Photo: Michelle Gadd
Today is day three in our series of interviews with 2011 Goldman Prize recipients. Raoul du Toit began working on rhino conservation as a Program Officer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature's African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group in 1985, and established the Lowveld Rhino Conservancy Project in 1990, although it's now called the Lowveld Rhino Trust, an independent body.
When he started, there were about 1500 rhinos total in Zimbabwe, but by 1992, poaching had reduced the black rhino population to 360 and white rhinos to 225. Since du Toit started leading the conservation project in 1990, the rhino population in his region alone has bounced back to 530—77 percent of the country's total population, up from less than five percent.He focuses on rhinos because they are a true flagship species: conserving rhinos preserves biodiversity overall, and promotes options for sustainable rural development. He also advocates on the international level for rhino protection and has helped reintroduce rhino populations in Botswana and Zambia. I spoke with him about the problems facing rhinos in southern Africa and about his efforts.
Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize
TreeHugger: How is the rhino population faring regionally?
Raoul Du Toit: Over the last year, we've been really lucky to see an increase in the population, but elsewhere in the country, it's not going so well. South Africa is having a lot of poaching now, they're basically losing a rhino a day. So it's a pretty tenuous situation, there are major regional risks for rhinos in terms of the flare-up in poaching.
The problem in South Africa is that there are lot of rhinos spread out around the country—a lot of them are in very small unprotected and private lands that are very prone to hit and run attacks.
So the upsurge in demand for rhino horn, which is linked to some new market demand in Vietnam, means that there are organized syndicates in South Africa that are linked in with those Vietnamese suppliers that are fully capable of getting around these unprotected populations and conducting hit-and-run attacks.
My concern in Zimbabwe is, poaching is very much linked to the political and economic stability in the country. At times where the government is not functioning well, law and order falters, and poachers can go in with impunity. Zimbabwe is facing some uncertainty at this point, and unfortunately in these situations it's generally animals like rhinos that suffer.
Can you explain the demand coming from Vietnam?
There's underlying, long-term demand for rhino horn as an ingredient for traditional Chinese medicines—it's used not as an aphrodisiac which everybody in the press seems to believe, but as a fever-reducing, blood-purifying drug, according to their believe.
But the new demand now is really this Vietnamese belief that rhino horn can cure life-threatening diseases like cancer. That's what's caused the sudden increase in poaching more recently, within the last five years this belief has been established. The story is that a senior politician had cancer, took rhino horn, was cured, and that's been publicized and that's driven up the demand for horn. But the one ray of hope is that this Vietnamese demand is something new, and I would hope amenable to persuasion and change, and education. There needs to be some focus on Vietnam, and people need to understand that if they have cancer, they're not going to be do much good to take rhino horn, they need to be doing something more than that.
The Vietnamese have been using the CITES allowance for trophy hunting in South Africa to supply this export market.
A rhino poached in Zimbabwe for its horn
Photo: Lowveld Rhino Trust
Do you also work with white rhinos?
We also deal with white rhinos. Our focus has been on black rhinos because they're the more endangered. There are over 20,000 white rhinos, but within Zimbabwe there are actually less white rhinos than black rhinos. We do have about 190 white rhinos in our area, and they are building up very well. We work with both; they've got the same poaching challenge. They coexist in these areas—they have different habitat preferences but the areas are very diverse in terms of habitat. They're both building up at the moment.
Rhinos are pretty resilient animals. They can bounce back pretty quickly if you just give them the space and the time they need to do so. We've just got to cut through some of the human stupidity that's tripping up conservation efforts, and we'll get there.
Can you talk more about the work you've done on community outreach and balancing community development with rhino conservation?
We can see that rhinos have to have some kind of value within Africa to be given the space to survive in. We have to create some incentives for rhino production.
If you spoke to someone in a rural area in Zimbabwe about rhinos and asked them what they think about rhinos, you'd probably get a negative response, because basically the rhinos mean nothing to them. They're poor people struggling for an existence and these rhinos don't ameliorate their hardships at all.
What we want to do is set up a system of providing incentives to local communities to encourage rhino breeding in the areas immediately next to them. And that means essentially acting as a protective screen for any external poaching gangs that would come in there, and to give us information on them—which they have been doing to some extent anyway and we've seen that with some incentives, we can expand that willingness of the community to help in the battle against the poachers.
And we believe that we can make a pretty businesslike equation—we will say, for every calf that's born, some support will come into your community. We're going to amplify that a bit by giving the support to schools and linking it with school awareness programs. One doesn't want to give straightforward handouts across the fence between the wildlife area and the community area, it needs to be made fairly businesslike where there's some reciprocation expected—in terms of the school setting up environmental awareness campaigns. We can provide prizes and so on, but they have to set up some kind of competitions and plays, etc. that will be involved in spreading the message of not just rhino conservation, but general wildlife conservation. And with this money from the Goldman Prize, we can launch this program. It's kind of a new way of doing things, and I'm sure it'll work.
More on the Goldman Environmental Prize:
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Goldman Prize Winner Thuli Makama Defends Conservation Against Private Interests in Swaziland