Imagine you went for a walk in your neighbourhood. Suddenly there is a loud noise in the air above you, everything goes numb and your body falls to the ground. You wake up to find that while under what must have been anaesthesia, a chainsaw or hand-saw was used to cut your arms off horizontally. There is a pen mark indicating the careful point of removal – 7cm from the base of your elbow. Your eyes and ears were covered to prevent noise, disturbance and damage from the saw. The stumps of your arms were trimmed to remove excess bone at the base, then smoothed and covered with Stockholm tar to prevent cracking and drying.
What makes a rhino a rhino? Some might say its strength, tough skin, prehistoric appearance, but I am sure the majority would say its horn. For me it is what symbolises a rhino. In this post I am in no way assuming authority or experience to comment on the pros or cons of the de-horing of rhinos – it is a great debate that I got lost in during our recent #limpopogoodness campaign – I would simply be out of my league. I would however like to share the feelings I had after seeing my first dehorned rhino in the wild. The sight twisted my gut and forever made me realise that human choices have a profound effect on other living beings on the planet. The hand of man slapped me right through the face.
In the foreword of Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See, Stephen Fry, one of my personal best storytellers, writes:
Are the animals worth saving because they hold an important place in the great interconnected web of existence? Are they worth saving because they might one day yield important clues and compounds because they help us with medicine or some other useful technology? Or are they worth saving because they are the beautiful achievement of millions of years of natural selection? Extinction is a natural part of creation, this is unquestionably true: yet no matter what one’s views on climate change or global warming, it is impossible, impossible, to deny that man-made alterations to habitat are threatening thousands of plant and animal species across the planet at an unprecedented rate and scale. So the question is perhaps not ‘why should we save them?’ but ‘what right do we have to destroy them?’
Stephen’s words resonated with me as I watched these prehistoric creatures huddling together, listening and smelling us, but unable to see beyond a few meters. I kept on thinking: ‘What right do we have? It is so sad to know that in their case it had to come to this.’ These giants in front of me had to trade their horns (and in turn also several behavioural functions, including defending territories, defending calves from other rhinos and predators, maternal care, including guiding calves, and foraging – so much like our human arms) for their lives.
Based in Hoedspruit, South Africa, Rhino Revolution (RR) is a community based initiative dedicated to saving the rhino Species in South Africa and to educate the world as to the useless use of rhino horn in medicine. RR began in August 2011 and while they do not think that de-horning is the solution to the poaching crisis that we are facing, they do believe that it will reduce the threat of any poaching activity on a property that has de-horned and made it public knowledge.
Chris Martin, a wildlife photographer, heads up the initiative. “I don’t ever like to dehorn a rhino. It is not something I enjoy, but thus far our attempts have proved successful and we see it as the only way to keep them safe. At least for now.”
Going on safari with Rhino Revolution in the Blue Canyon Conservancy did awaken the urgency for addressing the bigger issue in me again. Even though I left uncertain (and trying to stay very objective), I felt that these guys do have a sense of urgency.
It is almost like South Africans (in particular) have become numb to the issue. In many ways we have threat fatigue.
Maybe, I thought as we drove away, we might never be able to save the species, maybe it is all doom and gloom. But what if everyone realised how similar and connected we are to other living beings and that their status directly links to our own – that nature and all living beings are not just commodities, but intricate parts of our own well-being and pointers to the overall health of the eco- system that sustains us? What would happen if we practise more empathy in our conservation and consumption choices?
I felt as if I, even though I don’t believe in the nonsense that their horns will make a third leg rise to the occasion, do have blame in it. It is in many ways my and your responsibility to protect them. But how? This is just the thing. We don’t know.
I am going to leave you all with a last bit of good old Mark Carwardine. Maybe something in these words resonate with you also.
But there is one thing I can’t get out of my mind. Twenty years have passed since my original travels with Douglas Adams – twenty years of rigorous and intensive conservation work, by countless people from all walks of life, costing untold millions of pounds. Yet for all these efforts, the natural world is not really a better place.
Yes, there have been some outstanding success stories and, off course, it’s not all doom and gloom. But my overriding impression – and that of a great many of the people we met working in the field – is that we are slowly, but surely, losing the battle. Don’t get me wrong – I haven’t given up hope. The number of people who have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of gorillas, robins, turtles and lemurs is sufficient cause for optimism. Besides, we must be doing something right, if only because a large number of endangered species haven’t (yet) become extinct.
Take the catastrophic decline of the African lion – a species most of us simply take for granted. Sixty years ago there were half a million in Africa, twenty years ago there were fewer than 200,000, and today there are barely more than 20,000 across the continent. Yet this catastrophic decline seems to be passing the world by unnoticed. I know money is tight, and there are more than enough other animals even closer to extinction, but just how rapidly – and by how much – does a population have to decline before anyone is galvanised into action?
A good definition of a crisis is when you can’t say ‘Not to worry, it’ll be all right in the end.’ Well, it won’t be all right in the end – unless we get off our backsides and do something about it.
Can you imagine a world without lions? Or Amazonian manatees, rhinos, aye-ayes, kakapo, Komodo dragons and blue whales, for that matter?
If you are interested to support Rhino Revolution in any way you can contact them here.
Words and pictures: Daréll Lourens