In June 2017 Helping Rhinos CEO, Simon Jones and Helping Rhinos USA Director, Dr James Danoff-Burg took the opportunity to get a first hand update of the current challenges facing rhinos in South Africa, still home to largest population of rhinos in the world, and see for themselves the incredible work of our partners in the field.

Rhinos Continue to Suffer

Sadly, 2017 is proving to be another tough year for rhinos and, in terms of the number of rhinos killed at the hands of the poachers, it is very likely going to be worse than 2016! KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is being hard-hit by poachers this year, and in particular the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP), home to the second largest rhino population after the world famous Kruger National Park. We heard of many tragic poaching incidents, including a mother and calf mercilessly poached from within a boma at HiP. Stories like this lend credence to the belief that corruption is rife within the rhino world we are working so hard to protect.

There are many thoughts about why 2017 is proving to be such a bad year, and one recurring opinion is the South African court decision to allow a legal domestic trade in rhino horn. It has driven a practice of stockpiling rhino horn and has created a spike in poaching across southern Africa, likely due to the anticipation by poachers of their ability to launder illegal horn through the legal domestic trade in South Africa. Only time will tell how big an impact this court decision is going to have on rhino populations but one things is certain – we must continue to work and improve our results still further in order to protect these majestic beasts!

It was very rewarding to be able to spend time with poaching victim Thandi who has survived and lives at the Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. Witnessing first hand what a great mum she has become, both to her two year old calf Thembi and to her new calf Colin, just a few months old, provides hope for the future! Thandi has a special place in the history of Helping Rhinos and it is always nice to catch up with her.

A Case for Hope and Belief

While keeping a sense of reality about the size of the task we face, it was encouraging to hear so many people talk about a belief that there is hope and that a solution can and will be found. We spent a lot of time with Dr. Will Fowlds, who is also based in the Eastern Cape. As a wildlife vet Will has experienced all too often the brutal aftermath of a rhino poaching, including treating Thandi. But like many of the people we met, Will shares our belief that engaging the local communities and protecting the habitat that wildlife need to survive is critical for a long-term future for rhino and the many other endangered species.

“The rhino are such a vital species for us in our quest to save wild spaces. Many people in the world have lost that connection to wildlife and our environment. It is that lack of connection that makes us complacent as human beings when confronted with environmental issues.” 

Dr William Fowlds

After the Eastern Cape, we travelled to KZN and had a harsh reminder of the realities of the poaching crisis. Regular followers of Helping Rhinos will remember the devastating poaching attack at the Fundimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage in February this year. Following the attack, in which two rhinos were killed and staff physically abused, the decision was made to permanently close the rhino orphanage.

We took the time to visit their new home, now in a secret location, of the rhino orphans that were at Thula Thula. The rhino caring team at their new home, including some of the rhino carers from Thula Thula for continuity, have done an amazing job in getting a facility up and running. We were thrilled to see that the rhino babies were doing very well in their new home and are pleased to announce that our ‘adopt a rhino’ orphan programme will continue to support these rhinos and future orphan arrivals in their new home. Stay tuned for more on the developing adoption programme very soon!

The final stop of the trip was to visit and spend time with the Black Mambas, South Africa’s all female anti-poaching unit.

Despite the many horror stories elsewhere, our visit to the Black Mambas gave us hope. They help inspire our belief that there are solutions out there that involve new ways to tackle the challenges we face. Their front line presence within the wildlife reserve and their many activities engaging their communities locally is a model that is truly winning hearts and minds.

We were fortunate to have been able to enjoy a lot of time with the head of the Black Mambas, Craig Spencer, who explained the integral part the Black Mambas play as part of the anti-poaching unit and the overall anti-poaching strategy.

“The Mambas are the interface to the local communities. They will spend 50% of their time in the reserve, walking up and down the fence lines. If they detect something the armed guards will come and back them up. The other 50% of their time is in the communities. Young kids used to aspire to be poachers because of the money they can earn. Now the Black Mambas are the role model and young kids are saying “when I grow up I want to be a Black Mamba.” That is how we will win this thing, not with guns and bullets!”

Craig Spencer

It was encouraging to hear many of the people we met on this trip value the variety of skill sets Helping Rhinos is bringing to support them in the field. From the business and fundraising skills of Simon and the UK team to the scientific research and education skills of James and the USA team. It was pleasing to hear that many people we met felt this places Helping Rhinos in a strong position as a partner NGO to the projects in the field.

This was evidenced further when we joined the Bush Babies, the education outreach programme of the Black Mambas, in a BioBlitz. It was so rewarding to spend the day helping groups of 9 and 10 year olds and very encouraging to witness the great engagement and passion they showed for environmental issues. All the children were keen to learn more about the biodiversity of the area the live in. It really does inspire hope for the future.

Looking to the Future

Without doubt, we have a long way to go to reduce the level of poaching to a level where rhino populations can start to recover. However, we met with many dedicated people in South Africa who are working in many different areas to reduce poaching to a level where rhino populations can start to recover. We applaud them all and will not hesitate to give them the support they need and deserve. With your help and support we can make a difference and we can ensure rhinos roam freely for generations to come.