Rhino Conservation – A Big Payday for Rhino Conservation by Some and a Sad Story about Misplaced Zealotry by Others

I am reproducing here an excellent piece written by Ben Carter, Executive Director of the Dallas Safari Club, in Fair Chase, the magazine of the Boone and Crockett Club discussing Rhino conservation, corruption, poaching, fund raising, and most importantly, the nature of misplaced zealotry and ignorance.

Rhino Conservation Isn’t Just About Rhinos

It is God’s job to judge poachers.  It is our job to arrange the meeting.”

That is what a South African game ranger told me last June as we followed rhino tracks – and boot tracks- through a remote area of Kruger National Park.  I glanced up expecting to see a smile, but there was none.  His eyes told me he wasn’t kidding.  That face, those words, and the violence they suggested, are chilling.


The ranger returned my stare and described the escalating trend of shoot-to-kill enforcement against poachers.


In Africa’s bloody war over rhinos and elephants, every lawman knows he might be murdered tonight.  The International Ranger Federation website lists more than 30 African game wardens killed by homicide in 2013 and estimates the actual count is likely two to three times higher.  Stressed, weary, undermanned, and underequipped, frustrated by arrests that seldom end in prosecutions , more and more rangers are resorting to shooting on sight any poacher caught in the act.  Deadly force is tolerated, even encouraged, by some agencies to help save the lives of their officers.


There is tragedy on both sides of the badge.  In impoverished countries , good people, including some rangers, can be sucked into the temptations of poaching.  Many pay with their lives.


Too much money dangles low.  Powdered rhino horn is now two to three times more valuable per kilo than cocaine and it is in high demand by wealthy Asians.  Some believe it cures cancer.  Research has disproven any medical benefits.  But for the triggermen, black-market traffickers, drug cartels, organized crime, and even terror cells profiting from rhino poaching, the big paydays are worth wasting entire species along with anyone who stands in the way.


The ranger said that if the war continues at the current pace, a thousand rhinos will be slaughtered in one year’s time, along with untold human lives that would never be counted. 


That dark prediction was still fresh in my mind in October 2013 when the government of Namibia asked our organization, the Dallas Safari Club (DSC), to help raise crucial funding for additional law enforcement and other rhino conservation efforts – by auctioning a permit to hunt a surplus black rhino in a Namibian Park.


We eagerly accepted, scheduled the auction as part of our January 2014 convention in Dallas and announced that 100 per cent of the proceeds would go into a special fund used to support the rhino conservation initiatives of the Namibian ministry of Environment and Tourism.


We expected the idea of hunting a critically endangered species would generate surprise, even among some hunters, so we began the auction explaining that most rhino poaching is in South Africa. Namibia is faring much better and intends to keep it that way.  In fact, Namibia’s black rhino population is doing so well (increasing 5 to 7 per cent each year), the country is allowed by science-based international treaties to sell up to five rhino hunting permits a year.


Biologists say these hunts are partly responsible for increasing rhino numbers.  Black rhinos are aggressive and territorial.  Old post-breeding males are known to kill younger bulls, cows, and even calves.  They consume food, water, and space needed to sustain the breeding animals required to sustain the species.  Removing these old animals improves overall herd survival and productivity.


But the people of Namibia are also part of the reason for thriving rhino populations.  The country is renowned for its unique conservation model.  Local communities form and manage their own refuges, called conservancies, in surrounding lands.  The citizenry is allowed to sustainably use the natural resources produced there.  This community involvement helped build a nationwide grassroots commitment to conservation.  Since Namibia gained independence in 1990, lands under sustainable use have increased from 13 to 44 per cent of the nation’s surface area.  Wildlife now abounds.  And black rhino populations have doubled.


Hunting provides the majority of income for most conservancies.  Revenue supplements every household directly or indirectly through community projects.  Meat derived from hunting is equitably distributed to the most needy, such as elderly and schools.  Without well-managed lands and hunting, many rural communities in Namibia would fail.


However, all the cultural rational, all the biological and financial justification, all the credibility of scientists on the ground in Africa and around the world, was too often lost in the ensuing noise surrounding the auction of this one tag.  Following our announcement, the media played up the hysteria and perceived shock value of a “rich American jetting off to Namibia to gun down one of the earth’s last remaining rhinos”.


That image detonated anti-hunters and animal rights activists worldwide.  The next weeks and months brought a torrent of death threats; via e-mail, Facebook and telephone messages.  People threatened to kill me and my family, random DSC members, and especially anyone who would buy the rhino-hunting permit.  The FBI and Dallas police were quickly involved.


In middle of it all, Boone and Crocket Club issued a statement supporting DSC and reiterating the science, structure, and hunters’ historic success in leading restoration of whitetail deer, wild turkey, elk, and other species once on the verge of extinction on the North American continent.  That model would work for rhinos too.  It was valuable message and much needed pat on the back for our weary outfit at that moment.


I wondered how the South African game rangers ever adapt to life under daily threat of violence.


During our convention, Jan 9-12, 2014, we saw even more death threats, protestors, an activist film maker and his kids attempting to disrupt our event, cyber-attacks on social media (on auction day, our Facebook page received a threat or profane comment every six seconds), hackers attempting to take down the DSC website as well as the site contracted to host online bidding items, parking lot vandalism of vehicles bearing DSC stickers, and global media attention.  Evan Al Jazeera sent a TV crew to cover our event.


The auction was held under increased security and the rhino permit sold for $350,000.  Reportedly, that is the highest price ever paid for a permit for a non-North American species, $127,000 more than the previous record for a rhino permit, and most importantly, enough to pay the annual salaries of 70 additional game rangers in Namibia.


Of course, we will always wonder how much more our auction might have raised if not for the threats.  But the good news is that $350,000 goes a long way in Africa.  Along with hiring extra manpower in the field, the agency may also use the proceeds to supplement development of unmanned aerial patrol vehicles equipped with infrared cameras, electronic and specialized security equipment, helicopter surveillance, research, rhino relocation equipment, and more.


This wasn’t the first time our organization has supported such initiatives.  Between 2006 and 2014, to South Africa and other nations, DSC granted more than $175,000 for a variety of crucial efforts for rhinos.  We have helped train ranger students, provided gear and fuel for rhino protection teams, funded the drilling of wells to supply potable water at ranger field stations, supported rhino research and habitat programs and more.


Our January auction was merely the latest demonstration of safari hunters’ longstanding commitment to conservation in Africa.


And it is DSC’s fervent hope that with $350,000 in additional funding, better habitat, science-based wildlife management and overwhelming law enforcement presence, more rhinos and more people will be spared.”


This all makes me think of the lunacy and negative impacts on the rhinos themselves the actions by ignorant and history and fact-blind, mostly urban citizens, can create.  This is blind religious zealotry, plain and simple.  How can these people be reached?  I don’t know but we must try.

Another issue is the so-called press.  Notice they jumped on this with their usual non-fact based reporting, drumming up hysteria in place of informative effort.  No greater threat to our democracy and wildlife retention exists than a press that has become part of the ignorance issue.  The press should see such conflicts as opportunities to find and expose facts and data involved and educate with those data and facts.  Some analysis of what drives both sides of an conflict issue must be done and, as in this issue, explain how much of the angst on the anti-hunting side is not science, or fact-based.  An education opportunity lost.


Our Republic is greatly endangered by a press and citizenry that does not deal in critical thinking, data analysis, and separation of emotion from fact.  It creates a template of behavior for more such ignorance when, instead, the press should be an example of thoughtful analysis and observations based on data, science, and historical perspective.  Such a press could teach people, be an example, of how to think critically instead of greasing the skids toward ignorance.


One should note the reference to the frequent failure to convict poachers, even those caught in the act.  This is true in almost every African country.   Again, the ignorance or deliberate blind eye of the “first world” to the utter swamp of corruption that defines the third world.  This rhino poaching is occurring primarily in South Africa. To many, South Africa is seen as an enlightened country. After all, isn’t that the country of Nelson Mandela?  Yes, but Mr. Mandela did not overcome the endemic corruption of the thugs that run most African Countries and populate many of their government agencies even in South Africa..  All of our “enlightened” friends in Europe and America celebrated the demise of the African colonial governments replaced by native-run governments in the 60’s and 70’s.  In fact what happened in almost every case was the thugs and tyrants took over because there was no responsible transition provided by the fleeing European governments.  They basically betrayed the native Africans who wanted them to help transition to modern government.  And now most Africans are suffering injustice and the theft of their national treasure at levels that rival or, more often, exceed the conditions under colonial rule.  Wildlife is a good example.


Immediately after the installation of native governments most 40 -50 years ago now, ivory and rhino horn poaching wiped out most elephant and rhino.  The new government officials and their military did it.  A few white ranchers in South Africa saved remnants of the white rhino herd and the black rhino survived in a few places like South West Africa, later named Namibia.  From these remnants arose the recovered small herds we had until the latest uptick in poaching.  Hunting in most countries helped recover the elephant but rhino are very slow breeders.


Convicting poachers hasn’t been possible at any effective level, indicative of a corrupt system in the last 50 years.  Corruption abounds almost everywhere.  That is why, in many countries, shoot-on-sight is the rule for poachers.    As an illustration, I was visiting the booth of a Zimbabwean outfitter at a SCI Convention a few years back.  I noted a black man in a green uniform was standing at the very edge of a camp photograph in the PH’s booth.  The man was holding an AK-47 rifle.  I asked why the AK-47 and who was holding it?  AK-47’s are not hunting rifles!  The PH stated that the man was a game rancher and the rifle was used for poachers if they are caught.  “You execute them on the spot?” I asked.  “Yes we do or, rather, the game scouts do.”  I asked if that was not a bit extreme and the PH indicated arresting them was a waste of time because they would never be convicted.  Too many friends making money off the animals they kill.  I asked what was done with the bodies.  The PH said, “We leave them where they fall.  In the morning there is only a red smear on the grass.”  Now that is extreme.

Africa is a recourse-rich continent.  There is no excuse for the abject poverty so pervasive there.  The cause is the corruption syphoning off the economic benefit and the lack of education of the average African.  Neither should be happening but the ignorance, neglect, and inattention of the world guarantees it will continue.