Natural World Hero

Raoul du Toit

Raoul du Toit has been a central figure in the conservation of African rhinos for decades, particularly those living in Zimbabwe. He currently serves as Director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust, which protects and monitors hundreds of rhinos in the south of the country.

one of the world's leading figures in rhino conservation - Raoul du Toit

Since 1986, Raoul du Toit has been instrumental in coordinating rhino conservation initiatives in Zimbabwe, working tirelessly through the turmoil and turbulence of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship. Today he serves as the Africa Rhino Program Coordinator for the International Rhino Foundation, as well as Director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust, which focuses on protecting rhino populations in southern Zimbabwe. Working particularly in the Lowveld's Save and Bubye Valleys, the Trust aims to tackle the area's immediate conservation needs by monitoring, managing and protecting the area's black and white rhinos, as well as raisising awareness in local communities of the plight facing the endangered mammal.

Raoul and his staff also ensure the habitats they oversee are conducive to healthy rhino populations, advocating for correct land usage and working with stakeholders to do so. With effective conservation programmes having been limited on a state level, the Trust and its conservation partners - particularly private conservancies - now work together on the conservation of 80% of Zimbabwe's rhino population, and continue to safeguard the species in the face of threats from poaching and the unstable political situation in the country. Raoul also lends his expertise to rhino conservation efforts across Africa as a whole, mostly in Botswana, Zambia and South Africa.

Raoul was the recipient of the Sir Peter Scott Award for Conservation Merit in 2009 'in recognition of his exceptional efforts and successes in the field of African rhino conservation', which highlighted his contributions to rhino monitoring systems, community outreach programmes, improved law enforcement efforts and black rhino translocation projects. Raoul's vital conservation work also saw him awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2011, an honour which saw him travel to the White House to meet U.S. President Barack Obama.

INTERVIEW WITH RAOUL DU TOIT

How did the rhino first capture your imagination and become such a central part of your career as a conservationist?

I encountered wild black rhinos in the thickets of the Zambezi Valley before I knew much about their conservation status and was immediately awed by their formidable appearance and quick, aggressive reactions to human disturbance. However, as a young professional, it did not seem a sensible career path to get involved in the conservation of a single species. Over time, and to some extent through chance, I did find myself working on rhino and elephant conservation, and came to realise that rhinos are a species at the cutting edge of current wildlife conservation challenges: the places and means used to achieve successful rhino conservation also serve the conservation needs of a large range of associated biodiversity and ecosystem processes and require attention to a stimulating - sometimes overwhelming - set of ecological, behavioural, socio-economic, political and security issues.

Could you tell us about the work done by yourself, the International Rhino Foundation and the Lowveld Rhino Trust?

I run the Lowveld Rhino Trust which undertakes rhino conservation in southern Zimbabwe, with a major emphasis on creating and maintaining multiple populations of over 100 rhinos each. There are four such populations in southern Zimbabwe, three being black rhinos and one being white rhinos, with potential for another large population of black rhinos and one of white rhinos to be built up in the near future.  

I believe that rhino conservation efforts must not be squandered over a range of small rhino projects but, for genetic and demographic viability, must focus on key populations, while financing must be performance-based (achieving auditable population gains).  

Creating this opportunity draws us into many land-use issues, along with the hands-on work we do in monitoring rhinos (our tracker teams monitor over 460 on an individual-recognition basis), darting them (over 1,000 in the past 15 years, for various reasons including strategic translocations and treatments of injuries), running community outreach, assisting with anti-poaching, etc.

The Lowveld Rhino Trust is primarily funded by the International Rhino Foundation, for which I serve as African conservation adviser. IRF also implements rhino conservation projects in Asia, especially concerning Sumatran rhinos. Regional work in southern Africa currently involves me and my team in technical and logistical support roles in Zambia and Botswana, along with close networking on cross-border rhino security issues with South African and other partners.

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

Inspired by Raoul du Toit?

If you've been inspired by the work of Raoul and the Lowveld Rhino Trust and want to see rhinos in the wild for yourself, speak to one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your next adventure to Zimbabwe, South Africa, or another of the rhino's range states.

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