William Fowlds, a wildlife veterinarian based at the Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, received an unlikely delivery from Texas Christian University this summer: a DJI Phantom drone for tracking animals and surveilling property.
Mike Slattery, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at TCU, and 15 students hand-delivered the drone in late July and spent 10 days working with Fowlds on a series of anti-poaching initiatives aimed at reversing the rapid decline in his country’s southern white rhino population.
The South African Department of Environmental Affairs has reported that the country lost 1,215 rhinos to poaching in 2014, an alarming figure compared to 2007, when just 13 rhino were taken illegally.
Game reserves on the Eastern Cape are engaging a variety of tactics to reverse this trend, including reduction campaigns led by celebrities, aerial surveillance via gyrocopters and drones, VHF rhino tracking collars and armed anti-poaching units.
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South Africa’s plight is directly linked to the explosive growth in Asian economies over the last decade, which created a nouveau riche class that seeks rhino horn as a status symbol, rumored to have medicinal powers such as increasing virility, detoxing the body and even curing cancer.
Poachers are sneaking into game reserves throughout the country to tranquilize or shoot rhinos and hack off their horns.
No scientific research exists to substantiate any significant medical use for rhino horn, which is composed of keratin, the same fibrous protein found in toe nails and hair.
Yet it is now considered one of the most valuable commodities in the world.
One kilogram of horn reportedly commands $80,000 to $100,000 (U.S.) on the black market. With horns weighing one to three kilograms each, one rhino might have more than a quarter of a million dollars resting at the tip of its nose.
Most of the poaching is done by people in poor local communities, but is funded by a massive global trade in illegal wildlife products.
The Wilderness Foundation says that environmental crimes related to terrestrial wildlife are estimated to generate approximately $20 billion per year for the perpetrators.
At the same time, tourism in South Africa, which is closely linked to wildlife, is estimated to contribute about $17 billion annually to the nation’s economy.
While in the Eastern Cape, the TCU group visited Paterson, an economically depressed community between the Addo Elephant Park, the Shamwari Game Reserve and the Amakhala Game Reserve.
Many of Paterson’s approximately 5,500 residents struggle with such problems as unemployment, alcoholism, child abuse and HIV/AIDS. It is exactly the type of marginalized community that has the potential to produce poachers.
Fowlds and TCU are designing a program whereby residents of surrounding rural communities like Paterson could own shares in rhino kept on the reserve.
Some outside investment will be required to launch the initiative, but if the poaching risk can be mitigated, Fowlds believes there is tremendous growth potential for communities and investors ranching and selling live rhino to other reserves.
“People invest in wildlife and other causes not to get any (monetary) return,” TCU’s Slattery adds. “They invest for the greater good. So here what you’re basically doing is saying, ‘Don’t put your money into a CD or government bond where you could get 5 percent (interest). Put it into a rhino.’”
Efforts on the Eastern Cape are beginning to bear fruit as the region’s rhino poaching rate has dropped to 2 percent of the total population poached annually, while the overall rate for South Africa sits at roughly 6 percent.
“We get better and the poachers get better,” Fowlds says. “It’s an arms race and the expenses rack up. Security is about a holding effort. How do we save enough rhino to buy us the time that we need to reduce the demand?”
James English co-chairs the Global Innovators Initiative at Texas Christian University. James.English@tcu.edu