When it comes to rhino conservation, how important is the involvement of local communities?
A generic response cannot be given to this question. The situation varies from place to place. In some areas, particularly those with low human densities and strong traditional structures, local communities can be built into a strong screen of protection for rhinos. In other areas, such as those with high human densities and heterogenic social composition, the involvement of some elements of local communities in rhino poaching can also be important but in a negative sense.
You have been working in the field since the 1980s; what networks have you been able to build over the course of your career?
It is indeed important to work in networks because rhino conservation requires a team effort, and varied professional skills. A significant effort that I was involved in was to build cooperation between groups of cattle ranchers in southern Zimbabwe, so that they could collectively undertake a land-use transition to wildlife operations in co-managed private conservancies, incorporating rhinos that needed a safer home than they had in the Zambezi Valley. Other rhino-specific networks include the IUCN African Rhino Specialist Group (for which I served as Scientific Officer in the 1980s, and have remained a member for over 30 years), and the regional rhino programme of the Southern African Development Community, for which I was Technical Coordinator. I am currently stimulated by a new impact-financing approach for key rhino sites, which involves a network of scientific and financial professionals.
How exactly are rhinos poached? Do poachers often have connections to the international black market, or do they tend to be local people trying to find a way to survive?
The vast majority of rhino poachers in Africa operate in small, mobile, professional gangs and can be likened to bank robbers. They prefer to infiltrate a rhino area quickly, kill one or more rhinos, and get away as quickly as possible. They then market their horns through syndicate leaders (“organisers”) who have contacts (often corrupt officials or politicians) in the supply chains that convey the horns out of Africa. Each gang may be consistently comprised of the same trusted individuals, or may show turnover of members from within a broader syndicate, especially since they often fall out between themselves.
They will seek guides and informants within local communities and workforces, but are generally not rooted within these communities, who are inclined to be law-abiding and to welcome strong punitive action against commercial poachers whom they see as thugs marauding through their areas.
In Zimbabwe, and in many other areas, it is a myth that the poaching arises simply from local poverty that drives community members to seek income for their families. Hardcore poaching gangs may range over hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, often cross-border, sometimes also involved in elephant poaching, drug smuggling, etc.
There is no scientific evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal value. How can we educate those who believe otherwise, or who want to procure rhino horn as a mere status symbol, or ornament?
Within China and Vietnam, which are the main markets for rhino horn, it will probably be impossible to develop sufficiently penetrative education programmes to make enough difference to consumer beliefs within the next 10-20 years. The only short-term possibility is for the governments of these countries to get serious (which they aren’t at present) about enforcing laws against trade in rhino horn and to prosecute dealers, corrupt officials and buyers far more aggressively. This requires major diplomatic and economic pressure by Western nations on these Asian governments to show real action rather than lip service.
African Parks recently brought the black rhino back to Chad for the first time since the species became locally extinct in the 1970s, with the arrival of six individuals to Zakouma National Park. What benefits are there to reintroducing the species to former range states?
Although poaching is a huge challenge, there are also limited expansion prospects for rhinos in some conservation areas, leading to overstocking and declining growth rates. It is therefore logical to spread some of these rhinos like eggs between different baskets and to try to grow new rhino populations, in various areas under different jurisdictions and varying local circumstances. Some may fail, but others may thrive and help add another form of insurance for the survival of rhinos across the continent. However, in all cases, detailed feasibility studies of the ecology, security and other factors in the reintroduction site must be undertaken to ensure that the chances of success are sufficiently strong to justify the high costs and the commitment of rhinos to that site.
In November 2017, Robert Mugabe’s 30-year reign as President of Zimbabwe came to an end. What does the future now hold for Zimbabwe’s wildlife in this new era?
On the one hand, we hear that the new leadership will make Zimbabwe “more open for business” to encourage investment, both commercial and philanthropic, that will be directly helpful to rhino conservation as well as indirectly beneficial in helping rebuild Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and reducing factors that are conducive to illegal activities. On the other hand, it remains to be seen if the more militaristic influence in the government structures results in interference in conservation programmes by military people who know little or nothing about conservation. Current signs are mixed, and rather negative in the conservation field. However, in general, it is hard to see how things could not get at least somewhat better than they were under Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.
More recently, in March 2018, the world lost its last male northern white rhino, making the subspecies functionally extinct. In light of this tragic event, what value do you feel lies in ensuring the survival of our remaining rhinos?
It is my view that much of the blame for the extinction of northern white rhinos lies with the international zoo community that did too little, too late, to take action to combine “their” remaining rhinos in larger groups in more free-range, natural situations that would stimulate breeding, and even to allow mixing of northern and southern white rhinos to retain the genetic diversity of the latter within the species as a whole (I recommended that two decades ago). I believe that current approaches to “intensive management” of Sumatran rhinos similarly risk over-managing this species to extinction. We have to see the value of rhinos as spectacular animals that show complicated evolutionary adaptations (behavioural, ecological, etc.) within natural ecosystems for which they serve as flagship species.
What has been your best natural world experience to date?
I will always look back at the opportunity I had to lead a small team, with few resources, that rescued 30 black rhinos from an area in Zimbabwe that was politically volatile, overrun by land invaders, and under serious poaching pressure. Although we rescued rhinos from other areas with similar problems, this particular operation was the most gruelling and pressurised. It was far from being fun, but it was hugely satisfying to engage in effective teamwork that salvaged rhinos which otherwise would have been doomed to die very soon.
Who is your own personal natural world hero and why?
In the rhino conservation world, particularly recently, many people have taken personal advantage of the international concern over the poaching crisis through self-promotional antics that grab media attention and impress gullible donors. Some “rhino heroes” spend far more time in front of audiences on fundraising drives than they do in the field. I am therefore disinclined to talk of heroes and rather think of those who quietly and effectively get on with long-term conservation efforts. Such as a security manager in southern Zimbabwe who cannot be named (unlike the purported “heroes”) because his kind of risky work cannot be publicised, or Dr David Cumming who has a very different role as a public servant, scientist, mentor, and shaper of sound conservation policies and plans through steady professional effort over many years, mainly in Zimbabwe but also more widely.
What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?
Black rhinos have a reputation for being solitary and aggressive. They are not. In normal rhino “societies”, in large areas where they are not socially compressed, they form very strong and long-term bonds with other rhinos, both relatives and friends. They will not always move around together but will link up at focal points such as water points. We moved rhinos in dribs and drabs out of some populations that were under poaching pressure, as political approvals and funding arose, and found those rhinos re-establishing their former close associations with others in the new area, even if they had been separated for some years. Rhinos often visit the carcasses of other rhinos, sometimes for years. We have established clear evidence that rhino restocking projects have lower mortality rates if rhinos are moved in existing social groups, rather than as complete strangers. The geospatial skills of rhinos and their social interactions are far more fascinating than is generally appreciated. This highlights the fact that the natural world is more complicated and wondrous than most people appreciate, and humans are just a part of a bigger picture of evolution that we need to respect more.