Unlikely success: how Zimbabwe has become a global leader in rhino conservation

Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com
October 02, 2013



The Wildlife Conservation Network is holding its annual Wildlife Conservation Expo on Saturday, October 12, 2013 from 10am to 6pm at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, CA. The lineup includes 20 prominent conservationists.


Raoul du Toit will be speaking at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013.

With its collapsed economy, entrenched poverty, and political tremors, one would not expect that a country like Zimbabwe would have the capacity to safeguard its rhinos against determined and well-funded poachers, especially as just across the border South Africa is currently losing over two rhinos a day on average. And indeed, without the Lowveld Rhino Trust (LRT), rhinos in Zimbabwe would probably be near local extinction. But the LRT, which is centrally involved in the protection of around 90 percent of the country's rhinos in private reserves along with conservancy members, has proven tenacious and innovative in its battle to safeguard the nation's rhinos from the poaching epidemic.

"Since [2009] the [Lowveld Rhino Trust] conservancy populations have been rebuilt to a current total that once again is close to 400. Because black rhinos elsewhere in Zimbabwe have not shown this population recovery, the Lowveld conservancies have become the key populations for Zimbabwe," Raoul du Toit, head of the LRT, told mongabay.com. "However, the Lowveld conservancies are still subject to the political and economic turmoil that has afflicted Zimbabwe for over a decade and was not resolved through recent elections, so the situation for their rhinos remains precarious."

LRT rhino monitor tracking female black rhino. Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) are currently listed as Critically Endangered. Photo by: LRT.
LRT rhino monitor tracking female black rhino. Black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) are currently listed as Critically Endangered. Photo by: LRT.
Long-considered a curative in traditional Eastern medicine—despite zero evidence—rhino horn is increasingly viewed as a status symbol among the wealthy in places like China and Vietnam, exacerbating the illegal trade. Poachers, who are often underpinned by organized criminal gangs and corrupt officials, have left thousands of rhinos dead in the past few years and dozens of wildlife rangers trying to protect the megafauna. In fact, as LRT has found, keeping rhinos safe today is a massive undertaking, involving not only high-tech monitoring and tracking of rhinos, but working with local communities and the judicial system. The result however has been that Zimbabwe has seen its rhino population rise since 2009, unlike many other countries worldwide.

"We try to maintain a situation in which rhinos can save themselves through effective breeding. By concentrating our efforts on the areas that have ecological and economic potential for large, viable rhino populations rather than frantically 'fire-fighting' to maintain fragmented populations, we can build and maintain the larger populations to the level that poaching losses (which can never be totally avoided under current funding constraints) are more than compensated for by births," du Toit says.

LRT's strategy has been to move faltering rhino population into well-protected areas. This means, fewer populations in the country overall, but bigger populations surviving in highly-managed landscapes.

"We have made many enemies in both the public and private sectors by our efforts to wrestle rhinos away from those who attempt to keep them in ever declining populations, but we have seen annual population growth rates of around 10% as result of our efforts at demographic consolidation in adequately extensive and more secure areas of good habitat, which means that the rhinos can save themselves as the evolutionarily successful species that they are," says du Toit.

LRT also makes rhino conservation meaningful to locals: the organization provides support to local schools based on the growth of the resident rhino population. If rhino populations are booming: schools receive extra funds from LRT. If poachers are decimating the population than that money is moved to anti-poaching efforts.

Calf with poached mother. The calf was also shot in the shoulder. Orphaned calves run the risk of starving to death if authorities don't reach them quickly. Photo by: LRT.
Calf with poached mother. The calf was also shot in the shoulder. Orphaned calves run the risk of starving to death if authorities don't reach them quickly. Photo by: LRT.
"The idea is to get communities to see that breeding more rhinos is in their interests," notes du Toit. "As livestock producers, they appreciate the emphasis on breeding success."

Getting locals on board with rhino conservation—including smart incentive—and means adding thousands of eyes-and-ears in the effort to keep poachers out.

"There is no 'silver bullet' solution to the poaching crisis," du Toit concludes. "As much effort needs to go into reducing the Asian demand for horn as goes into the supply side of the poaching equation. [...] Reducing demand while prohibiting trade does not seem to be an unrealistic objective in view of the fact that much of the current demand is not for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which is deeply embedded in some Asian cultures (but has been controlled in former major markets such as Taiwan and South Korea). Instead, the horn is used as a form of 'bling' by the more affluent sector of Asian society, particularly in Vietnam."

Raoul du Toit will be presenting at the up-coming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 12th, 2013, an event which will be headed by Jane Goodall.



INTERVIEW WITH RAOUL DU TOIT

Dehorned rhino mother and calf before release back into the wild. Conservationists often dehorn rhino in a bid to make them less attractive to poachers. Photo by: LRT.
Dehorned rhino mother and calf before release back into the wild. Conservationists often dehorn rhino in a bid to make them less attractive to poachers. Photo by: LRT.

Mongabay: What drew you to rhinos?

Raoul du Toit: If you successfully conserve rhinos in the wild, then at the same time you are conserving a wide range of other biodiversity. Rhinos need big natural areas and strong protection which are factors that, if adequately maintained, serve the interests of numerous other species whether also suffering from commercial poaching or simply needing wild space to live in. Therefore rhinos are true flagship or umbrella species for others. The effort we have to make for their conservation brings us to the cutting edge of the primary conservation issues for Africa’s wildlife and involves holistic responses that integrate politics, economics, crime prevention, ecology, animal behaviour, conservation biology and many other aspects of sustainable land-use. There is never a dull moment in rhino conservation. In addition, they are interesting animals in their own right, with far more complexity in their social interactions than is appreciated by those who regard them simply as solitary, aggressive animals, and they also have more specific ecological requirements than those who think that they just need some leafy plants to munch on.

Mongabay: How are rhinos faring in Zimbabwe?

Raoul du Toit. Photo by: LRT.
Raoul du Toit. Photo by: LRT.
Raoul du Toit: Holding their own at present, after a significant decline. In the mid 1980s Zimbabwe had over 1,000 black rhinos, including what was then the largest single population in the world, in the Zambezi Valley adjacent to Zambia. By 1994 the national black rhino population had dropped to under 300, mainly due to cross-border poaching by Zambian gangs who had shifted from their killing fields in Zambia, where black rhinos were completely wiped out. In response, a concentration of anti-poaching resources was implemented in some state land areas and we moved breeding nuclei to private wildlife areas. The private sector efforts in the Lowveld region (southern Zimbabwe) were the key to rhino recovery in Zimbabwe.

The national black rhino population hovered around 500 over the period 2001-2007 as births in the Lowveld conservancies compensated for ongoing losses in the state land areas, which became underfunded and poorly managed during Zimbabwe's economic collapse. Then poaching problems intensified in the large private conservancies as the regional poaching momentum built up due to the growth of poaching and smuggling syndicates in South Africa, linking local poachers, corrupt members of South Africa's wildlife industry, corrupt officials and Vietnamese middlemen. These regional influences were coupled with the political and economic problems in Zimbabwe, which resulted in hyperinflation and loss of employment for most people, some of whom turned to crime for their livelihoods. From almost 400 black rhinos in private Lowveld conservancies in 2007, built up by the joint efforts of the wildlife ranchers and the Lowveld Rhino Trust, there was a decline to little more than 300 in 2009. Since then the conservancy populations have been rebuilt to a current total that once again is close to 400. Because black rhinos elsewhere in Zimbabwe have not shown this population recovery, the Lowveld conservancies have become the key populations for Zimbabwe, as they now contain over 90% of the national total. However, the Lowveld conservancies are still subject to the political and economic turmoil that has afflicted Zimbabwe for over a decade and was not resolved through recent elections, so the situation for their rhinos remains precarious.

Mongabay: What does the Lowveld Rhino Trust do in order to better protect and manage the rhino population in Zimbabwe?

Mother and calf. Photo by: LRT.
Mother and calf. Photo by: LRT.

Raoul du Toit: We concentrate on rhinos in two Lowveld conservancies (Save Valley and Bubye Valley), which hold Zimbabwe’s two largest black rhino populations as well as approximately 100 white rhinos, and we also liaise closely with a third Lowveld conservancy (Malilangwe) which is adequately funded to undertake its most of its own rhino management without reliance on LRT. We undertake strategic translocations of rhinos to shift them from unsafe areas to more secure areas; we attend to veterinary needs such as injured or orphaned rhinos; we maintain intensive rhino monitoring systems, using skilled trackers to find, photograph and check on all the rhinos (this is the largest rhino monitoring system based upon individual rhino recognition in the world); we undertake drug-darting of sub-adult rhinos to mark them with small ear notches in order to maintain the identification system; we fit radio-tracking devices to those rhinos that need particularly close monitoring; the combination of these drug-darting needs involves over 50 rhinos being processed by LRT each year; we facilitate, fund and equip anti-poaching systems in the Lowveld conservancies including networks of informers to provide intelligence on poaching gangs, we oversee poaching cases and exert pressure on the authorities to properly prosecute poachers despite much corruption, and implement civil cases against some poachers who escape criminal convictions; we maintain cross-border liaison with law enforcement agencies in adjacent countries (since the poachers often operate cross-border); we undertake capacity-building of law enforcement officers in rhino crime scene investigations and prosecutions of poachers; we undertake community outreach activities mainly through the input of rhino conservation awareness materials in 137 schools adjacent to the conservancies; we undertake applied research (currently concentrating on rhino social organization, genetics and RFID transponder systems); we provide lobbying pressure and technical support for wildlife-based land-use policies and plans that are necessary to maintain an enabling environment for rhino conservation; we provide logistical and technical support for regional rhino restocking projects (currently concentrating on two such projects in Zambia and Botswana). Some details are on our web site: http://lowveldrhinotrust.org

Mongabay: Rhino mortalities have been on the decline in Zimbabwe since 2009 (unlike in many other countries), what are you doing right?

Using a metal detector to look for bullets. Photo by: LRT.
Using a metal detector to look for bullets. Photo by: LRT.
Raoul du Toit: We try to maintain a situation in which rhinos can save themselves through effective breeding. By concentrating our efforts on the areas that have ecological and economic potential for large, viable rhino populations rather than frantically "fire-fighting" to maintain fragmented populations, we can build and maintain the larger populations to the level that poaching losses (which can never be totally avoided under current funding constraints) are more than compensated for by births.

Regretfully, we have seen small population effects (such as skewed sex ratios or the demographic impact of just one or two breeding animals being killed) come into play as the state land populations have dwindled to low numbers. The fact that this dwindling has occurred means that there are now less rhinos to be poached in those areas, which of course means that the total number of rhinos poached over the last year is less than in previous years, as we have ended up with fewer, more consolidated populations. The important thing is to focus on what will stimulate species recovery, especially the need to consolidate rhinos into more viable breeding situations, despite the opposition shown by people who want to keep the rhinos at all costs in areas in which those people have vested interests of one kind or another. LRT has not always succeeded in overcoming these vested interests, and we have made many enemies in both the public and private sectors by our efforts to wrestle rhinos away from those who attempt to keep them in ever declining populations, but we have seen annual population growth rates of around 10% as result of our efforts at demographic consolidation in adequately extensive and more secure areas of good habitat, which means that the rhinos can save themselves as the evolutionarily successful species that they are. We also never give up on law-enforcement, believing that the effort against rhino poachers can be successfully tackled by conventional anti-poaching measures, provided they are not allowed to be completely undermined through corruption and are supported by the general populace.

Mongabay: How do we get local communities to value rhinos and become partners in protecting them?

Raoul du Toit: While local communities are likely to see a moral value in rhinos if sensitized to their conservation importance, within the short term the crucial step is to get them to realize an economic value for the species. To this end, LRT has developed "rhino production incentives" for communities in the form of material support for their schools, the level of which is proportional to the rate of rhino breeding in adjacent conservancies. We provide a baseline level of support for the schools in the form of exercise books, teaching materials, etc., which have a rhino conservation theme but also provide teachers with what they need to teach subjects such as arithmetic and geography. We show the communities that if the rhinos are breeding well with limited poaching losses, then on top of the baseline support we can allocate additional support to the schools, but if the poaching is stifling the population growth then the school support must reduce steadily to the baseline and the "production incentives" (which are annual payouts per calf that is produced in the conservancy) must be directed more towards anti-poaching costs. The idea is to get communities to see that breeding more rhinos is in their interests. As livestock producers, they appreciate the emphasis on breeding success.

Mongabay: There's been a lot of debate about the best approach to the rhino poaching crisis, including tackling demand, amping up protections on the ground, increasing punishments for offenders, and even legalization of rhino horn. What do you think needs to happen to stem this crisis?

Female black rhino on guard. Photo by: LRT.
Female black rhino on guard. Photo by: LRT.
Raoul du Toit: Most of these measures, with the exception of legalization of trade in rhino horn, need to be tackled concurrently since there is no 'silver bullet' solution to the poaching crisis. As much effort needs to go into reducing the Asian demand for horn as goes into the supply side of the poaching equation. Legalizing horn trade will severely complicate the demand reduction efforts and may well increase demand. Even if the price of horn does drop because the market demand is partly met by horn from legal stockpiles, it is unrealistic to expect that it would drop low enough to stop poor poachers in Africa from wanting to make such money as they still can through killing rhinos. Legal horn trade will primarily benefit white rhino production within the commercialized private sector in South Africa but will not reduce poaching pressures on the majority of black rhinos in Africa. Reducing demand while prohibiting trade does not seem to be an unrealistic objective in view of the fact that much of the current demand is not for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) which is deeply embedded in some Asian cultures (but has been controlled in former major markets such as Taiwan and South Korea). Instead, the horn is used as a form of “bling” by the more affluent sector of Asian society, particularly in Vietnam. This recreational or prestige aspect of the use of rhino horns may be tackled through publicity campaigns that focus on making it less “cool” for the fashionable set to flaunt rhino horn.

Mongabay: Three of the world's five rhino species are currently listed as Critically Endangered and we've lost two rhino subspecies in the last few years. How much hope do you have for this megafauna family?

Raoul du Toit: I believe that black rhinos, white rhinos and Indian rhinos will survive provided we concentrate our efforts on maintaining large, free-ranging populations that are genetically and demographically viable. Just as has been demonstrated in Zimbabwe and Kenya, the viral epidemic of poaching in South Africa will start to taper off as a range of control measures (especially more cooperation from Mozambique) slowly become effective, although poaching will never totally cease. We should note that in Namibia, rhino poaching has been held at an insignificant level – Namibia currently has the world’s largest single black rhino population. So people should not feel that the rhino situation is all gloom and doom because of the alarm bells that are tolling in South Africa. However, the prognosis for Sumatran and Javan rhinos is rather dismal, due not simply to poaching pressures but also to a range of other factors that are not sufficiently appreciated, especially habitat problems and demographic effects arising in fragmented populations, resulting in further fragmentation.

Ear notching and tagging for identification. Photo by: LRT.
Ear notching and tagging for identification. Photo by: LRT.

Black rhino named Stella. Photo by: LRT.
Black rhino named Stella. Photo by: LRT.













AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.




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CITATION:
Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (October 02, 2013).

Unlikely success: how Zimbabwe has become a global leader in rhino conservation.

http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1002-hance-wcn-lrt.html