Another day, another tale of mixed blessings in the convoluted story of the endangered rhino. At an auction organised by the Dallas Safari Club in Texas last weekend, a big game hunter caused outrage by paying $350,000 for the right to shoot a black rhino in Namibia. Meanwhile in Britain, it emerged that Prince William is planning to rally support for the animal’s plight by speaking at a summit on endangered species in London next month.
Rhinos, it seems, are increasingly making headlines, thanks both to the growing threat they face and to the strength of feeling they inspire.
Nobody ever forgets the first time they see a rhino in the wild. I’ve never forgotten mine. I was with the inspirational South African conservationist Ian Player, who was guiding us on a five-day journey into the wilderness area of KwaZulu’s Imfolozi game reserve.
As we stood overlooking hills dense with acacia trees, a vast grey prehistoric-looking creature, its huge head swinging from side to side as it chomped, came lumbering out of the bush. It was an awesome sight. Once you’ve seen a rhino in its rightful place, you know that no African landscape will ever again seem complete without it.
But the terrible fact is that this 50m-year-old species – what the late 19th-century hunter and explorer Frederick Selous called a “strange old-world creature” – is being so routinely and brutally butchered that it is in growing danger of vanishing from the earth. According to the WWF, fewer than 25,000 remain in Africa – and under 5,000 of those are black rhinos, now classed as “critically endangered”.
South Africa alone is losing more than three animals a day, all agonisingly slaughtered for their horns, which are nothing more than solid keratin, the stuff our fingernails are made of. On the black market, it sells for upwards of $60,000 per kilo (often reaching $100,000) – more than the price of cocaine or gold. An average rhino horn weighs about five kilos, so it is easy to see how tempting that must seem to impoverished people, let alone the expert criminals who have entered the scene.
In 2000, only seven rhinos were poached in South Africa. By 2007, however, the number was up to 13 and it has been rising ever since. Last year around 1,000 were lost. The Kruger National Park has lost more than half of its rhinos during the past four years.
In most private parks these days rhinos have to be guarded day and night, an expense which can stifle efforts to protect other wildlife. In Kenya’s Ol Jogi, home to 64 rhinos, security guards patrol the grounds in 4x4s, 24 hours a day, while others keep watch from every hilltop.
The increasing slaughter is being driven by a sudden surge in demand. Some conservation groups suggest this is particularly from Vietnam, where, in the middle of the last decade, a rumour began circulating that an unnamed politician had been cured of cancer by taking powdered rhino horn. Others put it down simply to an expanding Asian middle-class that can now afford to buy into thousand-year-old myths that rhino horn is a miracle cure for everything from high fevers to male impotency.
Rhinos used to be poached only by local hunters but international criminal cartels have now moved in with helicopters, night-vision goggles, high-powered guns and fast-acting distribution networks. “They pinpoint the rhino, land the helicopter, and they’re in and out in five minutes,” says Will Fowlds, a vet in South Africa’s Eastern Province who is often called on to try to save mutilated animals.
The good news is that there are things you can do to help. Going on safari for one. Tourism is one of the main money-earners for conservation, while rangers employed by the safari operators help keep poachers at bay.
Thinking has moved on in safariland, with more and more operators looking at ways of involving tourists in this important work. Joss Kent, chief executive of &Beyond, tells me that safari-goers have changed and now yearn for more than luxury tents and sundowners. “These days they don’t want an airbrushed experience – they want to learn for themselves,” he says. “Which is why we have gone back to our original mission, which is to see ourselves as primarily a conservation company that uses tourism to fund our conservation work.”
At its Phinda camp in South Africa’s KwaZulu, &Beyond offers the chance to go out with conservation teams when they tranquillise rhinos and then notch their ears – essential for research and monitoring. You need to book in advance, and for £2,800 for a black rhino (so much more thrilling as they are far less amiable) or £2,600 for the more docile white rhino, you and up to seven friends can head out into the wilds to track them down.
Once the animal has been found and tranquillised, researchers give each one a special ear notch number and implant microchips in the horn and body so they can be tracked. Each guest gets the chance to touch the rhino and to learn about the procedure. Kent stresses that this “is not a Disney experience”. He is serious about needing tourism to fund conservation work – “it’s proper warfare we’re engaged in” he says – but also about giving the tourist a thrilling, vivid experience.
The company is also busy with conservation in Botswana. Last year it moved six rhinos from Phinda in South Africa to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, attempting to spread the gene pool to help secure the animal’s future. At Xaranna Camp, guests can now track the seven rhinos (one has since given birth) on foot – offering one of Africa’s more life-enhancing experiences.
Once one could do this in many of the great reserves; today it is reduced to a very few privileged places. It may sound tame on paper but anybody who has walked through a wild landscape on foot will know that once away from the protective sheath of the 4x4, there’s a visceral difference in one’s relationship to the bush. You are just one animal among all the others, vulnerable yet curiously more alive than ever.
The rhinos’ vast hulk, their antiquity, the thrill of following them on foot, of never quite knowing if that great head will catch the scent of humans, gives an extraordinary charge to the whole experience. Every sense is on high alert and the guides are primed to note every sound and tiny movement – it could mean, literally, the difference between life and a very nasty death.
I took my grandson to see the new rhinos at Xaranna last year and even a 10-year-old who’d never been to Africa before was stirred. Here was a missing piece in the great jigsaw that is an African landscape and now that it was back the sense of completion, of magic restored, was strangely moving. For me, who had tracked rhinos in many of Africa’s great reserves but who had seen them vanish from once magic places (most particularly from Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools), to be once again out with a highly trained guide, walking in silence through the bush in search of these ancient animals, was a thrill beyond measure. The Xaranna rhinos offer hope for the future, hope that if poaching can be contained these marvellous beasts may once again flourish all over Botswana.
Elsewhere in Africa, other safari operators are also seeking to involve tourists in their conservation efforts. At Kwandwe in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, if tourists give enough notice they can join Will Fowlds when rhinos need darting and, for a fee of about £1,500, up to six guests can be part of the experience. On Kenya’s Laikipia plateau, the Explorations Company can arrange for guests to spend two or three days with wild dog researchers. At Elephant Watch Camp, also in Kenya, tourists can spend time with researchers from Iain Douglas Hamilton’s Save The Elephants charity, including observing as the elephants are microchipped. The Explorations Company has also arranged for paying guests to stay with lion researcher Alayne Cotterill in Laikipia, where they accompanied her collaring and tracking a lion.
Beyond funding conservation, and discouraging poachers, there’s another reason why such experiences can help. Nobody comes back unchanged. I’ve seen men who are “masters of the universe” back home cry at the first sight of a herd of elephants. They hadn’t realised that the world contained such wonders. There’s nothing like a week in one of these magical places to remind us why these animals and their habitats are worth saving.
Lucia van der Post was a guest of Africa Travel (africatravel.co.uk), which offers three nights at Phinda Mountain Lodge, one night in Johannesburg and three at Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp from £4,375, including flights from London and transfers