Project Rhino KZN is a collaboration between KwaZulu-Natal’s conservation agencies, provincial game reserves, government bodies, private rhino owners and anti-poaching specialists to fast-track anti-poaching and conservation in the region.
Rhinos are one of the most endangered species on the planet.
South African game reserve Thanda Safari is a founder member of Project Rhino KZN, motivated by the dream of white and black rhino species thriving in KZN and beyond. Its members have a wide range of rhino conservation and anti-poaching strategies. Thanda is committed to the long-term survival of the black rhino in Africa.
Pierre Delvaux, Thanda Group CEO and vice-chairman, gives his views.
Billionaire: As a founding member of Project Rhino KZN, how is the non-profit responding to today’s escalating poaching crisis?
Pierre Delvaux: Thanda Foundation Trust’s primary goal in supporting Project Rhino is to raise awareness in terms of the plight of our rhino; to educate the local rural neighbouring communities in terms of the benefits of nature conservation and eco-tourism, and the importance of protecting our rhino population; and by targeting wealthy individuals or corporate companies to donate money or to get directly involved in the programme with the objective of making a difference while simultaneously raising awareness and funding.
According to figures from Traffic, 13 rhinos were killed in 2007. In 2008 that figure rose to 83, and in 2014 it was more than 1,200. Why has there been this sudden burst of activity?
It is difficult to place a finger on any single factor. In the past, poaching was more localised and of a subsistence nature; it then became a big business and a very profitable one at that. There were allegedly reckless and unfounded public statements made by prominent Vietnamese politicians as to the medicinal benefits of rhino horn, coupled with an increase in demand for the product in Vietnam and China. I also believe that organised crime cottoned onto this opportunity. The perception of the horn’s value in terms of medicinal benefits, enhanced sexual performance or as just a status symbol for the elite, all fuels an insatiable demand that results in the deaths of rhinos. All of the above motives and merits associated with rhino horn are entirely false.
What are the new approaches being taken to the problem of rhino poaching?
Both of our neighbours have dehorned their rhino populations in an attempt to reduce the risk of them being killed by poachers, something that I do not personally support. We are busy doing the same as I could not bear to have one more rhino killed. Sadly, our efforts will level the playing field for these criminals and they will continue to kill dehorned rhino for their dehorned stump or horn, which regrows over a two- to three-year period. Although certain game reserves do not like to admit it, poachers are killing dehorned rhino in order to get whatever they can. Dehorning does lessen the risk of the animal being killed. Another innovative approach would be to reach out to global military supply contractors in order to find the technology that could enable us to embed a micro-chip that could be powered kinetically or by a tiny solar chip, which could be inserted just under the skin of the animal, enabling us to constantly track our rhino via micro satellites.
Is stricter security the answer?
The massive losses being experienced in the Kruger National Park mobilised the South African government to take far more decisive action than in any other region of the country. The South African National Defence Force is deployed in this region with substantial resources and assets, as well as highly trained and armed rapid-reaction forces that serve as a deterrent to poachers. This is not the case in KwaZulu-Natal and particularly in Zululand, where we do not have anywhere near the resources and preventative assets that the Kruger Park has.
Which countries are the main buyers of illegal rhino horn and how much could one horn go for?
Vietnam and China are the main ones — with Vietnam being the top buyers of illegal rhino horn. I am led to believe that the street value could be as much as several hundred thousand dollars per horn, sometimes more, in terms of the final street value.
Is Project Rhino targeting the end buyer, as well as the poachers, and if so how?
All Project Rhino can do to target the end buyer is support education and awareness programmes in targeted markets in order to sway public opinion. Well-known celebrities, business sector leaders, as well as high-ranking government leaders, can all help by creating awareness so that the facts of the matter are made public. When people realise that the horn has no medicinal, potency value or benefit at all, when people appreciate that it is ‘not cool’ to buy illegal rhino horn product as a social status symbol, only then can we say that we are making a difference in terms of education. In terms of how Project Rhino can target poachers, I feel that such an exercise is futile as there are many unemployed people who will continue to be used as pawns by the crime syndicates that are willing to pull the trigger, hack off the horn (with an axe mostly) while the animal is still alive, and flee to hand over the bloodied horn to the middle men who get the horn out of the country to the smugglers who traffic it to the Far East.
What are your thoughts on the legalisation of rhino horn?
This, just like the legalisation of the ivory trade, is controversial. There are strong arguments for and against the legalisation of the rhino horn trade. I am not at liberty to give an official view at this time. Personally, I feel that it is a gamble to legalise the trade, but if there are compelling arguments that it will indeed save our rhino population, then, sadly, I would have to take a more pragmatic view and support it. I believe that prevention is the most important component and we need to educate and make the public far more aware; we need to encourage rural communities to come forward with information. I feel we need to drastically escalate our rhino-monitoring activities and efforts. We also need to improve the effectiveness of our anti-poaching units in terms of equipment, training, control centres, joint cooperation and rapid deployment. We also need to mobilise the private sector to assist the police and security services with crime-scene investigation and forensic analysis that can enable prosecutors to successfully put poachers behind bars. If we do not act now, we will lose this war and then we will have to explain to our grandchildren why we allowed this prehistoric animal to die out on our watch.