We need to celebrate our success – and stay positive for the task ahead

What felt like a bombardment of shocking news throughout 2016 had, until recently, left me feeling very dispirited. The day after the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU, there was a noticeable anxiety in the streets of London; where Save the Rhino’s HQ is based. London is a city filled with people with close links to the rest of Europe. Save the Rhino, like many organisations, counts EU nationals as part of its dedicated team. Whichever side of the vote you were on, politics and uncertainty had definitely been brought to the forefront of people’s minds – including my own.

So much of the “Brexit” discussion in the media is focused on the economy and immigration. Though these are hugely important, so are many other issues that rarely get a look in, including what this decision means for wildlife. Being a conservationist, I want to know what leaving the EU will mean when it comes to voting and negotiating as part of international agreements such as CITES; the treaty which regulates the world’s trade in wildlife. At CITES the EU currently votes as a bloc, wielding considerable power. What about the UK’s role in the EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking? Are we in danger of going backwards, instead of forward? The picture across the pond has been similar. The US has made great progress in disrupting the rhino horn trade, but I am shocked that in such a developed country like the US, the issue of tackling global warming – which is already affecting rhino habitat and the people that share it – is even up for debate by the President.

I had begun to switch off from politics, exhausted by the aggression coming out in so many of the debates and the lack of evidence being used to make key decisions. Then on the 21st of January 2017, I attended one of the 673 Women’s marches organised all around the world.  I knew my mum had attended civil rights marches in the 1960’s but I had never thought to ask her what it was like. The entire day was filled with positivity, friendship, acceptance, support and strength. So many people were upset and fed up with what was happening in the world and they wanted to do something about it. Seeing how many people felt this way made me feel so positive and hopeful again. This was much bigger than one country’s party politics; this was about fighting for human rights and the future of our planet.

The marches were not the end goal but the start of people coming together; people who needed to be heard and to feel hopeful again. As a result, I have started to see political events from the last year in a different way. Issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, concerns about jobs, immigration and global warming have always been there but they often weren’t really being debated, and many people had become apathetic and disengaged from politics. Some people felt they weren’t even a problem anymore.  What Trump and others like him have done is brought to the forefront how far we still have to go to create a really equal society and that we need to fight to protect our planet. He has unified people both for and against him but at least these issues are now being openly discussed in many households.

The same could almost be said for the long-running debate about whether or not the international trade in rhino horn should be legalised which has become a hugely divisive topic, which has often ended up in unconstructively angry debates where people and organisations taking an ideological stance and not really listening to other perspectives or concerns. However, the one thing that I don’t think anyone would argue is that the pressure on rhino programmes is enormous, both financially and emotionally. Rhinos and rangers are being shot at every day, the security costs for programmes is growing and none of this is sustainable – for private rhino owners, governments or wildlife conservancies. This is alongside the shocking news that poachers killed a rhino in Parc zoologique de Thoiry in France last month. Now zoos are having to consider how to tackle armed poachers.

Although all of this information is important to know, and there is indeed an enormous amount of work to do to stop rhinos from going extinct, however I think we also need to spend some time reflecting on what has been achieved. It’s important to share some positivity to give us the energy and motivation for the task ahead. And last year I saw plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

In February 2016 Save the Rhino, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, International Rhino Foundation and the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs joined together to fund the African Rhino Specialist Group’s conference in Kruger National Park in South Africa, which takes place every 2-3 years. This involves bringing approximately 80 experts including country rhino coordinators together. This is a very rare opportunity for people working in the field, conducting policy or research, working in demand reduction and conservation donors to come together to share information, the latest research and techniques, and set priorities.  The specialist group used to be very focused on the biological management of rhinos; population numbers, their distribution, and projections for growth. But the 2016 conference demonstrated how far we have come in such a short time. It had people and organisations from the widest selection of industries. People working in technology, intelligence, finance, social sciences and more are now all involved in tackling rhino poaching.  Even the update by Major-General Johan Jooste who had been tasked with tackling rhino poaching in the Park demonstrated that we were not in the same situation we were a couple of years ago. The rangers in the Park are now well trained to deal with armed poachers and the anti-poaching strategy they have in place is starting to see some positive results.

AfRSG Meeting 2016 Kruger

After the conference, three colleagues and I were lucky enough to visit Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). HiP is the home of rhino conservation, almost all white rhinos in the world today, came from this Park. In 1900, just 50 Southern white rhinos remained after hunting and colonial-era habitat loss caused wholesale slaughter. Since then, Southern white rhinos have staged a remarkable comeback through the dedication of conservationists and the commitment of the South African government and private land owners. Today, more than 20,000 Southern white rhinos live across South Africa, the vast majority in Kruger National Park.

SRI has been supporting HIP since 2006. I constantly hear in the media that what we’re doing right now isn’t working or will this latest bit of technology fix the problem (without any real clear understanding of what the problem is). When you spend time with the teams on the ground you realise how important it is to understand their situation, to listen to what they are saying and what they need.  Dirk Swart, section ranger in Hluhluwe is very clear; he needs well-motivated, well-equipped and trained people that he can then rely on in difficult times. This is exactly what SRI’s supporter’s help to do through the Help a Ranger Save a Rhino campaign. These rangers, just like all of us need to be taken care of and thanks to many people and organisations that have donated to rhino conversation Dirk’s team are in much better shape than they were a couple of years ago.  He showed us some of the old ranger houses in which his team used to live. They were around 20 years old, and like greenhouses in the sun and iceboxes in the cold. There was no reliable supply of electricity – imagine being away from your family for three weeks and not being able to charge your phone to get in touch, or having a cold shower after a long day out tracking, even in cold weather.

IMG 7868

This was exactly the same message I received when I visited the teams in Lewa, Ol Jogi and Borana in Kenya later in the year. The rangers felt that they were in a much better position than they had been several years ago.  Donations had bought them better housing and essential equipment needed to do their job. They had also received vital training to help apprehend poachers safely.  The introduction of anti-poaching dog units had also given them a great tool to track and apprehend poachers. Our supporters helped fund the dog units through the Rhino Dog Squad campaign, which had raised over £60,000. I was able to see the dog’s tracking skills first-hand when a demonstration was put on for me. I pretended to be a poacher and hid, leaving only a footprint behind. Within five minutes the dog had tracked me down. Hiding in a dried-out river bed, I did think it must be terrifying to be a poacher hiding in the dark and hearing a dog approach.

Lewa Anti Poaching dog unit

Another piece of kit making a massive difference is the digital radio. These radios make it easier to coordinate and manage each ranger’s movements, making rhino monitoring easier and more effective. It also has made responding to a poaching incident more efficient and safer as you also need to know where your other units are in relation to your team – reducing the risk of “friendly fire”. The collaboration and support between these conservancies was evident, helping to create a strong feeling of solidarity. I met many young, passionate and talented Kenyan conservationists who saw the wildlife as their natural heritage and that it was their responsibility to protect it. All of this is working; through the efforts of the programmes and the tightening up of wildlife laws, Kenya has seen a dramatic drop in rhino poaching in the last couple of years.

Lewa rhino monitors Ian Lemaiyan and John Logeme

Some places I visited were still in need of much better housing and newer equipment for their teams, like in uMkuze Game Reserve in KZN. I met Eduard Goosen, the Conservation Manager in February 2016, he is a strong leader and has a great team of rangers but they were in need of much better housing and equipment for the rangers. Thankfully in August 2016, Stitching Wildlife and Rhino Energy donated to help upgrade some of the ranger’s accommodation. It is fantastic to know that because of SRI’s supporters, Eduard’s team are able to have comfortable accommodation after being out protecting rhinos from armed poachers.uMkuze is one of the most beautiful places parks, unfortunately the rangers there are now facing ever-increasing pressure from poachers to their proximity to Mozambique and Kruger.

Fighting rhino poaching in the source countries, where rhinos live, is one part of the solution. Stopping consumers buying rhino horn and therefore reducing the demand in consumer countries also has an important role to play. When we started supporting demand reduction projects in Viet Nam in 2013, most wildlife conservation charities were fairly new to the use of social marketing campaigns to reduce consumer’s demand for wildlife products such as rhino horn. Many campaigns were more focused on raising awareness which is often only the first step in actually changing someone’s behaviour. There was also limited knowledge about the consumer and what motivated them to buy rhino horn. Over the last 3 years, I have seen a lot of work go into building capacity within wildlife conservation charities to ensure best practice methodologies from social marketing are used, conducting research into consumer motivations all to ensure campaigns are more effective. In March 2016 TRAFFIC organised a conference in Hong Kong, which aimed to share social marketing best practice amongst organisations which are tackling consumer demand for illegal wildlife products. The workshop was a great success and was attended by experienced social marketers, NGOs, government officials, advertisers, and academics.  Also later in 2016, I attended the launch of a multidisciplinary research center which has been created at Oxford University. The center is carrying out vital research into techniques to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. The world-renowned and respected conservationist Professor EJ Milner-Gulland is leading the project using rhinos as one of the key species to study (as well as Saiga Antelopes and Pangolins). Both of these examples demonstrate the level of expertise and capacity tackling consumer demand for rhino horn.

Since 2010 only a small proportion of funding has gone into demand reduction campaigns (less than 6%). However new funding pots have been created in the last 3 years such as the UK’s Illegal Wildlife Challenge Fund and the US governments fund to combat wildlife trafficking. When CITES met in September 2016, demand reduction was, for the first time, high on the agenda.

Compared to three years ago, there is a much stronger network of behaviour change experts and more knowledge and capacity to deliver much more effective campaigns.

When talking about people who buy rhino horn, it can be quite tempting to vilify a whole country but it is important to remember that only a small proportion of its citizens are breaking the law. In May 2016, I took TV actor Paul Blackthorne to Viet Nam in partnership with ENV as part of the Save the Rhino Vietnam campaign. During the campaign we met lot of young people in schools and universities, all of whom were just as upset about the poaching crisis as we are in the West. ENV itself is staffed with young passionate Vietnamese conservationists who are inspiring thousands of young supporters to actively campaign to protect rhinos and other species.

Paul Blackthorne visits Hanoi'sThang Long Uni

There are countless other achievements that have been made, too many to list, but perhaps the most important fact is that the number of rhinos worldwide continues to grow. Rhinos are still outrunning poaching. None of this means we should be complacent or that we still have a lot of hard work to do to protect rhinos. But it is ok, if not essential, for us to stop every now and again to take stock of what has been achieved, share positivity and take strength from all the people around the world who are also trying to stop rhino poaching.

Here at Save the Rhino, we’d like you to know that in whatever way you have contributed, it has already made an enormous difference.

Celebrating success, in fact, is essential to ensure we can stay motivated and positive for the task ahead.

If you would like to see what other successes there have been in conservation, then take a look at https://www.conservationoptimism.org/

By Susie Offord-Woolley, Managing Director 

Leave a Reply