A black or white rhino is slaughtered in South Africa at a rate of one every six hours. Five thousand of the beasts have been butchered since 2010 and if the killing continues at such a rate, in less than a decade, there will be none left. For the past three years, 11,000km to the east, a team has been hard at work laying the foundations for a reserve to house an 80-strong rhinoceros breeding herd.
“It is our absolute goal that, once conditions permit, we will introduce the rhinos into the wild, anywhere in Africa, not necessarily South Africa,” says Ray Dearlove, patron and founder of the Australian Rhino Project. “I believe passionately that rhinos must be available to the world in the wild.”
A rhino horn on the black market can fetch up to US$400,000, making it more than twice as valuable as gold and one of the world’s most sought-after illegal items. “That kind of price makes it very attractive to international crime syndicates,” says South African-born Ray over the phone from Sydney. “There are at least 15 international crime syndicates working in the Kruger National Park at any given time.” Poachers will usually cross the border from Mozambique following tip-offs as to the rhinos’ locations. “There are often three of them,” Ray continues. “One carries a large gun — it takes some substantial firepower to take down a rhino — the second will carry an axe, machete or saw to remove the horn, while the third will usually be in charge of communications via a mobile phone.”
It is the last guy who has most likely been approached earlier that same day and offered in the region of two years’ salary for a night’s ‘work’. It is here where the human aspect of poaching becomes complex, for while some are simply propelled by sadism and greed, others are drawn through sheer desperation, often so uneducated as to be unaware that they are contributing to the likely extinction of these beautiful creatures. “Food security is a key aspect,” says Ray. “Mozambique is the seventh poorest country in the world. Men need to feed their families and there is no social security.”
The vast majority of the horns head to China and Vietnam, where some view them as a status symbol while others wrongly believe the animal part to possess various medicinal properties (there is no scientific evidence to support this belief). It is essential that the respective African and Asian governments take action. Ray stresses that “the situation will only be resolved if there is political will from all sides”. Education, too, is key: “There are a lot of people also working very hard to make sure people understand that rhino horns are simply keratin, like our fingernails, so they will grow back. There is no need to kill the animal. Our concern now is that it may be too little, too late.
“There is no other animal quite like it, they are more like a dinosaur than just about any other and have been here for tens of millions of years. When they’re gone, we’ll be left asking ‘what happened?’ and we’ll only have ourselves to blame.”
>> Transporting a two-tonne animal isn’t cheap, so if you’d like to donate, or learn more about the project, visit theaustralianrhinoproject.org
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Photography: Shannon Wild, shannonwild.com