Excerpted from Men’s Journal, Mark Adams
“Her horn is spectacular; it appears translucent, glowing from within in the late morning light.”
The Botswana Rhino Project, managed by Martin Ives, is a partnership between Wilderness Safaris and the government of Botswana. Mr Ives was appointed National Rhino Coordinator, amazing since in 1992, there were zero black Rhinos in Botswana. Ives wondered if black Rhinos could be reintroduced much like Yellowstone’s wolves.
At the current rate of poaching, the Black Rhino will be extinct within a decade. The Botswana Rhino Project has evolved into a mission to fight this genocide.
In a sophisticated operation that requires masses of detailed preparations, black Rhinos are transported from various countries in C 130 transport planes. When an airplane comes into view, Ives exclaims, ”’I’m nervous. Those are my babies in there.” Botswana Defense Force soldiers armed with automatic weapons, followed by 3 animal care specialists from Zimbabwe and Botswana, folks with video cameras, and Kai Collins, the man responsible for supervising the transfer, emerge from the plane. Bound in the cargo hold, are 3 brightly colored container cars, each holding a somewhat dazed Black Rhino.
2 days ago, they were miles away in Zimbabwe, unaware of the threat leveled at them by poachers. A vet darted them from a helicopter. They were blindfolded; half of their horns were removed; they were crated and then loaded onto trucks, and finally hoisted onto the C 130. Each transfer involves months of negotiations with the foreign owners of the animals and with government officials. It takes a huge amount of effort to move 3 animals. But they represent .15% of their species in the world. If all goes as planned, many more Rhinos will roam in the Okavango, and if they are happy here, they will breed.
The Rhinos are first housed in high fenced pens or bomas. When a female munches on the leaves of a branch of fresh leadwood, the operation is deemed a success.
Each rescued animal is fitted with an electronic tracking device and also coded notches clipped into its ears.
Ives observes how animal and plant species work together almost as “a single living organism on a macro scale.” The flaw for Ives in this otherwise perfect system was the absence of the Rhino.
In Africa there are two kinds of Rhino, black and white. The white rhinos outnumber the black rhinos about 5 to 1. Whereas white rhinos eat mostly grasses, black rhinos are browsers, using their prehensile upper lip to feed on leaves and twigs. Black rhinos have a reputation of being recluses and they will charge if someone gets too close.
Around 1970, around 65,000 black rhinos remained in the wild. Revolution and the departure of the British opened the way for poaching. Oil wealthy Yemen demanded horn for carving daggers. In 1993, the number was reduced to 3,610. Conservation efforts slowly reversed this trend. In 2001, when Ives trucked in 4 white rhinos, they were not more endangered than many other species in Africa. In less than a decade ago, poaching surged in South Africa where most rhinos live. 2007 13 rhinos poached, 2008, 83, then 122, 333, 448, 668, 1,014. In 2015, 1,215 were killed—4 a day. China and Vietnam are driving the demand for horn.
The largest remaining population of Rhinos lives in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. It borders on Mozambique where penalties for Rhino poaching are zero. It is estimated that 12 gangs are operating in Kruger every day. It may be more. These poachers are linked to international crime syndicates.
Botswana’s President, Ian Khama enthusiastically embraces Ives’ Rhino Project. He has put the defense forces in charge of anti- poaching efforts. Botswana allows lethal force when poachers are discovered. Nonetheless, Ives is aware that if a Kalahari Bushman was offered a year’s worth of income for a Rhino horn, he would be tempted. Ives dreams that in a hundred years, thousands of Rhinos will roam again. . .
Rhinos have complex social hierarchies. Their hearing and sense of smell are phenomenal, but their eyesight is very poor. So if you’re downwind of them, and you keep still, they wont know you’re there.
Many solutions have been floated: dehorning to reduce desire is a deterrent, but a poacher might kill it anyway if only not to waste time following it again the next day. The poachers might settle for a one pound stub of horn and kill for this. After all its worth much more than gold or cocaine. . .
Ives is hopeful that relocation will work because it has worked before. In 1960, Ian Player, a game warden, had groups of animals transported to other places to breed. White rhinos are considered vulnerable, but black rhino are critically endangered. Filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert have also started flying white Rhino to Botswana.
Relocating Rhinos is very expensive. Rhinos must be monitored, tracking teams for each are essential, 5-7 people each. This takes 2-3 million dollars a year.