I should be in South Africa today, celebrating World Rhino Day by watching vets notch little patterns onto the ears of a tranquilliser darted rhino.
Every cheetah sports a unique array of spots that differentiates them from others. Each zebra has distinctive, dazzling stripes.
But individual rhinos have no distinguishing features, hence these man-made ear notches, uniquely patterned and registered, are used to help conservationists identify and monitor these beguiling behemoths of the bush in their relentless fight against poachers.
Save the Rhino estimates that Africa’s critically endangered black rhinos now number between 5,366 and 5,627 while white rhinos, classed as near threatened, number between 17,212 and 18,915.
Their horn, worth around US$65,000 per kilo on the black market, is a status symbol in Vietnam and China where it’s believed to heal ailments ranging from cancers to heavy hangovers. Yet it’s just keratin, like our fingernails, with no curative powers whatsoever.
During South Africa’s strictly-enforced Covid-19 lockdown, rhino poaching dropped almost 53 per cent in the first half of 2020, with 166 rhinos cruelly killed. But this is no time for complacency: in China and Laos, rhino horn is being hailed as a cure for coronavirus.
“There’s a definite upsurge in poaching in South Africa now,” Dr André Uys tells me. “My sense is that, with thousands losing their jobs in wildlife tourism, including in law enforcement, the knock-on effect of the pandemic will see persistent increases in subsistence poaching as people struggle to survive.
"It’s also likely that commercial rhino horn poachers taking money into poor communities will gain favour and protection in those communities.”
Uys is the chief veterinarian at Marataba where, were it not for Covid-19, I’d be staying at Founders Camp, which opened this month.
A privately managed section of Marakele National Park in the Waterberg Mountains, Marataba aims to flip the safari experience on its head by prioritising hands-on conservation for guests over traditional safaris. Its inaugural Rhino Conservation Week starts today, with guests helping to notch rhinos and collect DNA samples for the national database. The rhinos are safely darted, then monitored once they wake.
Covid-19 may have grounded me today, but two years ago, at Sanctuary Chief’s Camp in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, I joined monitors on patrol from NGO Rhino Conservation Botswana. We saw a huge black rhino called Mary waddling gracelessly across the plain. Looking prehistoric and heavily pregnant, she was utterly captivating. Now I wonder if she’s still alive.
In 2000, conservationists began relocating rhinos from South Africa, a poaching hotspot, to Botswana, seen as a safer haven for wildlife. But recently, as Botswana’s rhino population increased, so did the poaching. With lockdown, the lack of a tourism presence led to fears of further rhino losses.
However, renowned rhino expert Map Ives explains that “Botswana’s authorities actually upped their game during Covid, which wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by organised poaching syndicates who probably withdrew their men as a result..."
He added: "Now that lockdown has eased, poaching has returned, albeit at a low level because they’ve translocated many rhinos from the Okavango to safer areas within Botswana and have de-horned many of the remaining rhinos.”
Yet Ives believes Botswana has capitulated to the poachers by moving rhinos out of the wild. “There are few areas left in Africa where rhinos are truly wild, most having been moved into mega-fenced parks or private reserves. This is a sad commentary on funding for their protection. African nations can’t afford to fight large-scale poaching for long periods. They need considerable outside funding and physical help.”
Non-profit African Parks (AP) knows a thing or two about funding conservation and combating the illegal wildlife trade. They’re responsible for managing 18 reserves in 11 African countries and have conducted several rhino translocations across the continent.
Last year, their endeavours led to 17 rhinos returning to Liwonde in Malawi and five rhinos moved from European zoos to roam in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Sadly, four relocated black rhinos died in Zakouma National Park, Chad, because of dietary issues. After extensive investigations, AP’s plans to relocate more rhinos there this year were delayed due to the pandemic.
“We must continue these reintroductions to preserve ecosystems,” Peter Fearnhead, AP’s CEO tells me. “Translocations are extremely well-researched, but any intervention is high-risk when you’re flying animals across two-thirds of a continent.”
Another high-risk and controversial intervention is taking place at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where experts are seeking to create a northern white rhino calf through IVF, using frozen sperm and a southern white rhino as surrogate mum. The last male, Sudan, whom I had the privilege to meet, died in 2018.
Covid-19 has caused its customary delays but eventually, last month, vets successfully harvested a further 10 eggs from Najin and Fatu, the last two surviving females, as the team strives to preserve their genetic traits before time runs out.
New-born babies are a true confirmation of successful conservation. In July, Grumeti Reserve in Tanzania’s Serengeti announced the birth of their first baby eastern black rhino to a group of nine translocated there last year. And in March, African Parks revealed the birth of the first “grandchild” calf born to Thambo, the daughter of rhinos translocated to the beautiful Majete Game Reserve 17 years ago.
In these unprecedented times, every single rhino counts.