South Africa


The next morning, we see five magnificent white rhinos in the Park, sizing us up before crossing the path in front of our vehicle. It’s refreshing to see them as they should be, with their horns intact.

Back in Johannesburg, I meet Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association. Pelham has been very active in assisting law enforcement officials track down poachers.

It is no longer the occasional shooting from an AK-47 obtained in a neighbouring civil war. Now, it might be a professional single shot from a high calibre hunting weapon or a dart from a veterinary tranquilizer. In some cases, helicopters have been used.

The war is escalating. Perhaps it’s time to defund it.

From my trip it’s clear that South Africans feel the same way about their rhinos as we Chinese do about our Pandas. They are a source of inspiration and great national pride as we brought them back from what looked like inevitable extinction.

For South Africa, it’s also an important source of tourism revenue, which is now under threat.

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Unfortunately, a very small number of people in Asia are still buying rhino horn, either as speculation or for what they may believe is a medicine or a tonic. The horns are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up our hair and fingernails.

Legitimate traditional medicine in China ended rhino horn use in 1993.

As I leave Africa, I go with incredible positive memories of the beauty, the wide open spaces, the incredible diversity of large animals wiped out elsewhere on the planet, but also with sadness that the actions of just a few people in a world of 7 billion can jeopardize the future of the two largest animals walking the earth.

Collectively these people are sabotaging African economies and stealing from us all.

As the vast majority, we need to let them know that this is not acceptable and is damaging China’s relations with our friends and trading partners in Africa.  We would be outraged if people were killing our pandas, we should be just as upset with what’s happening to rhinos and elephants in Africa.

From the conversations I’ve had, and the conversations WildAid has had with Chinese officials, there is a clear government commitment to collaborating to solve this. Peter Knights tells me Vietnam is also willing to collaborate.

But laws will only go so far. We need a drastic increase in awareness to reduce markets. Myself and other prominent Asians will be working with WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation, and other organizations to this end and we hope you will join us.

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

That means any of us who know people buying rhino horn or ivory need to ask them to stop, explain to them what is at stake and ask them to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Yao Ming Meets an Orphaned Black Rhino

Photo by Kristian Schmidt



Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s oldest national parks and South Africa’s flagship. It covers an area nearly the size of Israel and is home to roughly half the world’s white rhinos. It is manned by thousands of staff, who study and protect the animals, and look after the 1.4 million tourists who visit every year.

Yao Ming and Crew in South Africa

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Kruger is home to between 9,000 and 12,000 white rhinos and approximately 600 black rhinos. Given the size of the park and the number of animals, it’s a difficult task to monitor the wildlife, even for the 2,500+ staff members.

The black rhinos are harder to keep and breed than the whites. They are more temperamental and solitary.  From 100,000 in 1960, their numbers in Africa dropped to a low of 2,400 in 1995 before climbing back to 4,880 following a sales ban for rhino horn in China and other parts of Asia and increased protection in Africa.

We meet with the Director of Public Relations for South African National Parks, William Mabasa, who tells us the greatest challenge currently facing the park is poachers from both South Africa and Mozambique. Here elephants have been untouched, but rhinos are being hit constantly.  Things have gotten so bad that now the South African army has been called in. But, finding poachers is still like looking for needles in a haystack.

Between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching in South Africa averaged 14 animals a year according to trade monitoring group TRAFFIC and the populations were growing steadily. But in recent years, rhino poaching has risen again, with 440 animals killed in 2011, and this year’s figure expected to top 500.

On our very brief visit, we learn of seven rhinos recently killed in a reserve near Pilanesberg and four more in Kruger. Peter Knights of WildAid again apologizes for having to put me through the unenviable experience of seeing the results of this poaching.

We visit the body of a black rhino with Kruger’s Crime Scene Analysis team, searching for clues, like bullets or discarded debris, and collecting DNA samples so that if the horn is found, it can be traced back to here and not claimed to be an old horn.

Yao Ming Encounters Body of Poached Black Rhino

Photo by Eric Steinhauser for WildAid

The smell is so intense that I have to step away. This magnificent beast has been reduced to carrion for a horn.


And then I meet Thandi.

Thandi is a seven-year-old white rhino, one of three that were shot with tranquilizer darts before their horns were brutally hacked off. One died immediately, the other succumbed to its wounds and drowned in a watering hole two weeks after the incident, and Thandi miraculously pulled through after a series of operations and treatments by Dr. Fowlds.

When I first see her, she is out with two other female rhinos in a beautiful open plain scattered with gazelles, wildebeest, giraffes and other wildlife — a tranquil, natural scene.

Wildlife at Kariega Game Reserve

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

It is an emotional moment for Dr. Fowlds, seeing his patient behaving normally after months of trauma — her wounds finally healing. Previously, she would hide in the bush in fear, still remembering her torment. Now, there is only the rim of a scar. Of course she looks strange without a horn, but many other rhinos here have had their horns removed to lessen the incentive to poach.

Yao Ming Meets Thandi, at the Kariega Game Reserve

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

It seems tragic that we have to take away a rhino’s identifying feature, its horn, to try and stop people from killing them.

Dr. Fowlds shows us where he had found Thandi in a pool of blood, fearing her dead, and talks us through the painstaking rehabilitation. For each treatment, she needed to be tranquilized, a risky procedure that could have easily resulted in her heart stopping.

Dr. Will Fowlds with Peter Knights and Yao Ming

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Thandi’s story has gathered support from all over the world, including Beijing, where Dr. Fowlds recently visited.

Dr. Fowlds corroborates what I had heard in Kenya:  that private rhino owners are being hit by a downturn in tourism due to the poor global economy, while at the same time facing increasing security costs and threats to the safety of their rhinos from poachers.

Next, the WildAid team heads to Kruger National Park, the frontline of the rhino wars.


From Nairobi, we fly to Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s quite a contrast. It feels like a European country here — with paved roads and European style architecture — until you reach the wilderness.

Yao Ming and a Film Crew Arrive at Kariega Game Reserve

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

As we drive out to Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, we pass farms and dozens of private game reserves where South African and international tourists can see animals up close.

Wildlife in Kariega Game Reserve

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Wildlife tourism is a major industry here and one that has enabled the steady increase in the number of rhinos not only in national parks, but also in private reserves.

South Africa is home to three quarters of the world’s rhinos. The recovery of the white rhino here has been one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories. From a low of only 50, the white rhino population has recovered to 18,800 and has thus been removed from the “critically endangered” list.  This is a sharp contrast to the Northern Whites I saw in Kenya that skirt on the edge of extinction with only seven individuals remaining.

Wildlife in Kariega Game Reserve

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

As part of a global awareness campaign, WildAid and the African Wildlife Foundation have just released this animated video about rhinos.  Be sure to check it out and share with others.

In Kariega, I meet veterinarian Will Fowlds and he takes us to see a very special rhino, a rare survivor of the rhino wars.

In my next post, I will introduce you to Thandi.