Against the Odds: Saving Rhinos in a Troubled Land

For three decades, Raoul du Toit has led the fight to protect black rhinos in Zimbabwe, a struggle that earned him a Goldman Environmental Prize this week. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the challenge of saving this iconic African animal in the face of his country’s economic collapse and a new wave of poaching.

Zimbabwe ranks number 4 on Foreign Policy magazine’s “Failed State Index,” with its shattered economy, pervasive hunger, and entrenched dictator. And that makes it all the more surprising that Raoul du Toit, the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa recipient, has managed not only to spend nearly 30 years protecting the critically endangered black rhino in his homeland, but that his project — the Lowveld Rhino Trust — actually saw an increase in black rhino numbers this past year.

Raoul du Toit
Rick Barongi
Raoul du Toit

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 — conducted by journalist Christina M. Russo just before the Goldman awards were announced this week — du Toit, now 53, made it clear, however, that this is no time for complacency. Black rhino numbers are abysmally low: 440 in all of Zimbabwe. By comparison, in 1970, there were 65,000. The problem is poaching, which is on the upswing because of the demand for rhino horn for use in traditional Asian medicines. The major culprits include Vietnam and China — especially with the latter country’s expanding presence in Africa and its booming economy, which has led to a rise in disposable income in China. According to du Toit, prices for rhino horn have increased ten-fold in the last five years, with end-market prices topping as much as $40,000 per kilogram.

In the interview, du Toit discussed his hopes of getting local Zimbabwean communities and schools involved in programs to protect the rhino, and he talked about the challenges of trying to protect wildlife in a nation where the political leaders show virtually no interest in environmental issues. “In general,” he said, “I have to bluntly say that they don’t normally give a damn about conservation.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve been working in rhino conservation since 1985. How many black rhinos were in Zimbabwe at that time?

Raoul du Toit: Around the mid-80s we had a fair number of rhinos, about 1,500 of them, of which 1,000 were in the Zambezi Valley, which is an area between Zimbabwe and Zambia. But that was prone to cross-border poaching, and it didn’t take long for those populations to collapse through that poaching.

e360: What were the greatest threats to the rhino then, and how does that threat compare to the threat of the black rhino today?

du Toit: It was the same threat then — it was cross-border poaching. Habitat loss is not really a big issue for rhinos in Africa; there is still a lot of space for rhinos, but there’s not much secure space. In other words, areas where the poaching can be kept under fair control obviously take a lot of effort, a lot of funding.

So the poaching threat is the same, it’s just that the nature of the poaching has changed somewhat. Our poaching problem in Zimbabwe now is not so much that Zambian-based poaching, but internal poaching. Poaching that is linked to almost criminal mafia operating out of South Africa. The overall intensity of the poaching is much higher. It’s not just sporadic efforts by fairly poor people who happen to have an AK and go off and shoot a rhino. What we are facing now is much more organized poaching, almost like bank robbers linked to international trading syndicates.

e360: What’s the profile of the average poacher you are confronting?

Black Rhino
Lourens Durand/Shutterstock
The project area of du Toit’s Lowveld Rhino Trust has 350 black rhinos — about 7 percent of the total world population.

du Toit: The average poacher is a fairly young guy, generally a Zimbabwean but might have strong South African connections — very mobile, with vehicles, cell phones, often involved in other forms of illegal activity like selling or smuggling drugs. Very tight knit — poaching groups operate over a long period of time, I suppose like any criminal gang… [They] generally seek a lot of information before they come and operate in an area and try and mount a quick in-and-out attack — get in and then get out again.

So, we are not talking about poor, local people. Obviously those gangs would seek out local informants, but in general they are specialized criminals involved in rhino poaching.

e360: So, you’re not necessarily confronting an impoverished person, where poaching is really the only means of acquiring financial stability?

du Toit: Around 2000, 2001, and 2002, we had a lot of land invasions. But it wasn’t very well planned or very well regulated. And those people tended to set snares, wire snares to catch bushmeat. That was indiscriminate snaring just to catch animals like giraffes and impalas and buffalos and so on. But they caught a number of rhinos. Those were local people. They weren’t specifically targeting rhinos, but a number did die in these snares.

More recently, though, we moved rhinos out of those areas and put them in more secure core areas. And the people now coming to find those rhinos are criminals from outside those areas.

e360: Many wildlife conservationists work in very challenging atmospheres. But the situation in Zimbabwe — with political turmoil; high unemployment; drought; a dictator as leader — this poses extreme circumstances to do wildlife conservation work.

“None of the senior officials at a high political level in Zimbabwe really care that much about the environment.”

du Toit: There’s no question doing conservation in Zimbabwe is a big hassle — to get your fuel, your supplies, vehicle parts, parts for your airplanes, even just money. When you are dealing with a situation of hyperinflation — where the cost of something is doubling in 24 hours — it is very odd to operate like that. So it hasn’t so much been the physical dangers — there has been the physical danger to some extent — it’s more of what I’d call the hassle factor: the difficulty of getting things done under those circumstances.

But on the other hand, in situations of chaos, there is also some opportunity. And we have had a chance to move from what was a fairly desperate situation in the rural areas towards looking for glimmers of hope on the horizon, opportunities that might allow us to rebuild something out of what is a bit of a mess. And the local government officials, the community leaders in these areas, see the need for development and for re-creating a better situation than they’ve got themselves into now. And they accept wildlife-based tourism as one way forward.

e360: Have you had any direct contact with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe about this work?

du Toit: Unfortunately, I have to honestly say that none of the senior officials at a high political level in Zimbabwe really care that much about the environment. And I’m talking about all the political parties. The party that has been in power for many years has really just paid lip service to conservation issues. The party that is challenging it seems to have even less interest in the environment. So it is quite hard to engage with them and, to be absolutely honest, I’m not sure why that is… But in general, I have to bluntly say that they don’t normally give a damn about conservation.

e360: What about the public?

du Toit: That varies. When people are in desperate circumstances, there’s a limit to the extent to which they can get concerned about things that an average American might feel quite strongly about. When you are struggling to survive, you really are just looking at what’s going to happen in terms of the next meal on your table. Therefore, our big challenge is to make rhinos more relevant to local people. That’s what we are going to be moving onto in terms of the next major thrust of our rhino conservation activity and using the boost that this [Goldman] award has given us to start a new program.

e360: Do you know what that program looks like?

du Toit: Yes. I’ll put it quite simply and then try to explain. Simply, we’re going to give rhinos to schools. What that really means is that we recognize that the local communities have to get some benefit out of rhinos. Rhinos are globally valued as a major biodiversity asset; they can be regarded as a global ecosystem good that the world wants. And just as the world is paying for ecosystem services — like carbon sequestration is important to the world as a whole — I feel that the world can pay for ecosystem goods like rhinos.

Rhinos are flagship species: Protecting rhinos protects a lot of other biodiversity at the same time. So what I would like to do is develop an equation, where the developed world pays incentives for rhino production. The way we are going to get those incentives paid is that every time a calf is born, there will be an agreed amount of funding coming back in reciprocation for that — as an incentive for that rhino birth to support local schools. We haven’t yet set them up, but this Goldman award will allow us to create the fund we need, or start it off.

“ Rhinos are flagship species: Protecting rhinos protects a lot of other biodiversity at the same time.”

The reason to do it through schools is two-fold. First, schools tend to be seen in a non-political way. Other forms of development support in rural areas can become politically quite contentious. But schools are seen as a universal requirement for societies in Zimbabwe. They tend not to run into political problems and sensitivities.

Second, we can link that support with general environmental educational awareness programs. We’ve already been producing materials for schools that allow the teachers to teach the school kids about arithmetic, geography, English and various subjects, but with a conservation, and in particular a rhino conservation, theme.

For instance, they’ll do their arithmetic based upon rhino population growth rates. So we can provide support that these schools desperately need. They don’t have books, they sometimes don’t have roofs over them — and we can provide support coming in. We will require them to reciprocate by demonstrating some major effort by them to set up some sort of environmental awareness clubs or programs.

e360: Your project had an 8 percent increase in black rhino numbers this past year, do I have that right?

du Toit: Yes, you’ve got that right. We had devastating poaching in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Since then, the rate of poaching has decreased considerably in our area. It is still very high in other areas. In South Africa they are losing a rhino a day — the rate of poaching is still extremely high.

We went through a period of really devastating poaching, particularly in 2007… To respond to that we moved a large number of rhinos — an average of 30 rhinos a year over the last few years — out of the more insecure areas. Secondly, we started to grapple with the poaching gangs — to understand who they were, get information on them through paid informants, and get some strong law enforcement action taken against them.

So that combination of strategic translocations of rhinos and enhanced law enforcement based on intelligence that we’ve gained has allowed some space for recovery, and the rhinos are now breeding faster than they are being poached. In fact, in our conservancies this year we haven’t lost a single rhino.

e360: Is that a first?

du Toit: We went through a period from the mid-1990s until 2000 and we didn’t lose any rhinos through poaching. But then from 2000, we haven’t had a year until now where we haven’t had rhinos poached. And the last couple of years we’ve been losing rhinos every month. So it is quite an encouraging thing for us.

Of course, our concern is that one shouldn’t get too complacent. Zimbabwe can tip into political anarchy. The impending election is coming and these elections tend to be accompanied by violence and a breakdown in law and order. There are definitely gray clouds on the horizon. But for now, the rhinos are doing okay.

e360: How much does the rhino horn garner right now on the black market?

du Toit: We tend to be rather cautious about giving values because often the values quoted in the press are sensational, saying that rhino horn is worth more than gold, and so on. Those values are based upon end-market values, where the rhino horn is mixed up with other ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines and sold in a country like Vietnam and China. And if you extrapolate from those kinds of values you are talking about huge values of $20,000 to $40,000 a kilogram.

But in Africa the prices that are paid to the poacher are very much less. So the answer to your question depends on where you are in the supply chain.

e360: What exactly happens when a rhino is poached?

du Toit: Well, first of all it has to be found to get poached. They have to get information that an area has rhinos in the first place — they’ll pick that up through some local knowledge. They’ll then have to come into that area and find the rhino. They’ll generally do that by going to a water point, somewhere the rhino is coming to drink, and pick up the footprints of the rhino from that water point. The poachers will generally always have at least one expert tracker in the gang.

“Once the rhino is down they quickly hack off the horn, just chop the horn right out of the skull with an axe.”

So, they’ll track the rhinos — the black rhinos tend to go off to thicket areas in the daytime to lie down so the poachers can catch up with them there. They will generally have at least one weapon, which will either be an AK-47 automatic rifle or a heavy caliber sport hunting-rifle. And they will creep up on the animal — being very careful about wind direction because rhinos have a very strong sense of smell — and then shoot the animal.

Sometimes they will wound the rhino and then the rhino will run off and they will have to track it and then shoot it again. Once the rhino is down they will quickly hack off the horn, just chop the horn right out of the skull with an axe. And then they flee out of the area.

Their gunshots will generally be heard, and therefore, there will be a response. So they have to get in there, kill the animal, get the horn off and get out as quickly as possible.

e360: What kind of staff do you have trying to defend the rhinos?

du Toit: At present, our Lowveld Rhino Trust is focused upon rhino monitoring and tracking these animals and we don’t have armed men ourselves. If an incursion is to take place, our trackers are generally called upon to track the poachers who are tracking the rhino. So they are very good at tracking people through the bush area.

We always have to have somebody from either the police or national parks in the follow-up unit because often there is a gunfight. The poachers, as I said before, are like bank robbers: they are hardened criminals, they will often fire first and we face a particular problem because our trackers are unarmed. We’ve had several situations now when the poachers have opened up at very close range on the trackers — to the extent that we’ve had to get them some bulletproof vests to wear.

e360: China has a rapidly growing presence in Africa. How is it affecting your conservation work?

du Toit: There are two problems right now in that regard. The first is that China itself has an economy that is building up very quickly and therefore there is a lot more disposable income, and people are paying quite a lot more for rhino horn than they used to — there’s a big demand there.

“The whole supply chain is foreshortened because the buyers are right here in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe.”

Secondly, people involved in that trade are right in Africa now. This long supply chain which used to exist where a horn would be poached in Zimbabwe, it might then be taken to Zambia and then from Zambia it might go to South Africa, to a central town and then to a coastal town and put on a boat and taken across to Asia and sold there. That whole supply chain is now foreshortened because the buyers are right here in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, in the capital cities of Harare and Johannesburg and so on. So, they’ll pay prices that are much closer to end-market prices right in Africa, which means the price of horn has effectively gone up 10 times over the last five years or so.

e360: Conventional wisdom says the horn is used as an aphrodisiac. In actuality, it is used to combat fever. But you refute both those ideas, correct?

du Toit: The aphrodisiac thing is definitely a media myth: there’s never been any use of rhino horn for that apart from some small area in India — very minor. But the over-requirement for rhino horn has been as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine as fever reducing drug, or something to purify the blood. I think it probably does work but in a psychosomatic sense.

More recently, however, there has been a whole new twist on things. In Vietnam, the story has arisen that rhino horn will cure cancer. It seems to be based, according to the stories, and they all remain to be confirmed and investigated, that a senior Vietnamese politician had cancer, took rhino horn, was cured and that has created a whole new demand for rhino horn. Especially in Vietnam.

It’s hard to counter the beliefs about rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine, which has been followed for centuries. But this more modern use in Vietnam should be able to be countered in some way, perhaps by a media campaign.

e360: How important in this whole paradigm is focusing on the demand side?
And do you think enough attention is being paid to the demand part of this?

du Toit: Poaching is the number one problem. And that poaching is simply related to the horn demand. The use of rhinos for say, meat, is really limited. So it’s fundamentally the demand for horn, there’s no question.

As regards to the question of whether we really understand these markets? No, we don’t. And I think that’s the big challenge. I’m running around Africa doing field conservation, keeping the rhinos alive… But I’m very conscious as I listen to debates about the whole big picture on rhino conservation that I do not hear enough to convince me that we know really what’s happening in Asian markets. We really have to focus a lot of work to understand those trade dynamics and how to deal with it.

e360: Your Website refers to the rhinos by name. Do you know all these rhinos?

du Toit: We know them all. They’ve all got names. The naming is often done so we can link calves right through to their mothers — one is named Christmas, and it’s calf is called Present. Unless we do that, we could lose track of these animals. There are so few of them…

But it’s also because we get to know these animals as characters, and all these rhinos are different. They are very interesting socially, much more than people think. Their social interactions are much more complex. Knowing all these animals allows us to monitor that.

We found, for instance, if we move some rhinos from one area to another area, even in a situation where we weren’t able to move them all at once, all those rhinos find each other in the release area even though it is quite big. And they re-establish their little society they once had. They will actively seek out their friends and neighbors again and re-establish their little community. So they are pretty interesting animals.