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SOS Rhino : In the News : Appeal: The rhino returns

Appeal: The rhino returns

  Slaughtered first by colonial white hunters and then for profit by local tribesmen, the black rhino has finally found a form of sanctuary, reports Michael McCarthy

The Independent Online Edition
21 December 2004

In the long saga of man slaughtering other living inhabitants of the earth there have been many appalling bloodbaths, but there has probably been nothing quite like what has happened to the black rhino.

The hook-lipped, slightly smaller of the two African rhino types (the white rhino is the other) has undergone what has been described as the biggest deliberate assault on a single species of mammal in the world's history. In two great lurches it has dropped from having a seven-figure population to the brink of extinction.

Massive, dangerous if provoked, weird-looking - what are those horns for? - it is a symbol of Africa's otherness and its special qualities. At the start of the 20th century there were probably about a million black rhinos across the continent, great vegetarian beasts, solitary by and large, meaning no harm to anyone. Enter the white hunters.

A rhino is both a trophy head and easy to shoot, and the European big-game hunters of Africa's colonial period shot staggering numbers.

There are many records of men personally shooting hundreds and one account of a game control officer in Kenya who shot more than 1,000 between 1946 and 1948, .

As a result, by the time African countries started getting their independence in the early 1960s, the continent's black rhino population was down to an estimated 100,000 animals, and falling steadily; by 1970 it was thought to be down to 65,000. But then the free-fall set in. It was driven by the demand for horn. Always sought-after in traditional Asian medicine as a cure for fever, rhino horn also has a special use in the Arab world, for the handle of the prized ceremonial daggers of North Yemen known as jambiyas.

When the 1970s oil boom took off in Saudi Arabia, many Yemenis went to work in the oil fields and prospered; the demand for jambiyasas a status symbol rocketed, and with it, the price of horn.

From 50 US dollars a kilo in 1970, it shot up to $500 a kilo in 1975 and $3,000 a kilo in 1980. With this inflation came slaughter.

Instability in many of the newly independent countries where rhinos lived meant that poachers were more or less given a free hand to supply the horn market, and by 1984 the 65,000 animals of 1970 had been reduced to 8,800; by 1992 they were down to 2,500. In a mere 22 years the population of Diceros bicornis fell by 96 per cent.

The crash was checked just in time. But there had never been anything like this, and although few in the West took it on board properly, it was an event whose catastrophic nature made some conservationists in Africa start to think hard about the future of the continent's wildlife. It meant that Africa's wild animals could, in the post-colonial era, completely disappear. It meant they could go quickly and the forces ranged against them might be unpredictable and unstoppable.

Most of all it meant that their basic survival could no longer be taken for granted. Governments could not be relied on to protect them.

Garth Owen-Smith was one of those shocked by the slaughter. A former South African game ranger, in 1982 he found himself in a position to do something about it when conservationists in Namibia (then South African-controlled South-West Africa) set up a group to try and check the poaching of black rhinos and elephants in the country's remote north-west, which was then at its height.

Appointed field officer of the Namibian Wildlife Trust, Mr Owen-Smith came up with an idea that at the time was entirely radical: involve the local people. He went to the traditional leaders of local communities, mainly Herrero farmers, and asked them if they were happy that their wildlife was disappearing before their very eyes. A few local individuals were poaching it and getting the benefit; but what were the communities getting as a whole? How would they be better off when it was all gone?

He convinced them that wildlife could be a community asset, and persuaded them to set up a system of community game guards, people of their own choosing who would monitor wildlife and discourage poaching.

For the South African government, whose tradition of wildlife management was entirely top-down, this was subversive. They were never happy with the project and in 1985 brought official support for it to a premature end. But it was too late: the tactic had started to work.

As the poor farming communities in Namibia's Kunene region that Garth Owen-Smith had visited started to regard their wildlife as an asset of their own, poaching by their own people fell away, and poaching by outsiders became impossible.

The result was that at the end of the 1980s rhino (and elephant) numbers in the area had started to recover, and now the black rhino population of north-west Namibia is the healthiest on the continent, after South Africa.

Mr Owen-Smith's initiative has flowered. At independence in 1990 the Namibian government officially adopted the principles of the game guard system to set up wildlife conservancies, local bodies which allow communities to benefit from wildlife, through tourism and controlled hunting, in return for looking after it sustainably.

There are more than 70 conservancies in Namibia now, and as The Independenthas reported over the last two weeks, many people believe their philosophy of community involvement is the only way forward for conservation in Africa.

Mr Owen-Smith's own efforts have become enshrined in IRDNC - Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, the charity he founded with Margaret Jacobsohn, an anthropologist, which helps fledgling conservancies get started, and which is one of the three recipients of this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

There are many visible signs of its success in Namibia: local people energised, local development pushed forward, local employment boosted. But perhaps the best sign of all is the burgeoning black rhino population.

You can go out with IRDNC's rhino trackers, as The Independent did, and find them: rare, fabled animals, the mere sight of which in the wild, close-up, provokes a shiver of awe which must go right back to our distant hunter ancestors. They were subject to an assault without parallel and they should be symbols of despair, but in IRDNC's corner of the world they are also symbols of hope.

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