Toxic touch to end an evil trade
pumping, to the nearest national park’s camp.
The ranger at the gate listened as I recounted my neardeath experience, then patiently explained that the rhino, Chewore, was well known to the authorities, and was not out to kill us.
“She was hungry,” the ranger said. “Hungry?” As far as I knew they didn’t eat people. The ranger said Chewore had been orphaned as a baby, her mother killed by poachers, and she had been hand-raised by park rangers before being released back into the wild. She would forever associate Land Rovers like ours with the food truck.
Chewore’s heartwarming story took a turn for the worse, though. When we returned to the park the following year, the same ranger told us Chewore had gone missing, presumed killed by poachers.
Africa’s rhinos are in peril, their horn the prize in a deadly high-stakes war. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine not as an aphrodisiac (as is commonly believed) but for a more mundane benefit, as a hangover preventive.
Yes, this stuff is being marketed in emerging Asian economies, most notably Vietnam, as a $65,000 per kilogram alternative to Panadol and Berocca, a must-have status symbol at parties held by the new urban elite.
Last year 1004 rhinos were killed in South Africa, three times the number slaughtered in 2010. This year, at the time of writing, 277 had been lost, with 86 poachers arrested.
Rhinos have been wiped out of most of their home ranges in Africa, but South Africa has the highest number remaining, thanks to an intensive conservation program, Operation Rhino, that brought the species back from the brink of extinction in the last century.
To see one in the wild today head for the rhino-rich Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, where Operation Rhino began, or to the south of the Kruger National Park.
Pilansberg National Park, near the Sun City Casino, is also good for rhino spotting, and Namibia’s Etosha National Park is one of the best places in Africa to see black rhinos, whose numbers are far fewer than the white rhino.
I’ve had some brilliant upclose rhino sightings on foot during guided morning walks from Pretoriuskop Camp in the Kruger Park. I had a friend, a ranger named Duncan, who used to run these walks and on one occasion a white rhino cow happily wandered to within 5m of us while she was feeding.
White rhino – the name comes not from their colour but a corruption of the word “wide”, referring to the square shape of their mouths – are more placid than the blacks and have notoriously bad eyesight.
On the front line, South African soldiers, rangers and police backed by helicopters, tracker dogs and drones are being deployed to catch poachers, while advertising campaigns are being developed to convince users in Vietnam they’re wasting their money.
Any tactic, no matter how radical is being considered in this eco-war. The Peace Parks Foundation, a South Africanbased NGO that promotes the creation of cross-border national parks in Africa to restore animal migration routes, is funding a promising operation to infuse rhino horns with indelible dyes and toxins that make users nauseous.
Aussie scientist and author Tammie Matson points out that human behaviour can be changed. In her latest book about rhino and elephant poaching, Planet Elephant, she points out that western nations once used ivory to make piano keys and billiard balls.
When it comes to rhinos, Dr Matson said the challenge was how to make serving rhino horn at a party the opposite of cool.
“Nowadays in Vietnam you don’t know if the horn you’re buying is poisoned or not and that’s a very big risk to take if you’re trying to impress your friends,” she said.
There’s no easy end in sight for this war, but there is the odd glimmer of hope. I mentioned the sad tale of Chewore to Nicholas Duncan, head of the Australian-based rhino charity the Save Foundation.
Nicholas told me Chewore had not, in fact, been killed, but had wandered from Zimbabwe into neighbouring Botswana, where she was collected by rangers and taken to that country’s intensively-protected Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
She lives there to this day, and recently had a baby.
AT RISK: (clockwise from main) A rhino in Kruger National Park; the animal’s horn is drilled and infused with a toxic dye to make it unfit for human consumption; and Tony Park at a breeding facility in Zimbabwe.