World Rhino Day 2018: Is poaching declining?

Today is #WorldRhinoDay and rhinos have a special place in my heart after spending time with them in South Africa earlier this year.

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Therefore, I was thrilled to see the latest figures from the Department of Environmental Affairs, for the period 1 January to 31 August 2018, showed the total number of poaching incidents has declined significantly compared to the same period last year. According to this report, there has been a decrease in the number of rhino poached nationally with nearly all provinces also experiencing dramatic declines.

Between 1 January 2018 and 31 August 2018 508 rhino were poached, compared to 691 for the same period in 2017.

January – August 2017 January – August 2018
Kruger National Park 333 292
Gauteng 3 0
Limpopo 54 25
Mpumalanga 31 38
North West 56 50
Eastern Cape 4 13
Free State 28 4
Northern Cape 19 3
KwaZulu-Natal 163 83
Western Cape 0 0
 Total 691 508

Obviously, this number is still disgustingly high and there is a long way to go in the fight against rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking.

However, it does appear that the integrated efforts of the government and organisations, such as WWF, Project Rhino and Wildlife Act, are beginning to make a difference to conserve this iconic species.

To read the full report, visit https://www.environment.gov.za/mediarelease/progressonimplementationofISMR

There are many ways you can help to save Rhinos but 3 simple ways you can support #WorldRhinoDay are:

1. The #RhinoPeakChallenge takes place this weekend to raise much-needed funds for both Rhinos and Vultures. Learn more: www.rhinopeakchallenge.co.za

2. Rapid action by wildlife veterinarians, pilots and conservation staff is crucial for saving the lives of our Rhinos. Unfortunately, it is very expensive! Wildlife ACT and partners have established an Emergency Response Fund. You can support this fund by making a small donation here: http://bit.ly/2arasPO

3. Since 2003, the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project has been working to grow populations of critically endangered Black Rhino. Watch a short documentary film about Wildlife ACT’s Black Rhino conservation work being done with WWF to help save this species from extinction, and please share the video: http://bit.ly/2MOigcf

It is only through a collective effort and global support, that gives Rhinos a fighting chance at survival!

World Elephant Day: we must do more to stop the ivory trade

 

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Volunteering at an elephant orphanage in Thailand

Yesterday was World Elephant Day, an annual event dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephants.

In recent years, elephant numbers have dwindled due to poaching, deforestation and other serious threats.

Every year, around 20,000 African elephants are killed by poachers for their tusks, which are then sold in the illegal ivory trade.

The illegal wildlife trade is devastating, not only to animals but it also affects security, economic growth and the well-being of local communities.

UK takes the lead on cracking down on ivory trade

Marking this year’s World Elephant Day, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, announced he will be chairing a new initiative to unite world leaders, conservationists and experts to crack down on ivory markets and increase enforcement against the gangs driving elephants to the brink.

To help protect Elephants, the Ivory Alliance 2024 was recently established by the Government with the aim of reducing the illegal killing of African elephants for their tusks by at least a third by 2020 and then to further halve the rate over the next three years.

The UK is already introducing one of the toughest bans anywhere on ivory trading and taxpayers are also currently funding £26 million in efforts to combat illegal wildlife trafficking.

This October, world leaders will be coming to the UK for the Illegal Wildlife Trade summit to discuss other strategies for tackling criminals and corrupt middlemen driving the ivory racket.

It’s a start but we need more…

The scale of the trade is shocking. On average, over 1,000 rhinos are slaughtered a year, 55 African elephants are killed a day and every five minutes a pangolin is snatched from the wild. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth more than £15 billion a year.

I have seen firsthand the lengths poachers will go to to get their hands on ivory and rhino horn. The brutality and violence knows no bounds.

A Kenyan ranger guards a stack of elephant tusks, intercepted before entering the illegal ivory trade. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Many organisations are dedicated to stopping the trade, with WWF leading the way to stop poaching, trafficking and the buying of illegal wildlife products.

Although our government is going in the right direct, it is nowhere near enough. We need more commitment and action from governments across the world to end this criminal activity before it’s too late.

This October, we need big commitments to close domestic ivory markets and tackle illegal ivory trade, particularly from Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar & Laos.

Please sign & share the WWF petition calling on global leaders to stop wildlife crime.

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 elephant orphanage – Thailand

My experience of dehorning rhino

As I mentioned in my previous blog, in May I was lucky enough to visit South Africa and attend a media trip with Project Rhino to see first hand how much effort is going into the fight against rhino poaching and wildlife crime.

One the methods that I will never forget was the dehorning of white rhino in a game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa.

On Thursday 17th May, we were taken to Somkhanda Game reserve to understand the conservation approach of dehorning rhino. The night before, we sat around a braai and debated the poaching crisis and the pros and cons of different anti-poaching methods.

Dehorning is seen as one of the most extreme and invasive anti-poaching measures and one that I wasn’t sure I wanted to see. However, after learning more about the grave situation rhinos are facing in South Africa, I began to understand this drastic but effective approach.

The next day (after a very early start), the team set off to the location of two white rhino armed with a dart gun in a helicopter and game vehicles packed with chainsaws and equipment.

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Helicopter and vet on the way to the rhino

After the team of dedicated and skilled trackers located the rhino, the very experienced vet, Dr Mike Toft, shot a powerful cocktail of drugs into the rhino’s rump from the helicopter hovering two meters above.

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The helicopter darting the fast moving rhino

After a few nervous minutes, we watched the 2000kg rhino slow, stagger and sink to the ground. I was surprised to see that although immobilised, the rhino was always conscious and continued to breathe heavily from its nostrils and twitch its delicate ears whilst the team prepare it. Blindfolds and earmuffs were placed on its head to reduce the noise and stress during the dehorning activity whilst DNA samples were taken and new trackers were fitted to the rhino’s ankle.

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Dr Toft marking the horn area to be cut off
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Ear muffs and a blindfold on to reduce the stress on the rhino
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The team making sure the rhino is positioned correctly
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Wildlife Act fitting a new ankle tracker to monitor the rhino

After quickly marking up the ideal cutting point, Dr Toft fired up a large chainsaw and cut both horns off in a quick and painless procedure.

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Dr Toft carefully removing the second horn

Despite knowing it was in the animal’s best interest, it was still hard to watch. The procedure was noisy and violent but Dr Toft insisted it is no more painful than trimming your fingernails if done correctly. After all, rhino horn is made of keratin, which is the same type of protein that makes up hair and finger nails.

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The rhino following the dehorning procedure, ready to be woken up

The remaining stump was sprayed with purple antibacterial solution and the vet administered the drugs to wake the rhino whilst we all hurried back to the safety of the vehicle to watch what happened next.

It was amazing to see that within minutes the rhino stood up, looked around curiously and began casually grazing like nothing had happened.

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The rhino, surprisingly unfazed, after waking up from sedation
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Calmly strolling off after the dehorning

The whole procedure took under five minutes to be completed. The speed, care and precision of the whole process was hugely impressive.

This was the first of eight rhinos successful dehorned that day by the extremely skilled and hardworking team.

Dr Toft told us he has removed close to 1,800 horns from 900 rhinos in the past three years and all the team acknowledged that dehorning is not a permanent or ideal situation but a desperate measure designed to keep these animals alive.

How chopping off Rhino horns can save their lives

In May 2018, I visited South Africa as a conservation volunteer and I was lucky enough to spend some time with Project Rhino, seeing how much effort is going into the fight against rhino poaching.

Project Rhino is a group of conservation agencies working together to combat rhino poaching and wildlife crime in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa. They use a huge range of projects to stop wildlife crime including aerial surveillance, dehorning initiatives, K9 and horse anti-poaching units, ranger training and education and communication programmes.

During my time in South Africa, I took part in a media visit to KwaZulu-Natal province, one of the most historic and beautiful conservation regions in the world. We were shown the anti poaching interventions run by Project Rhino and its members.

Crucially, I learnt why Project Rhino exist and it’s a depressing story…

The poaching crisis

In the past decade more than 7,000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa. The staggering increase in poaching has devastated South African’s rhino population with a total of 1028 rhinos killed for their horns in the last year.

Poaching pressure has increased significantly in KZN. While the Kruger National Park was initially the most severely impacted area, the increased security measures recently being brought into place in the park have pushed the rhino horn syndicates to become more active in KZN. As you can see from the below graph, although generally in South Africa rhino poaching has slightly decreased in recent years, it has significant increased in vulnerable areas such as KZN.

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Rhino poaching in South Africa (KZN in red)

The global situation isn’t much better with fewer than 30,000 rhinos globally and the northern white rhino becoming functionally extinct after the death of the last male, Sudan, in March.

Twitter post by @OlPejeta: It is with great sadness that Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Dvůr Králové Zoo announce that Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19th, 2018 (yesterday).  #SudanForever #TheLoneBachelorGone #Only2Left

Why is this happening?

A persistent human desire for rhino horn, for everything from medicine to hangover cures to status symbols, drives the slaughter of these animals.

The scarcity of rhinos and the limited availability of rhino horn only drives the price of horn higher and higher, intensifying pressure on declining rhino populations. For people whose income is far below the subsistence level, the opportunity to change one’s life by killing an animal that they don’t value is overwhelming.

Poaching is now a threat in all rhino range states, however as South Africa is home to the majority of rhinos in the world, it is being heavily targeted. More than ever, field programmes are having to invest heavily in anti-poaching activities.

Evidence shows that poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos. Frequently a tranquiliser gun is used to bring the rhino down, before its horn is hacked off, leaving the rhino to wake up and bleed to death very painfully and slowly. Poachers are often armed with guns themselves, making them very dangerous for the anti-poaching teams who put their lives  at risk everyday to protect rhinos.

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Rhino horn removed during a dehorning procedure –  rhino horn is made up of keratin, a protein found in our own hair and fingernails..!

It is therefore no surprise that that conservations are driven to take drastic steps such as chopping off hundreds of rhino horns before poachers can get their hands on them.

Some thorny issues

Unfortunately we cannot ignore the downsides to dehorning and it is fair to say used in isolation, this is not the only solution to prevent poaching.

  • Not only is the procedure invasive but it’s expensive. Chris Galliers from Project Rhino explained that it costs about £580 to safely dehorn one rhino and this must be repeated every 18-24 months as the horns naturally regrow
  • Due to the issues associated with sedating animals of this size, it can be dangerous to the rhino and, if done incorrectly, can be fatal
  • Dehorning only selected rhino is not an option, as those without horns become more vulnerable in territory fights and it is not always possible to dehorn 100% of the population (some will successfully hide away and you should never dart a pregnant cow)
  • There are also cases where dehorning has proved insufficient to prevent rhinos from falling victim to poachers. Poachers may still kill for the stub of the horn, although much less profitable, the stub is still a target thanks to its high value. Poachers have also been seen to kill dehorned rhinos out of vengeance and to avoid tracking them again

Despite issues, the dehorning strategy, coupled with other anti poaching security efforts, has produced dramatic results in several reserves.

Overall, it is a promising step to help save rhinos

In KZN, nearly a quarter of rhino deaths were on private reserves such as Somkhanda. However, over the past two years, coinciding with intensive dehorning, that has dropped to 5%.

Although it’s heartbreaking that such drastic measures must be taken to protect rhinos, it’s promising that these steps are working and many wildlife mangers believe we should do whatever it takes to save rhinos. With the poachers’ prize removed, there is no doubt that the risk to the animals is greatly reduced.

YOU CAN HELP

In September, I will be taking part in my first Olympic Triathlon to raise money for Project Rhino. Please click here if you can help – https://www.givengain.com/ap/swimbikerunforrhinos/

Any donation will be hugely appreciated and directly support crucial operations on the ground in South Africa – helping to save the lives of African rhinos and ensuring that these beautiful yet endangered animals continue to survive.

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A white rhino successfully dehorned by Project Rhino in KZN

To learn more about dehorning, read my own experience of dehorning white rhino in KZN or for further reading;

Click here to read the Endangered Wildlife Trust 2011 study on the dehorning of African rhinoceros as a tool to reduce the risk of poaching

Click here to read a 2013 paper by Raoul Du Toit and Natasha Anderson from the Lowveld Rhino Trust, whose research challenges some of the supposed consequences of dehorning

Click here to read ‘Caught in the Crosshairs’ a scienceline article investigating the dehorning debate

The Journey Begins

I have decided to start this blog having recently made a big career change from a city-dwelling PR guru to a novice naturalist! During this transition I have been looking for similar stories to inspire and motivate me. I haven’t found many so I wanted to give some advice and tell my story to those who are either thinking about a career change into conservation or just want to spend more of their free time volunteering with animals.

I will also be discussing conservation topics and sharing my experiences in the hope of encouraging others to protect our planet and its wild and domestic animals.

So how did I get here?

As a child, I grew up surrounded by animals and always wanted to be a vet (see below photo!) but I mistakenly believed I was not strong enough at Maths and Science to do it.

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I therefore took a very different path, achieving a first class degree in Psychology from the University of Sheffield and going to work in a PR agency in London. I continued working for a variety of companies in communications for the next five years and despite learning a lot, I always knew my passion lay elsewhere.

So in January I decided enough was enough and it was time to focus full time on a career in conservation. It was (and still is!) a big risk but life is too short to not do something you love…so here goes.

I spent the next month desperately looking for jobs working with animals and realised slowly that it was not going to be as easy or as immediate as I perhaps first thought. After accepting that it would take some time, I decided to apply for volunteering roles to gain some experience. I applied to A LOT of roles and waited. It took another month for me to hear back from most places but I did eventually get some good news. I then selected a variety of roles to see which ones would interest me if I moved into that field. I started volunteering at a Zoo, volunteering for the Blue Cross and signed up for a month long volunteering expedition in South Africa (more details on that trip to come!).

After volunteering for a while and speaking with people in the industry, I realised that I wanted to focus my efforts on wild animal conservation and that I wanted some expertise under my belt.

I have to say this definitely isn’t the only route into conservation and can be expensive and time consuming but for me, I felt I needed to gain knowledge and expertise in animal biology so I began applying for a Masters degree. By some miracle, in May 2018, I received a place on my first choice course at the Royal Veterinary College to study Wild Animal Biology and I am very excited (and nervous!) to start in September. Watch this space to see how I get on…