have an important part in the ecosystems in which they live. They help to disperse seeds of plants and to recycle critical nutrients needed for plant growth, they create grazing areas for other animals through their eating habits, they make paths for other animals to walk on through thick bush, and even provide food for insects and birds like the oxpecker.
But not everyone appreciates the importance of a living rhino. The growing demand in the east for rhino horn – increasingly a status symbol among the wealthy as well as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine – is killing off rhinos at a horrifying rate. As of 11 September 2014, 769 rhinos had been killed in South Africa, which is home to 82 percent of African rhinos. This means that about three rhinos are being poached every day in South Africa alone. Rhinos are also being poached in other countries where there are surviving rhino populations, including in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya. It is illegal to sell rhino horn, yet this illegal market is incredibly lucrative and last year was valued at between US$63 to US$192 million.
– We have not lost this battle
But what are people paying so much money for? Rhino horn is made of keratin and is similar to a horse’s hoof, and has no proven medicinal value. Only a rhino needs its horn. But as a result of this incomprehensible desire for rhino horn, we may lose rhinos forever. Approximately 24 000 rhinos survive in the wild in Africa but experts believe that at the current rate of poaching, they will go extinct within our lifetimes. And what is even more horrifying is the manner in which these animals are slaughtered. Sometimes they are drugged but often they are shot, but not killed, and their horns sawn off as they lie helpless but alive.
I met Hope in Lewa Conservancy in Kenya last year. A baby rhino, orphaned by poachers who killed her mother, she was being cared for and protected by human minders. It was heart-breaking to know that her mother had been killed, brutally and only for her horn, but uplifting too to see the care which was showered on her by the people looking after her.
This, together with the incredible work being done by individuals, organisations and governments to protect rhinos from being poached, reaffirmed my belief that we have not lost this battle.
What does WWF do?
WWF is working on many different levels to end the poaching of rhinos. One of the most important things we do is to support community conservation of rhinos and other wildlife in countries such as Namibia. Community involvement is a crucial element needed to stop the poaching of rhinos. If communities can benefit from having rhinos on their land and feel that they own these rhinos and that rhinos are important and relevant to them, they will have a reason to conserve them and to look out for people who want to poach them. These people can provide extra eyes and ears on the ground alerting the conservation authorities about potential poachers.
Other ways in which WWF works to end rhino poaching include:
- Working with local wildlife authorities to improve their capacity to conserve and manage rhinos
- Improving security monitoring to protect rhinos from poaching
- Creating new and expanding existing protected areas, including community conservation areas, and improving their management
- Promoting well managed wildlife-based tourism experiences that can provide incentives for communities to conserve rhinos and that can also provide additional funding for conservation efforts
- Working with government authorities to stop rhino horn being transported to the countries in which it is bought. This includes helping to implement new technologies that can help to detect rhino horn at borders and strengthening sentencing of arrested poachers and those trafficking and buying the horn to deter others from doing it.
- Working to reduce the demand for rhino horn by making it socially unacceptable to buy and use it through publicity campaigns by well know people, and raising awareness that there are no health benefits of rhino horn.
- Translocating rhinos from areas where they are no longer safe to more secure locations
What can you do?
- Lobby your government to provide additional funds to countries suffering from rhino poaching. These funds can be used to improve border controls to stop rhino horn being trafficked across borders, to increase the numbers of and capacity of rangers protecting rhinos, and to implement technologies to stop poaching and trafficking
- Don’t ever buy souvenirs or supposed natural remedies made of rhino horn (or any other illegal wildlife product such as ivory or tiger parts)
- Tell your friends and family about this terrible crime to build a public movement in Norway against rhino poaching and all other kinds of wildlife crime
- Go on holiday to a country like Namibia and experience how communities are managing and protecting their wildlife, including rhinos
- Become a “neshornfadder” (rhino sponsor) and support our efforts to stop poaching
See WWF Global for more information on rhinos.
About the author:
Melissa de Kock is a Senior Advisor at WWF-Norway. Having begun her career in media and communications, she has worked in conservation and development since 2003, focussing on community based natural resource management, transboundary conservation initiatives and climate change adaptation in southern and east Africa. Melissa has postgraduate qualifications in development studies, environmental management and responsible tourism.