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Bumping along in the back of an open-roofed truck down a dusty road through the Zimbabwean bush, we were about to burst with excitement, but had to maintain absolute silence. We had spent the morning exploring the beautiful Matobo National Park with its unique geological formations and fascinating history with the Bushmen of sub-Saharan Africa.
Home to some of the oldest Bushman rock paintings in the world and the resting place of Cecil Rhodes, Matobo National Park is also the home of one of very few protected populations of both black and white rhinoceroses. Rhinos that we were on our way to see!
Abruptly, we pulled over at a seemingly random point along the road and were told to quickly and quietly clamber out of the truck. Grouped together, we slowly walked off the road and into the bush. We couldn’t see any rhinos anywhere but trusting our experienced guide, John, we followed him to a thin patch of trees concealing a side road, careful to tread lightly and not make any noise.
And a minute later, we saw them. A group of gentle giants leisurely making their way down the road, stopping to chew the grass along the way. We stood in awe, watching through the trees as the crash of rhinos came closer and closer. Although they knew we were there, their enormous grey forms continued right past us, down the road towards a large open grassy area.
Following at a safe distance, we trailed the rhinos. Being careful not to startle them and led by John, we crept forward until we were within five metres of the beautiful creatures. John has been working with the populations of rhinos at Matobo National Park for decades and they recognise him. He would make clicking and chirping sounds to reassure them and you could sense that they truly trusted him.
We watched in wonder as the sturdy, prehistoric figures just calmly went about eating their grass as if we weren’t even there. Being so close to the rhinos was a truly surreal experience; I could have watched them all day.
However, this may not be a possibility for much longer. Since first travelling to Africa as an eleven year old, I have been passionate about rhino conservation and I am certainly NOT ready to say goodbye to my favourite animal.
Rhino poaching has had devastating impacts on the rhino populations in Africa, which are at an unsettling low number. Already contending with other factors such as habitat loss, thousands of rhinos are poached every year for their horns to be traded on the black market to be used in traditional eastern medicines. Rhino horns are believed to have ‘extraordinary’ properties in certain cultures and sell for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite this immense apparent value, rhino horns have no medicinal value. The horn is actually comprised of keratin, which is the same material as your fingernails and hair. And like our hair, a rhino’s horn will grow back after being trimmed.
Unlike majority of southern Africa where black rhinos are critically endangered and white rhinos are vulnerable, however, Matobo National Park’s populations are actually increasing. This is largely due to their program to safely and regularly trim the horns from all of the rhinos within the Park’s boundaries. Removing the most valuable part of the rhino deters poachers and coupled with the extensive network of rangers tracking the various groups of rhinos 24/7, Matobo National Park have helped protect their rhino population to a larger extent. Unfortunately, some poachers still do slip through the cracks and may still hack the remaining horn from rhinos who have been trimmed.
It can be hard to know the best way to manage the issue of rhino poaching. Matobo National Park’s strategy appears to be working in helping its populations recover, however there is a long way to go before we can ensure the full recovery of this incredible species.
I personally believe that the legalisation of rhino horn trading would be the best way to reduce the issue of poaching. Since a rhino’s horn is comparable to human fingernails, it doesn’t hurt the rhino to have it trimmed, which means the horns can safely be removed by the correct procedures which do not harm the animal. This doesn’t mean that ‘rhino farms’ would start popping up; I believe that if other national parks and reserves followed the lead of Matobo National Park and trimmed their rhino’s horns as needed, the rhinos could still live completely independently in the wild, whilst their horns could be legally sold.
I still think it’s ridiculous to believe that rhino horns have magical powers, when it is made up of literally the same thing as human hair. And whilst I don’t believe it should be used by humans at all in any circumstances, I understand that generating that kind of massive cultural shift is near impossible. So, if rhino horns must be used, it would be much better if they were provided in a way that no rhinos would be injured in the process, and I believe that legalising trade would be the best way to achieve this.
In the meantime, the best way to help reduce rhino poaching is to support the various national parks that are home to populations. Many national parks have their own anti-poaching units and rangers who patrol the huge expanses of bush to both tail the groups of rhinos and to detect any signs of poaching gangs. For example, the Black Mambas are the first all female anti-poaching unit in South Africa who patrol the 50,000 hectares of the Balule Nature Reserve in the Kruger National Park. Since being formed, this group has seen a 63% reduction in occurrences of poaching.
Between 2007-2014, the number of rhinos being poached in South Africa grew by 9000%. However, since peaking in 2014, the number of rhinos poached each year has decreased, each year will less rhinos lost than the last, showing that initiatives such as anti-poaching units and an increased global awareness of the issue are working.
Having been in the presence of these gentle and peaceful animals, I would hate to see them become extinct, knowing that we could have done something to save them. It’s NOT time to say goodbye.
Images: Zoe Latham