Written by Bonné de Bod
It’s September 2014 and I can still feel the excitement of the first World Youth Rhino Summit as hundreds of young delegates gathered in iMfolozi, Kwa-Zulu Natal to send out a worldwide call to say: “don’t forget about the youth in this fight to save the rhino!”
There was a lot of expectation riding on the shoulders of the Vietnamese delegation and I found myself at the opening of a game capture boma with two nervous teenagers, Nguyen and Bui. This small boma was the unfortunate new home for two rhino calves after their mothers were poached in the most horrific way for their horns. I don’t advocate touching of wild animals but the smallest rhino baby walked right up to the opening when the three of us crouched down… and I will forever remember the words of the young teen as he slowly reached out and pushed his hand gently against the thick, but soft skin leaving it heavy on the orphan to whisper, “he is breathing, his skin is moving.”
Ironically, two years later, this fabled home of the white rhino that saw the youths’ enthusiasm and hope, is facing the highest levels of rhino poaching ever. If we want to get technical, a more than 400% increase compared with five years ago. Some call the rhino poaching a crisis, some call it a war, and others even… a campaign. What about a genocide?
The word is defined as the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part’. I don’t see why this can’t apply to the mass slaughter of our rhinos. Maybe when we call it a genocide, we the people, will take it more seriously.
As an embedded journalist filming for my documentary STROOP, I’ve witnessed the brutal reality of what our country is dealing with. I’ve seen more carcasses than I can remember and I find it impossible to erase the smell from these crime scenes. I’ve spent days in dingy courtrooms across the country where alleged poachers are treated like heroes by their extended families and supporters.
I’ve walked the back streets of Asia where I’ve come face to face with illegal wildlife traffickers and also found myself in one of the most difficult interviews I have ever done: a rhino horn end user in the polite comfort of her own upmarket home in Hanoi.
Back in South Africa I’ve questioned an emotionless trafficker of rhino horn after his trial and for the first time at the end of 2016 I couldn’t contain the tears when I heard that the world-famous rhino called ‘Hope’ had passed. She survived a poaching attack and against all odds continued to fight for her life for 18 months. I was privileged to document a lot of her journey and witness her fight for survival. She was for a lot of us, the light at the end of the tunnel. But her light will live on and she will forever remain the face of rhino poaching survivors.
If you’ve been on Twitter recently you would have noticed that many have not been fond of 2016, and that’s putting it lightly. Hashtags like #2016MustGo and #2016worstyearever made the top of the trend list for days. And if you look at the top news stories for the year, well, who can blame the tweeps?
Maybe it has been the worst year and we all have our own reasons, but one thing I do know, it has certainly also been the worst year for rhinos. And I am not talking figures here. Stats. We all seem to be so absorbed in “Ja, but how is it compared to last year?”
I don’t need to know if we are going to be ten percent down or ten percent up, I know that in my three years of investigating this ‘world of greed’ I have never seen so many alleged poachers standing in the dock. These crooks are flooding into our national and provincial parks and there is no stopping them. The number of rhino orphans who have lost their mothers to poachers has increased dramatically and I am not for one minute taking away from the bravery being done by our rangers who are filling the courts by virtue of their hard work.
I am saying that 2016 has been the worst year for rhinos on so many levels, because beyond looking at figures, we also suffered the worst drought in twenty years where many have told me (off the record) that the losses have been massive and it’s important to understand that like rhino orphans, these drought rhinos don’t make the official stats.
Private rhino owners have also told me that bureaucratic sluggishness has crept to an all-time high as well as the practice of selling of permit information to poachers looking for an easy target.Corruption has infiltrated throughout the system, even the Department of Environmental Affairs admitted as much recently. And, how could we forget the most recent headline: State Security Minister’s alleged link to rhino horn trafficking which remains cloyingly vague.
Again, it’s strange, but there is always great anticipation at the beginning of the new year around the release of the previous year’s poaching stats. But it’s more than just the numbers we need to think about. The domestic trade in rhino horn saga continued with appeal after appeal at the highest courts. Discussions and fights back and forth between private hands and government. Whether you are for trade or against trade in rhino horn, whether you believe it will save the species or destroy them, surely this bickering back and forth can’t be good for our rhinos. Time is precious and it’s not on their side.
In September of 2016, President Zuma opened the largest ever World Wildlife Conference, officially called the CITES CoP17 that saw thousands of delegates from 183 countries discussing trade in animal and plant parts right here in our Sandton Convention Centre. As I roamed the halls I would come across those who passionately argued both sides of the trade debate. It bordered on religious fervour from those who skulked in the periphery watching as only governmental delegations did the powerlifting in the arena. This time, Swaziland’s proposal for trade was dismissed in a secret ballot and yet another three-year intergovernmental report was commissioned by CITES to look into the ramifications of rhino poaching and how bad it really is. Don’t we have enough evidence?
For years I had been told CITES would deliver protections and a multitude of various enforcements to rhinos through its intergovernmental way of working. It can and sometimes does work for many species, but after witnessing my first CITES I fear we are still on our haunches getting ready for the start to the 800m race when the gun for the 100m has just been shot.
I’m sure we all want to put the lid on 2016 and we are all looking to make 2017 a better year. But it can only be better if you make it so. The greatest victories in history didn’t happen because of governments but because of the people. The people made it happen. So unless you get off your armchair and make it known that you care about what is happening to our rhinos, their year ahead will be a bleak one.
We all watched the local elections unfold, did you notice that not one political party mentioned anything about the rhino poaching “crisis”? And don’t give me the excuse that there is rhino fatigue and that you are tired of hearing about poaching. How can we expect the rangers, the vets, the state prosecutors, the orphan rehabilitators to not get tired, to not give up if that is what we, the public, think and feel. How dare we say that we are tired of a genocide that is happening right here and now in our lifetime. Many years from now, don’t you want to look back on 2017 as having been, yes one of those many years that went by quickly, but most especially as a strong memory of opportunities grasped, action taken and lives changed? They may not be human lives, but they are lives just as important, don’t you think?
Bonné has three suggestions to help make 2017 a better year for rhinos:
1. Use social media! It’s free and really does get noticed by the decision makers. On Facebook share, like and comment on posts that are important to you. Follow Bonné’s film STROOP or Bonnés personal profile for daily posts on rhino related issues – there are times when the STROOP page highlights an issue that you the public can help create more awareness on!
On more than one occasion judges and magistrates have allowed Bonné and her film crew to film in court because it was in the interest of the public and the public have made this interest known through social media.
Twitter is a great place to directly target policy makers, far more so than their other social media platforms. Bantu Holomisa (@BantuHolomisa), Helen Zille (@helenzille) and Jackson Mthembu (@JacksonMthembu_) will reply more than any other politician, while Julius Malema (@Julius_S_Malema), Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) and Lindiwe Mazibuko (@LindiMazibuko) are brilliant at retweeting passionate ideas from South Africans.
Other important government departments are the Presidency and the department of the environment. South African celebrities who use Twitter for rhino related issues and will retweet or reply are Kevin Pietersen (@KP24), Tendai Mtawarira (@Beast_TM), Mark Boucher (@markb46), Joe Pietersen (@joepietersen), DJ Fresh (@DJFreshSA).
Some other influencers you might want to target to start opening their eyes to the rhino crisis and asking them to use their platform are AKA (@akaworldwide), Bonang B* Matheba (@bonang_m), Bobby van Jaarsveld (@bobbyvjaarsveld), Shona Ferguson (@Shona_Ferguson), to name a few.
2. Use old fashioned mail! Bonné was told recently that the nail-clipping campaign was a huge irritant to the Chinese embassy where letters of toenails were sent to them for months after a well-publicized campaign ended! If you feel strongly about saving our rhinos, please write to your member of parliament here: Box 15, Cape Town, 8000 (of course you will need to find the representative from your area but groundup.org.za has a great MP locator tool on their website)
3. Or you can write directly to the Department of Environmental Affairs here: Minister Edna Molewa, Environment House, 473 Steve Biko and Soutpansberg Road, Arcadia, 0083.
Bonné agrees that we are all cash strapped, but she is fairly certain we can find R20 or R50 to give to the massive rhino effort. There are a lot of initiatives out there and use common sense when finding one. A large organization should be well run and audited but far less of your R50 will go to the ground as much of it will be taken by admin costs. There are many types of rhino charities out there, find one that appeals to you: direct veterinary work, anti-poaching groups, SANParks honorary rangers, orphanages, aerial assistance groups, relocation projects…the list is endless!