Africa is in serious trouble. And no, we’re not just talking about ebola (although the outbreak certainly isn’t helping matters), but poaching.
The Asian hunger for wild animal parts purported to work miracles ranging from increasing virility to curing cancer has driven poaching and profits from illegal trafficking to record-shattering levels. Africa is losing an average of 5 Lions per day, 5 Elephants per hour, and a Rhino (whose horn is currently valued at around $65,000 per kg) every 7 hours in South Africa alone. The devastating decline of these key species, which could eliminate the continent’s entire wild population by 2050, threatens both the environment and the economy of myriad African nations.
Ecotourism is an enormous industry in east and south Africa, generating approximately $80 billion in annual revenue. Much of this money comes from wildlife safaris to search for “the Big 5″– Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Rhinos and Buffalo. If these species disappear, it will likely set off a chain reaction in which tourism revenue declines, poverty rises and poaching for bush meat increases… a vicious circle that spells bad news for wildlife and those who treasure it. With growing concerns of ebola fears hurting African tourism to places like Kenya and South Africa, the importance of addressing the poaching problem head-on becomes even more vital.
Award-winning filmmakers (and National Geographic Explorers-In-Residence) Dereck and Beverly Joubert are among Africa’s most outspoken wildlife conservation advocates. Through their Big Cat Initiative, the Botswana-based couple took the front lines on the battle to protect Africa’s beloved felines by raising awareness and implementing change to the dire situation facing Lions and Leopards. The project has since funded 60 projects in 23 countries.
Now, through their Great Plains Conservation and Great Plains Foundation arms, the Jouberts have launched Rhinos Without Borders, an attempt to save endangered Rhinos by translocating 100 of them from South Africa to Botswana in order to protect them from the tragic rise in poaching. To do this, they’ll need to raise nearly $5 million, as the costs to capture, transport, quarantine and release these animals will average about $45,000 per Rhino.
Our company Green Travel Media will be partnering with the new Travelers Building Change non-profit and 50-100 travel bloggers to help raise funds for Rhinos Without Borders, with the goal of raising enough money to save #JustOneRhino. We recently spoke to Dereck Joubert at great length about his ambitious undertaking, discussing why it’s crucial to focus on Rhinos now, why Botswana is safer from poachers than South Africa, and controversial Rhino conservation methods ranging from poisoning their horns to cutting them off entirely.
You and Beverly have been well-known as filmmakers and National Geographic Explorers-In-Residence for years. Can you talk about what inspired you to launch the Great Plains Foundation and Great Plains Conservation?
After many years and some awards and accolades we stepped back to take a look at our lives and what we had achieved and weigh that up against what we really cared about. It certainly was not the number of Emmys, but the health of wildlife populations– and in particular Big Cats– that we measured ourselves against.
We found that we weren’t actually doing that well against the curve of the very species we had dedicated our lives to trying to talk about and save. So we adjusted our sights, decided that we needed help in protecting cats, and started the Big Cats Initiative. To do that, we needed to get large pieces of land, so we formed Great Plains Conservation. We secure the land with funding from tourism and then rebuild it, with projects, via the Great Plains Foundation.
It all made sense to me at least! We also continue to do our film work, because we do need to influence minds and change attitudes on a scale that we cannot do via tourism alone.
Until recently, saving Africa’s Big Cats seemed to be the focus of your work. Can you talk about your new focus on Rhinos, and why a project like Rhinos Without Borders is important NOW?
In fact, it is all the same. I view this as a pyramid, as we are taught, but also as an umbrella, with a couple of iconic species at the top. Without them, the whole system of African wildlife will collapse. Without Lions, Elephants and Rhinos, virtually everything starts to crumble.
Let me explain: Africa generates about $80 billion in ecotourism revenue each year. Most of that is focused on seeing Big Cats, Elephants and Rhinos. If we say to travelers that we have beautiful lodges in pristine landscapes, but no big wildlife, that model would collapse immediately. Without those tourism dollars, we’d see increased poverty in many countries and, as a result, increased poaching for bush meat. It’s like a plague that ends in the total eradication of natural wildlife structures, and further damage to sustainable economics in Africa.
We’re losing Lions at a rate of 5 a day throughout the continent, a Rhino every 7.5 hours just in South Africa alone, and 5 Elephants an hour. We’re facing catastrophic declines of the key species that drive both the environment and the economics of the wild places of Africa. So while we continue to work with Big Cats very actively– the Big Cats Initiative now funds 60 projects in 23 countries– we cannot ignore the other driver species.
Poaching in South Africa is obviously beyond the critical level. But what makes Botswana the best place for relocating these Rhinos?
A number of things. Low human density helps, as we have 1/20th of population of South Africa. Botswana is a virtually corruption-free country compared to many others in Africa, with very large wild reserves where it’s incredibly difficult to even find a Rhino.
We have no ports, like Mombasa (Kenya) or Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), that allow for steady and difficult-to-police smuggling. Our anti-poaching unit is largely run by the country’s military forces, which means there’s an entire army at hand to fight poaching, with all the training, arms and resources that implies. In many countries anti-poaching forces are armed with WWII rifles and share ammunition! We have helicopters, patrols, military grade weapons and supplies, and of course a shoot-to-kill policy.
That’s not to say we won’t see an increase in poaching in Botswana. We will, and everyone will as it gets worse. But poaching and trade are risk-and-reward games, and what we have is a high risk environment for poachers.
Rhinos Without Borders is a multi-million dollar project, and you’ve said that every penny raised will go directly towards Rhino conservation. How will this money ultimately be spent?
This is a joint venture between Great Plains and AndBeyond. Together we’ve determined that we want to boost the Rhino population in Botswana substantially, while also moving rhinos from high-poaching zones to low-poaching zones, in essence spreading the high value assets out.
Our budget is a little fluid depending on how many Rhinos we get donated versus how many we have to buy. So buying some is a hard cost. Darting, capturing and putting them into quarantine is another. And then transporting 100 rhinos is going to take some effort and money, as will providing the security around that, which will be military level.
In Botswana we have the facility to boost anti-poaching measures and monitoring already in place inside of the government, as well as the release after a fattening-up phase. We’ll also have GPS tracking devices on each Rhino, and constant air surveillance plans.
What’s to stop poachers from going to Botswana and killing these Rhinos after they’ve been moved? Can you talk about the security measures that have been put into place to protect them?
We’re aiding the government in setting up dedicated Rhino squads in addition to the military anti-poaching units, and both are very well-funded. But, to answer the part about what’s to stop poaching from increasing, the answer is the same as why poaching is so low in Botswana now. Security is being substantially beefed up as we speak.
It goes as far as educating magistrates on widllife matters so we can get the maximum sentences imposed on poachers, and teaching school kids so that we increase the national pride around wildlife in general. In Botswana, with 2 million people, a gang of Somalis with AK-47s stick out, and villagers inform authorities.
Every wild place in Africa will see an increase in poaching for years to come, at the scales of a tsunami! In Botswana we have 1/3 of the continent’s elephant population, and that alone will be enough to attract poachers in higher numbers. We have good forces in place now, but we are preparing for an onslaught in the future. And as other areas of Africa have their wildlife destroyed, Botswana is at risk of being seen as the honey pot. So scaling up now is exactly what this project needs, and has stimulated.
A prominent Kruger National Park anti-poaching advocate was recently arrested for leading a poaching operation within the park. How do you ensure that this sort of thing won’t happen with the reserves that ultimately receive your translocated rhinos?
Jeez… You can’t ensure that this won’t ever happen. But Botswana has the lowest corruption rate in Africa, so we’re working off a good base, and then we need to work hard at keeping that opportunity low and the risks very high. We have some of the highest sentences for poaching in Africa, and they will increase soon.
Bad people will ultimately do bad things. We’ve seen that Rhino smugglers also trade ivory, drugs, arms and even sex slavery, and they’ve formed about 5 major cartels. But the only way to ensure that none of these Rhinos is poached is to do something about it. If we stand by and just watch the annual count of poached Rhinos rise, we predict there will be no free-roaming rhinos in Africa within 5 years.
Kruger also announced that it is selling off 500 of its rhinos in batches of 20 or more to the highest bidder. Is there any reason Botswana couldn’t take more than 100 rhinos off their hands?
We’re currently in talks with them, and hope that we can get those donated.
Conservationists have suggested myriad solutions to the poaching problem, from poisoning the horns to chopping them off. What’s your take on these ideas?
I was one of the first to suggest that we consider poisoning, but a recent study suggests that poison does not flow through the horn fibers. I’d love to see a contaminated horn scenario of some sort, because there are examples of wildlife that has been bad to eat (monkeys in Zanzibar, for example) which have been protected by default as a result.
But now the trade has become so corrupt that Rhino horn is being mixed in with Buffalo horn and Cow hooves. It’s so diluted by the time it gets to the end user that it’s arguably not even Rhino horn any more, and so poisoning at that consistency is tricky now.
I’m against dehorning. Rhinos have horns for a reason, and use them for a range of behaviors. But, at the rate of $65,000 a kg street value, dehorned Rhinos are also being killed just for the half a kg of horn that remains. That’s why baby Rhinos are also being killed now, just for the nub, and even their mucous is attracting value. The answer is not in dehorning them, but in protecting AND in stopping the illegal trade.
The Namibian government sold off the rights to hunt an endangered Black Rhino this year, saying the proceeds would be used to conserve the Rhinos it has left. What are your thoughts on the concept of “Killing for Conservation“?
It’s a slippery slope to sell off your wildlife stock to death for the highest bid. The possible projected curve is where some official feels like a jet is necessary to police the wild, so another few rhinos get shot to fund that.
Philosophically, I believe that dead animals are worthless. Live animals are invaluable for what they give us in ecological contributions, to keep our landscapes whole and healthy; in economic contributions via consistent and enduring ecotourism revenues; in spiritual contributions to us all, feeding our connections to the past (such as cave paintings and rituals), our relationship with the house we live in (Planet Earth) and our inner selves.
I believe that we as human beings rapidly erode as we see more death and loss of beauty around us, and each city, town and reserve leans more in the direction of the spiritual level of, say, Lagos. We need these animals! Killing them because they’re no longer productive in our eyes, or to feed those that remain, is something we need to be very careful about endorsing.
As we approach 8 billion people on this planet, if we adopt this philosophy, what choices will we be making about ourselves? To the billionaire who wanted to hunt that Rhino and donated $350,000 for the opportunity, I would say, “Why not donate that amount and save Rhinos without killing one?”
You’ve talked about Rhinos Without Borders as an investment in Rhinos, in Botswana, and in the future. Yet you’ve also said that Rhinos do not draw tourism revenue. So why are they so vital to the future of the Okavango region?
Because rhinos make the ecosystem whole. We have a nearly pristine Okavango, but it feels like there is a vital piece in the mosaic missing. “Investment” in this case is not about dollars, but about value, which is without currency.
In Botswana, we have one of the best and last chances to create and maintain a pristine ecosystem that can be a profound example for the rest of Africa– a model that can, in better times, be rolled out into the many beautiful ecosystems of this continent. But if we don’t get ahead of the curve now and cement that reputation by establishing policies, protection and all the other elements that are needed, future efforts will be working from a less-than-complete data set and base.
This is why I view Rhinos as an investment: It’s an investment in the future, not just of Botswana, but for all future African conservation efforts.
You’ve worked to move Big Cats to Botswana, and now Rhinos, and you’ve made it clear that you’re just getting started. What are your future plans for the Great Plains Foundation and Great Plains Conservation?
We’re in the business of making fewer, but larger, contributions. I’m interested in large projects that make substantial and meaningful changes, because smaller projects risk being overwhelmed today, and therefore may be a waste of money and energy. I have a theory about these three key groups of species being vital to the future of Africa. So, while we won’t turn our backs on existing projects, I’ll be looking at game-changing projects for Big Cats, Elephants and Rhinos as well.
How do you see your commercial and charitable arms working together to make a difference?
We’re very clear about the design of our structure. Our commercial arm, Great Plains Conservation, buys land or leases on land to expand the canvas for us to paint on. That painting comprises tourism, which funds our work, and conservation work in some cases. Without the land we don’t have a base to work from.
With Great Plains we generate revenue, about 1/3 of which goes to community work, 1/3 goes to conservation and 1/3 goes to growth into new land as opportunities arise. Because it is a private company, we can be flexible about that, but as a broad stroke that is what we aim for. The Great Plains Foundation is set up for projects that we cannot afford to fund directly from our own revenues from tourism, or where we need partners to help us fund conservation work. So the two work well together for us.
But, having said that, I don’t want the Great Plains Foundation to be protective of projects. So sometimes we partner with other commercial companies– even our competition– because conservation needs to be ego- and marketing-free in order to be pure. For Rhinos without Borders, we’ve teamed up with &Beyond and approached Wilderness Safaris and others, even though they may own camps nearby and we compete for business.
I live life with the view that the commerce is business, but conservation is what it’s really all about. It trumps everything. –by Bret Love; photos provided by Great Plains Conservation
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