History of Save the Rhino

History of Save the Rhino International


In the beginning…  

In 1970, a rhino poaching epidemic began that was to hit black rhino populations severely. The crisis continued to deplete populations right through to the late 1980s and early 1990s, so much so that by 1993, there were only 2,475 black rhinos left in the world. At the start of the 1990s, rhino enthusiasts Dave Stirling and Johnny Roberts took themselves on a ‘Rhino Scramble’ across Africa, raising money to help the fencing of the Aberdare Rhino Sanctuary and meeting a wide range of rhino conservationists along the way. Whilst travelling, they met Rob Brett, Kenyan Rhino Co-ordinator at the time, and started to talk about what they could do for rhinos.

“The rhino and the elephant were great charismatic animals that one could raise money for because they were well known and people knew they were endangered … but the problem was, people who were raising that money also had the responsibility of directing those funds out to the field. Our concern was that – not through any malice or ill practice, just lack of knowledge – the money wasn’t being spent in all the right areas. That is where Johnny and I stepped in to set up a charity. With a lot of good contacts in Africa, we felt not only our money could be spent well, but we would be able to advise other charities within the UK as to where their money should be and will be most effectively spent. Save the Rhino International was born then." Dave Stirling, founder of Save the Rhino International, 'The rhino who climbed Killimanjaro' 1994 

Filled with inspiration from their journey, the two returned to the UK and set about raising funds for rhinos in Africa. They started with the infamous and ever-growing London Marathon, roping in friends to run the 26.2 mile course around central London in 1992.

It was around this time that they received a phone call that would change the face of the charity forever. William Todd-Jones, a British puppet designer and performer, had heard of the new charity and wanted to donate the costumes from the opera he was currently performing in, dressed as a rhino. Not ones to shy away from the unusual, Johnny and Dave said yes, and challenged Todd to join them in running the London Marathon… in the costume. He accepted the challenge, and runners have been taking part in the iconic outfit ever since. (Read more on the history of the costume and the London Marathon.)

Between 1992 and 1994, the group continued to raise funds in any way they could. With costumes in tow, they collected money, ran marathons, and organised auctions. Their most popular way of raising money was a good old fashioned rave: primarily based at the SW1 Club in Victoria. Save the Rhino events became the place to be for a good night out.

On 28 February 1994 the group officially registered as a UK charity, as Save the Rhino International (charity number: 1035072). Not long after securing charity status, Save the Rhino International took on the challenge of a lifetime, walking from sea level to the roof of Africa. Covering over 300km, a team of staff and friends walked for four weeks from Mombasa, Kenya, to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. The group had one main goal: to raise awareness of the plight of the black rhino in Kenya. And of course, the charity’s 10kg rhino costume accompanied them every step of the way. They were joined by school children and officials along the walk, and money raised was to benefit both rhinos and local communities. It was with this adventure that Founder Patron Douglas Adams first got involved with the charity, after being approached by Dave Stirling while he was giving a lecture at the Royal Geographic Society on his new book ‘Last Chance to See.’ Following Douglas’s death in 2001, Save the Rhino now holds an annual fundraising memorial lecture, to commemorate his passion and commitment to conservation.

In 2001, having been the driving forces behind Save the Rhino for 10 years, Dave and Johnny decided it was time to advertise for a new Director. Cathy Dean was appointed and has been at Save the Rhino ever since. The next 14 years of the charity’s history have seen some significant steps forward.

Firstly, when Cathy joined the rhinos, she was extremely struck by the fact that the three Trustees we had then – George, Christina and Robert – were joining Dave and Neil (our Events Manager at the time), Bryan Hemmings, Patron Nick Baker and Carl Rawes to run the Marathon des Sables. Cathy was so impressed that the Trustees didn’t just turn up at meetings and write the occasional cheque, but were prepared to run 250kms across the Sahara Desert. In a rhino costume! They went on to raise over £125,000, a massive amount at that time (and now for that matter) and Save the Rhino was able to support not just African black rhino programmes but Sumatran rhinos once again, and has done so ever since. The Trustees’ commitment inspired Cathy in her early days and gave her a valuable early insight into what it really means to join this rhino family.

The next big step came in 2005, when Save the Rhino partnered with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria to hold the EAZA Save the Rhinos Campaign. Not only did the team smash the target of 350,000 euros to raise 660,000 euros, but the increased funds available for grants meant that, for the first time, Save the Rhino could actively solicit grant applications. A Campaign Committee helped the charity to prioritise the allocation of the funds. Among the field programmes supported for the first time were the North Luangwa Conservation Programme in Zambia, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa and the Javan Rhino Study and Conservation Area. And even though the EAZA Campaign was a one-off, Save the Rhino has continued to support the programmes in North Luangwa, HiP and Java ever since.

Then in 2006, Save the Rhino was invited, for the first time, to attend, as an observer, the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group’s biennial meeting. There Cathy met many of the programme managers Save the Rhino works with closely today. These meetings – held every 2 or 3 years – let the charity’s Director spend a whole week talking “shop” with rhino people from all the range states; vastly increasing the charity’s  knowledge of the issues involved in rhino conservation and the range of approaches needed. In 2011 Cathy was invited to become a full member of this vitally important organisation.

Another significant step forward since the EAZA Campaign has been Save the Rhino’s growing network of zoos that support rhino conservation efforts. Maggie Esson at Chester Zoo and Ruth Desforges at the Zoological Society of London have transformed the environmental education programmes in Mkomazi and North Luangwa. These landmark programmes are respectively called “Rafiki wa Faru” and “Lolesha Luangwa” and they are tightly focused on teaching local schoolchildren about black rhinos and the surrounding ecosystems. The conservation educators, who go out into the local schools or bring groups into the Parks, are of course locals themselves; and the schools they work with have very limited resources. But Save the Rhino is able to provide them with funding, and Chester Zoo and ZSL give them high-class support and back-up – they are mentored, and the programmes are properly monitored and evaluated. By extending the rhino family in this way, with real rhino supporters in the heart of the local communities, the harder it will become for poachers to recruit local guides. Other zoos across the UK and Europe have also “adopted” particular field programmes or Save the Rhino’s annual appeals, giving around £90,000 a year, a tremendous total.

Save the Rhino has worked hard to build close partnerships with other rhino NGOs and grant-giving organisations, so that it can collaborate on joint projects and be more than the sum of our parts. Particularly close are Michelle Gadd at US Fish & Wildlife Service, Susie Ellis at the International Rhino Foundation and Jo Shaw at WWF-South Africa, and the charity also frequently liaises with other UK-based charities such as the Environmental Investigation Agency, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Tusk Trust. Former staff have gone on to work at ZSL, Pew, Greenpeace, WWF-UK and Wild Team; such friendships and contacts help Save the Rhino to learn from and share common experiences, successes and problems.

The partnership with TRAFFIC is the most recent of Save the Rhino’s significant advances. In 2013, Deputy Director Susie Offord successful submitted a joint TRAFFIC / Save the Rhino application to the UK government’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, winning a grant of £289,000 to tackle the demand for rhino horn in Vietnam. Save the Rhino also supports demand reduction efforts by another Vietnamese NGO, Education for Nature Vietnam. Behaviour change campaigns succeeded in reducing the demand for rhino horn back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the hope is that such partnerships with local NGOs will help stop the current slaughter.

Looking forward, things are probably going to get worse before they get better. The illegal wildlife trade is a serious global crime and tackling it will require cooperation and intelligence sharing between a wide range of agencies, such as border police, transport companies, and money-laundering and anti-corruption experts.

In the field, rangers are having to learn new skills; things they perhaps didn’t expect when they became a rhino tracker: battlefield medicine, working with canine units, how to collect evidence at a scene-of-the-crime.

Many countries still don’t have strong enough penalties for people involved in wildlife crime, or the chance of actually being convicted is so low that it is still not a deterrent. A lot of work still needs to be done to sensitise border control staff and the judiciary service in wildlife crime and by governments to ensure they are empowered to put these criminals away.

Mozambique continues to be a major problem, as so much of the poaching done in Kruger National Park – some 800 rhinos in 2014 year – is done by Mozambicans who freely cross the border into South Africa, kill rhinos, and cross back again. Mozambique is now a major transit route for rhino horn and many other illegal wildlife products.

Vietnam is starting to make the right noises about arrests and enforcement but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. China will also become a focus over the next couple of years, to try and understand how much of the demand is being driven from there.

Since 2001, Save the Rhino has grown from a little charity raising about £300,000 a year to make grants for on black rhinos to an effective and professionally run organisation raising c. £1,300,000 in 2014-15 to make a wide range of grants across all five species of rhino in six African and two Asian countries on a regular basis. The charity’s willingness to pay for the basics – for rangers’ salaries and rations, vehicle fuel and maintenance, basic kit and equipment – is deeply appreciated by the field programmes it supports.


Rhino support time-line 

By species: 

Species support timeline


By country: 

Country support timeline



Introduction to Save the Rhino featuring our patrons Mark Carwardine and Martina Navratilova