Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Has Its Residents

Once again Earth Day is upon us with its usual one day hoopla. Famous faces get together for the cameras and just like on New Years Eve resolutions are made, only to be broken and forgotten. It seems that if we give something its own day then we feel that a level of achievement has been reached. Well a quick flip of the calendar to May 1st and it's Save the Rhino Day. A day for thinkers, minor politicians, activists and others to sit around and talk a great deal about the horrific slaughter of this majestic beast.

Worldwide publicity around Earth Day has grown over the years to an extreme level. People from each corner of the globe seem to know of it and find all kinds of events arranged for April 22nd. School children are herded together into collective projects, local municipal politicians praise their recycling efforts and media play the theme of Mother Earth for a day. As April 23rd dawns all is forgotten, packed away for another year, well except the obvious talents of little Johnny and little Mary, that stays on the fridge for at least a week.

This planet Earth is extremely important and its conservation, its protection, cannot be ignored. Yet this wondrous planet does not float in the galaxy barren, unlike so many others it sustains life to billions of varying residents. Earth has its residents, the most intelligent and most dangerous of all is man. Although it is man who can help to preserve the Earth and his fellow neighbours who share the ground he lives on, the air he breathes and the water that sustains all life.

As humanity we carry an absolute and undeniable responsibility to preserve life. We have seen through the years one species after another reach the brink of extinction, and then finally pass into oblivion. How much longer can we ignore the fact that man is the only species that kills for pleasure, kills for sport, and kills for greed.

Today we face the prospect of another creature being herded towards the brink of extinction. For now there is little time on our side to stem the tide of destruction, though it would take humanity as a collective to achieve such a goal. The killing fields are in Kruger National Park, South Africa. The target is the rhino, not for food or pelt, but only for its horn. This incredible beast which can exceed 3500 kilograms (7700 lb), with a length of head and body at 3.5 to 4.6 metres (11-15 ft), and a shoulder height at 1.8 to 2 metres (5.9 – 6.8 ft), is being slaughtered in alarming numbers. The killers are vicious gangs incapable of understanding the impact of the slaughter, and bred to be incapable to care.

"This photograph was taken on a camera trap. The camera traps are donated to Stephen Long by Nicholas Duncan from the SAVE the African Rhino Foundation, Australia. Stephen would have set the camera up at a strategic point in Sinamatella to identify the rhino from ear notches. The Black Rhino that these guys are desperately trying to protect can travel an average of 25km a night so they are hard to stay with and track, depending on the terrain," said Chris Palmer.

At one time in the early twentieth century rhino population throughout African and Asia was estimated at some 500,000. Today that is no longer the case with the Western Black Rhino declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the IUCN two other subspecies of rhino are facing the same prospect, Africa's Northern White Rhino and Asia's Javan Rhino. Yet it is not the depletion of natural habitat that is putting the rhino at risk, it is man, it is illegal poaching.

Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN species survival commission said in a statement, “In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented.” (Western Black Rhino declared extinct, Matthew Knight, CNN, November 6, 2013). Many, including the IUCN, point to the success in the conservation of the Southern White Rhino subspecies which saw numbers drop to less than 100 in the late nineteenth century. Today the Southern White Rhino subspecies is estimated at 20,000, conservation works and there is proof of that. Now the rhino faces a more dangerous enemy. South Africa is home to 83% of Africa's rhinos and 73% of all wild rhinos worldwide (statistics from savetherhino.org). At the same time it is also the bloodiest killing field, with much of the killing taking place in South Africa's Kruger National Park.

According to government statistics the figures of slaughtered rhinos has been increasing alarmingly, particularly between 2012 and 2013. In 2007 there were only 13 rhinos killed for their horns, 2012 saw that number climb to 668 and now 2013 has been the very worst year with the death toll climbing to 1,004. Tom Milliken from Traffic International told BBC news, “the experts tell me we are not quite yet at the tipping point but we are very close to it. If this kind attrition is sustained for much longer we are definitely going to see South Africa's rhinos go into decline for the first time in a hundred years.” (Worst year ever for SA rhino poaching, Matt McGrath, Environment Correspondent BBC News, January 17, 2014).

The White Rhino was one of the greatest conservation efforts, with many patting themselves on their backs, and rightfully so. It showed what man is capable of, instead of dealing out death, man saved a creature from extinction. Still those conservationists did not face a vicious animal with a high-powered gun fuelled by greed. Today the White Rhino faces a greater challenge.

The slaughter is generated by a higher demand for the rhino horn, particularly from Vietnam and China. Here the horn is thought to have medicinal benefits and an aphrodisiac. Maybe Viagra should be introduced in this part of the world, and the rhino left alone. It is this demand, frivolous and insane as it sounds, that puts a black market price of up to $65,000 per kilogram for the rhino horn, making it more expensive than gold or even cocaine.

One response has been to promote the dehorning of the rhino, believing that poachers will not kill a rhino that is hornless. Dehorning is a medical procedure and has been conducted first in Namibia and in Zimbabwe Lowveld. This process removes some 90% of the rhino horn leaving a stub whilst the animal is sedated. In Zimbabwe's Save Valley Conservancy, six newly dehorned rhinos were killed from January to August of 2011, one was killed within 24 hours and another within five days of being dehorned.

So the debate on dehorning continues. Regardless of whether one considers the dangers of sedation to the animal or the fact that the horn grows back, or listen to the statistics of how dehorned rhinos have a better chance of survival, the real point is missed. Why should a natural state of an animal be altered as protection against men and their greed? The rhino horn is there for a reason and it is used by the rhino in its daily life. Why should there be a need to hack off such a definitive feature?

Photograph taken by Stephen Long, and posted by Chris Palmer on Google+ with this comment: "a message to anyone that supports De Horning of Rhino. It doesn't f---ing work!! These two Rhino stubs were found on a dead poacher!! not long after it was De horned."

Dehorning put aside another suggestion is to legalise the rhino horn trade. Duan Biggs, research fellow at the Centre for Excellence for Environmental Decisions at Australia's University of Queensland told IPS: “The trade ban is creating a situation where rhinos are being killed unnecessarily. It's taking resources away from other conservation efforts, and is leading to the situation where there's a pseudo war taking place in the Kruger National Park.” (Would a legal rhino horn trade stem poaching?, Brendon Bosworth for IPS, Guardian Environmental Network, April 18, 2013).

The South African government is preparing a proposal for the 2016 Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to open up the rhino horn trade. Michael't Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist who researches the trade in illegal rhino horn told IPS, “The idea is to cut (illegal traders) out of the market. They are dealing in a lot of other products. If it becomes unattractive to them they'll simply switch to something else.” (Would a legal rhino horn trade stem poaching?, Brendan Bosworth for IPS, April 18, 2013).

An analogy that is used by the proponents of legal rhino horn trade is the benefit of the establishment of legal and sustainable crocodile ranching rather than the slaughter of wild crocodiles. Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, provides a more alarming example. Illegal ivory sales in China has risen even though China bought, legally, stockpiles of ivory from Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe in 2008. According to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency some 90% of ivory that enters the market in China is illegal. Mary Rice told IPS, “Legal ivory is now more expensive that illegal ivory, and what you have is the biggest upsurge in poaching since the (1989) ban (on international ivory trade).” (Would a legal rhino horn trade stem poaching?, Brendan Bosworth for IPS, April 18, 2013). The Chinese government bought the ivory stockpiles for $157 per kilogram, selling it for up to $1500 per kilogram, and ivory products retailing for up to $7000.

To further fuel the insanity of the debate over how to protect the rhino from slaughter, the African nation of Namibia and the Dallas (Texas) Safari Club decided to auction off a permit to hunt an endangered African Black Rhino. This permit sold for a cool $350,000 with the executive director of the Safari Club defending the auction claiming that the money raised will go toward protecting the species, less of course the one that will be killed. Better questions hang unanswered, even not asked, how much of a commission did the Dallas Safari Club get, how much did they charge for the privilege to be part of the auction and how much will members of the Namibian government distribute as commissions? Finally, how will this blood money, and no one can deny that physically in the end that is exactly what it is with the death of a rhino by bullet, be used in the protection of the species?

First of all this is not the first time a permit such as this has been auctioned by the Namibian government. Namibia's government offers five such permits every year, with a previous record price being $223,000, although it is the first time that the auction was held outside of the country. Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director of the Massachusetts based IFAW said, “This is, in fact, making a spectacle of killing an endangered species.” (Permit to hunt endangered African black rhino sells for $35,000, AP, January 12, 2014).

On the opposite side of the scale comes a massive donation of over $23 million to help in the war to protect the rhino by the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, 59 year old Howard Buffet. The donation is to enable authorities to buy a helicopter, vehicles, and high-tech equipment to be used in Kruger's National Park. This high-tech equipment will be similar to what the US uses to patrol the Mexican border, with sensors on fences to detect anyone jumping over them, and tethered balloons. Tethered balloons carry infrared cameras that scan the ground for intruders. Buffet told Associated Press, “we're going to do it at a scale that hasn't been done before. This is very much like our drug war.” ($23 Million for Rhinos: Howard Buffet`s Mega Gift to Help Stop Poaching, John Platt, AP, March 2014 for Takepart).

Without hesitation it is a war, a war to save creatures hunted down and slaughtered for greed and the satisfaction man has felt through the ages in the hunt. China and Vietnam fuel the insatiable demand for the rhino horn. Traditional Chinese medicine uses it as a major component, and today it has become an ingredient for a detoxifying party drug. The saddest reality of all is that the rhino horn is made of keratin, the same as fingernails on humans and it has no medicinal qualities at all!

Still the demand grows, and the war continues. Amongst the political rhetoric and excuses there are individuals who risk a great deal to protect the rhino, and other creatures like the elephant. These men walk the bushlands ready to go head to head with poachers. Each day they patrol with rangers putting their lives on the line. Men like Chris Palmer, Stephen Long of Bhejane Trust, Damien Mander Founder and CEO of International Anti-Poaching Foundation and Nicholas Duncan President of SAVE African Rhino Foundation, know the realities first hand.

Photograph by Chris Palmer of Stephen Long catching a break.

Mayorgate was able to contact Stephen Long of the Bhejane Trust, who was out in the bushland on patrol, to ask about the realities at 'ground zero'. As Save the Rhino Day approaches with the activists, conservationists, politicians and general thinkers gathering together, Long's words should echo the hallways. Steven Long of Bhejan Trust told Mayorgate: 

“Why bother to preserve rhino? As far as I can see, whatever reasons you put forward, you eventually come back to either the ethical (what right do we have to wipe out a species?) or the 'grandchildren' (we must preserve them on behalf of our grandchildren) arguments. They don't sound hard-headed or practical but they are really just about all we've got. In the Zimbabwe context a powerful and related argument for rhino is that they are great preservers of the wilderness and other animals. We often think of it the other way around - we need wilderness to keep the rhino but here there are a number of wilderness areas that would probably be gone without the rhino.

During our land reform (we won't get into discussion of that one or I'd be typing for weeks) most white-owned land with wildlife on it was taken and it is an established fact that the animals were mostly killed and the land use has often changed to small-scale 'peasant' farming with no room for wildlife. That did not happen where rhino were present. The contrast between the Gwayi and Save Valley conservancies is an excellent example. Both were largely white-owned, Gwayi had few or no rhino and was all taken, Save has many rhino and has been left alone - even to the extent of settlers linked to the ruling party being chased away when they tried to take over without permission. The rhino and their high international profile are responsible for that. On the same lines, we are currently facing a major elephant poaching problem and are having some success in containing it. This is down to the training, equipment, alertness of rangers on the ground and good intelligence networks that started out aimed almost exclusively at preserving rhino but now conserves elephants just as well.

So, the rhino are an internationally recognisable flagship species, and thanks to them, everything else that lives around them is better preserved. Whether or not that's a good thing goes straight back to the ethical and grandchildren arguments but for me it makes them more powerful - we might look away while one species goes but it becomes more difficult when whole ecosystems are at risk. To sum up - preserving rhino is part of preserving the wild - and that's worth doing! 

Secondly then, how do we conserve them? The 'make them valuable' argument divorces rhino from their habitat and just makes them a commodity - it would work better if they were farmed rather than kept in the wild and I see that as a completely different discussion. There can't be much doubt that we could preserve caged rhino for ever - and farm their horns but what would be the point? That certainly isn't what I'm interested in. For me, conserving rhino is a part of conserving natural habitats and although there is certainly a role for small fenced conservancies as rhino 'fortresses' it can't be the only plan.

The anti-poaching/'military' option is the high profile one that brings in the donor funds but I am not a believer. I honestly don't think the military option can work so long as the rewards for the poachers and smugglers are huge and  there is poverty and corruption to make poaching worthwhile, whatever the risk. South Africa has the best resources in Africa for anti-poaching but it is not winning - and the rest of us have even less chance. If we rely entirely on anti-poaching we will eventually lose the fight. That's not to say anti-poaching is useless - without the rangers out in the bush day after day we would have lost the fight long ago. We must just be careful not to put all our reliance on anti-poaching and be seduced by the tough guy image of men festooned in guns and camouflage creeping around out in the bush pretending to be Action Man. Don't get me wrong - I work with brave, dedicated, skillful rangers every day and they are fantastic at what they do. The white guys who just like posing with guns can be a pain but they have their role as well (donors love them). Ultimately though, black or white, trained and dedicated or not, they can't win.

The only solution I can see is to hold the fort with anti-poaching in Africa but meanwhile attack the problem at its source - the market in Asia. I'm not in any way an expert on that but I'm told that statistics show markets for rhino horn increase as nations become more affluent, then shrink as affluence and education increase further. That is apparently what happened with Japan and Taiwan and is starting to happen with China - but Thailand and Burma are waiting in the wings. How you put pressure on the Chinese consumer and their government is a question I can't even begin to answer but it is certainly the central question in rhino conservation.”

The future of our Earth does not rest on the willingness to conserve our resources, turn off some lights for an hour, demonstrate about fracking or fight the pipelines. Though all of these individual efforts are important, our future and that of Earth must include all the inhabitants who share our wondrous planet. We as humanity have a responsibility in what can be considered a more enlightened millennium to preserve other species who are our neighbours.

As Stephen Long, Chris Palmer and others struggle both in words and sweat to save the rhino from extinction, a general groundswell around the world is being fueled through the use of imagery of the majesty of this creature. News media have provided photographs of rhinos in agony with their horns hacked off. Artists have used all forms of medium to portray the rhino in its natural habitat. Whether you want to listen to Stephen Long or not, his point on concentrating efforts at the source of the demand for the rhino horn cannot be ignored. Artist Alexandra Davidoff, using a simple pencil, provides an image of the rhino as it is entangled in the very language of the dominant species on earth. This image was part of an exhibition held in New Delhi, India, March 7th to 9th 2014 by an organisation called Animal. Images such as these widen public opinion against the slaughter and can bring greater pressure on those who provide the demand and reason for the existence of illegal poachers.

Alexandra Davidoff's rhino drawing at the Animal "Species" exhibition in New Delhi, India.

Earth Day will pass within its flitting 24 hours and be packed away until the next April 22nd, yet the struggle to keep a species from being declared extinct and lost forever does not end.

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