Posts tagged “conservation

Sepetember 16: Ol Pejeta

Back to Ol Pejeta, I am brought to greet two of the world’s remaining seven Northern White Rhinos – Najin and Suni. I am not sure if they remember me from our last meeting however they give me a sniff and continue grazing their meal of hay. I learn that three of the seven are beyond breeding age and that crossing the Northern whites with the Southern is perhaps the only chance of keeping the bloodlines going. So far there seems to be little interest in mating.

Najin and Suni.

Najin and Suni.

The two huge southern whites in the enclosure keep trying to muscle in on the hay action. Their keepers raise their arms to shoo them away. It’s quite comical seeing these huge animals backing off from the keepers.

Feeding time.

Feeding time.

Poaching has become worse since I was last here and in South Africa the number of animals poached continues to increase.

We must reach rhino horn consumers and persuade them that the theft, killing, cruelty, and threat of extinction is not worth the imagined benefit they believe they are getting from using the horn. It will be their friends, relatives, neighbors, and business colleagues, who can persuade them. Perhaps that might be you. Please do what you can to save these incredible animals from oblivion.

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RHINO REFLECTIONS

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


CSI: SOUTH AFRICA

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.


MEETING THANDI

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.


A SOUTH AFRICAN WELCOME

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.


THE REALITY OF THE IVORY TRADE

After witnessing how illegal ivory was obtained, I really was speechless. After seeing these animals up close and watching them interact in loving and protective family groups, it was heart wrenching and deeply depressing to see them cruelly taken before their time.

Yao Ming Encounters a Poached Elephant in Northern Kenya

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

People have spent their lives studying and living intimately with these animals and now, just like in 1989 before the international ivory trade was banned, they must spend their lives looking for bodies, using metal detectors to find bullets and conducting autopsies.

Unfortunately, I saw five poached elephants in close proximity to each other while in Kenya — an indication of the seriousness of the poaching crisis.

I’m told that until 1989, the international trade in ivory was legal. But in addition to legal ivory from natural deaths, huge amounts of illegal ivory were laundered into the trade despite years of attempted regulation.  This “regulated” trade led to the halving of elephant numbers from 1.2 million to around 600,000 in two decades. West, Central and East Africa were hardest hit, while Southern African populations remained stable and even increased.

In 1989, the international community banned the trade. The price of ivory fell to a quarter of its previous levels as markets in the US, Europe and much of the world, collapsed. For a number of years, elephant numbers stabilized and poaching declined. Some South African countries pushed for re-opening ivory trade for their stockpiles, but each time this was done, poaching increased again on speculation of a renewed market.

Theoretically, we could have a market in ivory supplied from elephants that die naturally. But unfortunately, with the high amount of money at stake, few will wait for the elephant to die to make a profit. There are too many people with access to weapons to do the killing here and too many people ready to buy the ivory without questioning how it was obtained.

I also learned that at one point in history, the United States was the largest consumer of ivory.  As of 1989, Japan and Hong Kong were the largest importers of ivory, with Hong Kong holding 127 tonnes in its stockpile.

But China’s economic boom has lead to greater buying power with few potential consumers exposed to the publicity surrounding the 1989 ban. This is why we really need to document what’s happening here in Africa, on the ground. I firmly believe that Chinese consumers will have a change of heart once we understand the consequences, but it hasn’t been covered widely enough in the media.

Unlike rhino horn (which was banned in 1993 in China), ivory is still legally available and side-by-side with illegal ivory from poached elephants, which I think is very confusing for people. If you see something openly on sale, you assume it is legal. An ivory carving is thousands of miles removed from the sad carcass of a poached elephant, but we need to make that connection.

It was a harrowing experience I never want to repeat, but something that everyone thinking of buying ivory should see — the wastefulness of these animals cruelly slaughtered just so a small part of them could be used.

Would anyone buy ivory if they had witnessed this?

 


TICKLING THE RHINO

On the way out of Daphne Sheldrick’s Orphanage, we turn a corner and come face-to-face with a large black rhino wandering loose. He snorts and comes to challenge us. It’s very intimidating.

An Oprhaned Rhino at Daphne Sheldrick's Orphanage

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Then his keeper arrives and starts tickling him and soothing him and he rolls to the ground in response. I am able to tickle him behind the ears.  Another adopted orphan. A two-ton baby named Solio.

Yao Ming with Solio, an Oprhaned Black Rhino

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

We leave Kenya stunned by the natural beauty, charmed by the welcome of the people, impressed by the elephants and their social interactions, the feeling that maybe we have more in common than I had thought, and shocked by the ferocity and brutality of the war being waged for their ivory.

From my conversations, it is clear that Kenya needs to pass legislation, which has languished in parliament for years, to increase the penalties for poaching. Currently, you can get a more severe punishment for stealing a few goats than for killing an elephant.

Yao Ming and the Director of Kenya Wildlife Service

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

But they also need help from the international community, not just to support conservation work and enforcement efforts, but also to end the demand. This is a war that needs to be defunded and I hope we can raise public awareness to achieve this. As the WildAid slogan goes, “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

I have been heartened by the support that conservation work has received from both the people and government of China and I know we can do even more to help with increased enforcement and collaboration.

Back in Ol Pejeta, I visit some of the local community projects funded by the wildlife tourism.  A school that now has a library and bank of computers some of the kids use to study (and play video games, I’m told).

Yao Ming Visits a School in Ol Pejeta

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

The school teachers thanked me for coming and for all the good things China is doing in Kenya, like building a new road, but also appealed for our help in stopping the ivory poaching.

Yao Ming Poses with Students at a School in Ol Pejeta

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

It’s clear that through the jobs provided by tourism, as well as the benefits to the local communities, wildlife is a very valuable resource for Kenya and many other African countries. Poaching robs communities of these benefits. When you buy ivory anywhere in the world, you are contributing to this theft.

Next stop, South Africa.