‘It’s cru­elty be­yond words’

Rhino rear­ers say they can fight hor­rific poach­ing — by sell­ing horns

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon

KLERKSDORP, South Africa — Lynne MacTav­ish lives in a small wooden house on her South African game re­serve with a fierce pet emu, a ju­ve­nile os­trich, a flock of geese, two Jack Rus­sell ter­ri­ers and her grandma’s dou­ble-bar­reled shot­gun to pro­tect her rhi­nos.

She keeps an ugly statue at her gate: a tokoloshe, or evil spirit in the lo­cal tra­di­tional be­lief, in­stalled by a witch doc­tor to ward off su­per­sti­tious rhino poach­ers.

Ev­ery night MacTav­ish gets up af­ter mid­night, grabs her shot­gun, clam­bers into her SUV and pa­trols for poach­ers.

She still gets flash­backs of the scene she found one windy Oc­to­ber morn­ing in 2014 and still cries telling the

story. Poach­ers had killed two rhi­nos, in­clud­ing a preg­nant cow she had known since the day it was born. Two more died as an in­di­rect re­sult of the at­tack, and a calf, days from be­ing born, was lost.

MacTav­ish, as tough as the spiky bush on her an­i­mal re­serve in South Africa’s north­west, strug­gles to cover the cost of se­cu­rity guards. One lo­cal poacher has threat­ened to kill her.

South Africa is home to 80% of the world’s 25,000 rhi­nos. Ham­strung by cor­rup­tion and se­cu­rity lapses, it loses three rhi­nos a day to poach­ing, 85% of them in state re­serves. Pri­vate own­ers such as MacTav­ish have be­come im­por­tant to the species’ sur­vival, nur­tur­ing more than 6,500 rhi­nos on an es­ti­mated 330 pri­vate game re­serves, span­ning 5 mil­lion acres, that pro­vide a rel­a­tive de­gree of safety.

But se­cu­rity is costly — so much so that many re­serves are clos­ing their doors. To help gen­er­ate rev­enue, pri­vate re­serve op­er­a­tors have suc­cess­fully sued to re­sume South Africa’s lim­ited trade in rhino horns, which had been banned since 2009. The gov­ern­ment is fi­nal­iz­ing new reg­u­la­tions that will al­low for­eign­ers to ex­port up to two horns apiece for per­sonal use.

The mea­sure has rocked the wildlife preser­va­tion world. Most wildlife ad­vo­cates say open­ing the door even to “farmed” rhino horn sales could threaten an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to wipe out the trade across the globe. About 2,200 horns a year flow into the il­le­gal trade, mostly poached, and op­po­nents of the new trade rules ar­gue that crim­i­nals will find ways to fun­nel poached horns into the new le­gal mar­ket.

“Re­open­ing a do­mes­tic trade in rhino horn in South Africa would make it even harder for al­ready over­stretched law en­force­ment agents to tackle rhino crimes,” World Wildlife Fund pol­icy man­ager Col­man O’Cri­o­dain said in a state­ment.

“There is no do­mes­tic de­mand for rhino horn in South Africa, so it is in­con­ceiv­able that any­one would buy it, un­less they in­tend to sell it abroad il­le­gally, or they are spec­u­lat­ing that in­ter­na­tional trade will be le­gal­ized.”

South Africa’s Pri­vate Rhino Own­ers Assn. ar­gues that a lim­ited le­gal trade — us­ing trimmed horn, with­out killing the an­i­mals — is the only safe way to meet de­mand in China and else­where in Asia. Sell­ing horn, which re­grows like fin­ger­nails, can help cover the huge cost of se­cu­rity and avert ex­tinc­tion, the own­ers con­tend.

The pop­u­la­tion is so finely bal­anced that if ei­ther side hap­pens to be wrong, rhi­nos could die out within a decade.

In the at­tack on MacTav­ish’s re­serve in 2014, poach­ers crept in at night and shot a fe­male rhino she had named Cheeky Cow. The an­i­mal ran for sev­eral miles, lead­ing the poach­ers away from her calf, but the killers backed her and three other fe­males up against a fence line and shot her again, also hit­ting an­other young preg­nant fe­male, Win­nie.

They slashed Cheeky Cow’s spinal cord with a ma­chete so she couldn’t move, and while she was alive they smashed into her face with an ax to get her horns. Win­nie was also alive when they hacked off her horns.

When she found Win­nie’s body, MacTav­ish sat in the dirt and wept for half an hour.

“When you are look­ing at an an­i­mal you’ve known its whole life and you see what they’ve done to it, it’s cru­elty be­yond words,” MacTav­ish said. She knew then she had to de­horn her other rhi­nos, “be­cause you can­not bear the thought of any other rhino go­ing through that hor­rific cru­elty.”

She called the po­lice to the scene, but they didn’t in­ves­ti­gate the rhino car­casses, foot­prints or crime scene. They were drink­ing beer, she said, and the po­lice cap­tain asked her to light a bar­be­cue fire so as not to waste “good meat.”

MacTav­ish even­tu­ally called in vets to de­horn all her rhi­nos; her 32-year-old bull, Pa­trol, died dur­ing the pro­ce­dure.

She strongly sup­ports the de­ci­sion to lift the eightyear ban on le­gal rhino horn trad­ing in South Africa.

“The ban has been dis­as­trous,” she said, be­cause “it meant the only way to get horn was to poach it. The price sky­rock­eted.” It cre­ated a huge temp­ta­tion for em­ploy­ees of farms like hers to work with poach­ers, she added.

“By just giv­ing in­for­ma­tion to a syn­di­cate, they can earn more money than they would in a year. The money is so high and the risk is so low be­cause of our courts and polic­ing. It just spells ex­tinc­tion.”

Us­ing tech­nol­ogy

At a much larger lux­ury pri­vate game re­serve near Kruger Na­tional Park, the sign on the door of the se­cu­rity op­er­a­tions cen­ter reads: “War Room.”

In­side, black blinds cover one wall. Se­cu­rity chief En­drie Steyn, an ex-sol­dier with an air of re­flex­ive sus­pi­cion, rolls up the blinds, re­veal­ing a board cov­ered with spi­der­web maps that in­clude sight­ings of known poach­ers, sus­pects, con­tacts, pho­to­graphs, ad­dresses, meet­ings and car move­ments.

The re­serve cut its an­nual poach­ing cases from 14 to two by in­stalling high-tech equip­ment: ther­mal cam­eras ca­pa­ble of spot­ting poach­ers at night, closed­cir­cuit cam­eras, sen­sors, fence alarms, a bio­met­ric sys­tem to check visi­tors’ fin­ger­prints and a re­li­able com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work.

As two young rhino bulls munch con­tently by a creek

on the re­serve, hard­ened An­golan war veter­ans, with sun­glasses and au­to­matic weapons, cruise in jeeps.

The tech­nol­ogy was the brain­child of lodge owner Bruce Wat­son, who re­quested that The Times not iden­tify the re­serve for se­cu­rity rea­sons.

Steyn has as­sem­bled a team of for­mer po­lice of­fi­cers in the com­mu­nity as his eyes and ears, gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence by lis­ten­ing to con­ver­sa­tions at tav­erns where would-be poach­ers gather.

“Three years ago, we were run­ning from car­cass to car­cass,” adds re­serve game war­den David Powrie. “We lost a lot of rhi­nos. It was cri­sis man­age­ment. Now we find out what’s hap­pen­ing out­side, be­fore it hap­pens.”

Sixty per­cent of poach­ing in­ci­dents in South Africa oc­cur in Kruger Na­tional Park, home to about 9,000 rhi­nos. Rangers, po­lice, sol­diers, state wildlife of­fi­cers and for­mer of­fi­cials are fre­quently caught poach­ing.

With fund­ing from the Dutch and Bri­tish lot­ter­ies, the park has in­stalled radar sur­veil­lance ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing poach­ers at night. Amer­i­can bil­lion­aire War­ren Buf­fett do­nated two he­li­copters.

But poach­ing syn­di­cates are in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive, with 2,882 known in­cur­sions into the park last year, a 30% in­crease from 2015. Yet fewer than 50 cases were pros­e­cuted. Of those ar­rested, only 15% were con­victed.

Pri­vate cru­sade

John Hume, the world’s big­gest pri­vate rhino owner, sits in his SUV with two Jack Rus­sell ter­ri­ers on his lap, gaz­ing at a rhino cow and her two calves. He owns about 1,500 white rhi­nos on a tran­quil ranch on the wide flat plains of North West prov­ince. Poach­ers have killed 52 of his rhi­nos, but he has bred more than 1,000 calves in what he calls his pri­vate cru­sade to save rhi­nos from ex­tinc­tion.

He says his am­bi­tion is to breed 200 a year, and last year he reached 180.

It be­gan as a re­tire­ment hobby 25 years ago for the for­mer va­ca­tion re­sort de­vel­oper, but now it’s a $4.8mil­lion-a-year op­er­a­tion, with more than half of that de­voted to se­cu­rity.

Hume was one of two pri­vate re­serve own­ers who filed the law­suit that suc­cess­fully over­turned the ban on pri­vate horn trad­ing in South Africa. He has de­trac­tors among wildlife or­ga­ni­za­tions, who see him as an op­por­tunist who now stands to get rich sell­ing horn. But Hume’s sup­port­ers say his breed­ing op­er­a­tion has done as much as any­one else to save rhi­nos from ex­tinc­tion.

The horns of the rhi­nos on Hume’s pre­serve are trimmed ev­ery two years to de­ter poach­ers.

Hume’s ranch has a mil­i­tary-style se­cu­rity cen­ter nick­named Afghanistan and a chop­per that flies nightly. Only two rhi­nos have been poached in the last 18 months; nei­ther of them had been de­horned be­cause they were due to be sold to a sa­fari park. Hume sus­pects that two of his em­ploy­ees, who knew the lo­ca­tion of the two rhi­nos and the se­cu­rity rou­tine, led the poach­ers to the two an­i­mals. (They failed lie de­tec­tor tests about the at­tack and fled.)

“The Achilles’ heel in my project is peo­ple…. That’s what we need: Less peo­ple and more high-tech so­lu­tions,” Hume said. He said he hopes that sell­ing his horn will al­low him to buy a $3-mil­lion radar sys­tem to de­tect night­time in­cur­sions.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the World Wildlife Fund fear that South Africa’s do­mes­tic rhino horn trade will be a back­door to in­ter­na­tional trade be­cause the process of is­su­ing gov­ern­ment per­mits is cor­rupt. That, along with lax polic­ing in Asia, could re­sult in a flood of horns on the com­mer­cial mar­ket.

Hume plans to auc­tion off rhino horn in South Africa in Au­gust and pre­dicts Chi­nese res­i­dents in South Africa will be the main buy­ers. Although black mar­ket prices for poached horn in Asia are re­ported to be $14,000 to $30,000 a pound, Hume ex­pects to get a frac­tion of that: $2,700 to $4,500 a pound.

“I don’t be­lieve we will ever be able to have no se­cu­rity, there­fore I be­lieve it’s es­sen­tial to the sur­vival of this project that we sell the horn,” he said. “With­out sell­ing the rhino horn, no breed­ing project will suc­ceed.”

Small pri­vate own­ers such as MacTav­ish can­not af­ford drones, he­li­copters, radars or sen­sors. Ac­cord­ing to the rhino own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion, at least 70 rhino own­ers gave up and sold their rhi­nos be­tween 2009 and 2015. As a re­sult, 500,000 acres of rhino range has been lost.

MacTav­ish clings on, ded­i­cat­ing ev­ery spare cent to sup­port­ing her rhi­nos. She brought her chil­dren up in a con­verted os­trich shed be­fore build­ing her spar­tan lit­tle house. She helps make a liv­ing by host­ing univer­sity study groups.

By a dam on her prop­erty, she has erected a shrine to the rhi­nos she lost to poach­ers. At one side lies Cheeky Cow’s skull, with its hor­rific in­jury. De­spite her se­cu­rity de­tail, she lives in dread of an­other poach­ing in­ci­dent.

“You ba­si­cally put your life on the line for these an­i­mals.”

But in April, it seemed worth­while. A new calf was born in the mid­dle of spec­tac­u­lar light­ning and thun­der. She called him Storm.

Charles Theron

LYNNE MacTAV­ISH weeps over a rhino lost to poach­ers in 2014 on her South African game re­serve. She de­cided to de­horn her other rhi­nos “be­cause you can­not bear the thought of any other rhino go­ing through that” ex­pe­ri­ence.

Lynne MacTav­ish

A RHINO se­cu­rity pa­trol at Lynne MacTav­ish’s re­serve in South Africa’s North West prov­ince. “The ban has been dis­as­trous,” she said, be­cause “it meant the only way to get horn was to poach it. The price sky­rock­eted.”

Robyn Dixon Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER DART­ING a rhino, vet­eri­nar­ian Michelle Otto ap­proaches the an­i­mal to blind­fold it be­fore its horns are trimmed off. She says the process is pain­less.

LYNNE MacTAV­ISH mourns over one of the rhi­nos killed by poach­ers in 2014. She now pa­trols nightly.

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