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SOS Rhino : In the News : City charity charged with a tough job

City charity charged with a tough job

Edinburgh Evening News, UK
November 10, 2004

FROM a helicopter 100 feet above the African plains, a lone gunman takes aim at the stampeding wild rhino in his sights.

The mighty animal charges across rivers and crashes through trees as the marksman tracks it with the telescopic lens of his rifle before firing a single shot.

The rhino bucks from the impact and ploughs onwards, gradually slowing through exhaustion until it finally slumps on the dusty ground. The helicopter lands beside it and the gunman steps out from beneath the whirring blades to inspect his prize.

But this isn’t a dramatic case of big game hunting, or even an example of the lengths that poachers will go to in order to seize illegal, but valuable, rhino horn.

Rather, it is the work of conservationists and vets who have to fire tranquilliser darts at the rhinos in order to perform vital medical work on them and fix tracking devices to monitor their movements.

And the work which is performed in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is being funded by, among others, the efforts of a small Edinburgh-based wildlife charity.

The Hwange Conservation Society, a British-registered charity based in Sighthill, is attempting to protect the future of wild animals - including black and white rhinos - at the park, which is situated between the world-famous Victoria Falls and the Kalahari desert.

Originally set up in Zimbabwe by residents who felt that there wasn’t enough national funding being provided for their park, the charity has spread globally and its UK branch, which was established in Aberdeen in 1992, is now run from Edinburgh.

It was set up by chairman Alan Main, from Aberdeen, who was talked into starting the UK office whilst on holiday in Zimbabwe by some of the residents who had originally established the charity. But after Main moved to South Africa eight years ago, the position of chairman was transferred to John Gillon, from Sighthill, who had previously lived in Zimbabwe.

Gillon left Scotland in 1969 and moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, to take a job in publishing before moving to Zimbabwe - then called Rhodesia.

He spent six years living in the capital, Salisbury, until escalating political unrest and the war of independence forced him to return to Scotland in 1976.

But during his time in Zimbabwe he was a regular visitor to the Hwange National Park and often travelled for more than 500 miles in order to see elephants, rhinos and buffalos in the wild and to spot exotic species of birds.

After the Hwange Conservation Society was set up in the UK in the early 1990s, he quickly joined up and started to fundraise for the park before taking over the society eight years ago.

And he and his wife Sandra are still regular visitors to the park, aiming to go over to Zimbabwe every two years to see the work that the charity is helping to fund.

The society currently funds sponsorship projects such as research into wild dog populations and hyenas as well as aiming to promote a wealth of conservation programmes at the African national park.

And, working together with global wildlife organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Save the Rhino, the charity is also involved with attempts to conserve the park’s rhino population and assist veterinary experts who monitor the animals’ movements.

Now, as part of its current fundraising efforts, the society has invited one of Zimbabwe’s leading veterinary researchers to put on two special talks in Edinburgh about the future of the country’s rhinos.

Dr Chris Foggin, who is the principal scientific research officer with the national parks of Zimbabwe, has already completed one talk at Edinburgh Zoo on Monday, and will deliver his second lecture tomorrow at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

"Our charity is aimed at combating poaching and protecting the wildlife in Zimbabwe," says Gillon. "We run on a voluntary basis so that all of the money we receive can go straight to the park and help their conservation projects.

"We sponsor some of the research programmes and have donated money towards providing piping for water supplies for some of the animals. But we have also donated money to help provide vehicle maintenance and tools, as well as helping to establish anti-snaring and anti-poaching projects by donating a dart rifle, range-finder and immobilising drugs.

"We try to help fund as much as we can and to help conserve all the different species at the park - whether they are lions, hyenas, zebras or rhinos. But as Chris is a rhino expert, we decided to focus the talks on the plight of wild rhinos in Zimbabwe. We’re trying to let people know what is going on and give them information about endangered rhinos and what they can do to help.

"He’s doing seven talks across the UK and hopefully we’ll be able to raise a lot of money for the park."

DR Foggin has been involved with wildlife conservation across Zimbabwe for more than 15 years, but this is his first promotional visit to the UK to talk about the national parks and the plight of the country’s rhinos.

He has previously appeared on BBC series such as Vets in the Wild and Vets on the Wild Side as an on-location wildlife expert.

He says that the team at the Hwange park have to deal with a range of issues including the dangers of ivory poaching and the use of snare traps, and he adds that he has personally spent the past six years working to protect wild rhinos in the country.

But although he and his team are involved in hands-on work to protect and treat the animals in the wild, they are dependent on vital funds from wildlife organisations from across the globe to continue their conservation.

And despite the Sighthill charity only having 150 members worldwide, its fundraising is providing vital help to protect a number of animal species in the Zimbabwean plains. "Between the 1980s and early 1990s, we lost more than 70 per cent of all rhinos in Zimbabwe," Dr Foggin says.

"There was a lot of poaching going on at that time and rhinos were being caught and slaughtered for their horns. At one point there were only about 200 rhinos left in the whole country. But from 1993 to about 2003, there was virtually no poaching and the rhino numbers steadily built back up. There was a lot of conservation work set up to protect the rhinos and we were able to see both white and black rhino populations improve.

"However, in 2003 there was a resurgence of poaching and rhino numbers began to fall again. Although there is a mandatory custodial sentence for anyone caught poaching in Zimbabwe, the practice started to become popular once more, which was a worry.

"But it is a problem which is currently in the process of being sorted out, and poaching levels have dropped over the past year." However, Dr Foggin adds that the number of rhinos in Zimbabwe is still currently at a critical level. Although he does not give an exact figure - as it could potentially attract poachers to take advantage of the number of animals or affect the amount of funds that rhino conservation projects are awarded - he says that the figure is "well below 1000".

But he does add that it is not only poaching that is threatening the rhinos.

"What we also see a lot of in the park are animals being caught in snare traps set by hunters. Sometimes the snares are made of solid steel wire and cut deeply into the rhinos’ legs, and our job is to release them from the snares.

"But that can be difficult. Rhinos often just pull away from the traps and, if the snares are attached to something heavy like a tree trunk, they end up dragging the trunk along with them, which makes the wire cut deeper into their flesh.

"If those wounds are left untreated then it can lead to infection and death. We can track the animals, but we have to take a helicopter out into the park if we are to treat them. We usually fire a tranquilliser dart at the rhino from the air and then wait for the drugs to take effect before landing.

"But sometimes the snares are so strong that we have to use a hacksaw rather than wire cutters, and there have been times when the initial wounds have healed and we have had to cut into the rhino’s skin to get the wire out. We also have to treat rhinos that have been injured in fights, and sometimes have to remove horns that have been damaged by poachers."

He adds that the team at the park, which consists of conservationists, vets, scouts and rangers, tags every rhino by cutting a unique pattern on their ears. They also fit radio transmitters to some of the animals in order to monitor their movements. But, he says, the work they do at Hwange is expensive and the park is reliant on donations from local authorities and charity groups to continue its work.

"Our helicopter alone is a constant drain on our finances, but there is no other way of tracking long distances to treat the animals safely.

"We don’t transport the rhinos to a special surgery, so all of the work has to be performed at the scene, which means we have to take the helicopter out to get to the injured animals.

"We also have to look at the problem of poaching and the measures we take, such as monitoring the rhinos on the ground and using radio transmitters, are also quite expensive to run. The park is 15,000sq km big - which is about the size of Scotland - so it’s a fairly large area to monitor, and the only way we can do that is with expensive aircraft, helicopters and Land Rovers.

"But it isn’t just the rhinos that the park deals with. There are people who work with the 45,000 elephants that we have and others who deal with animals such as lions and zebras.

"Although we work closely with ‘well-known’ groups such as the WWF, Save Australia and Save the Rhino, the park also gets funds from smaller groups such as the Hwange Conservation Society. What I hope that these talks will achieve is to make people aware of the work we do and raise the profile of the charity here in Edinburgh."

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