Struggling to save black rhino from extinction - Veterinary Practice
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Struggling to save black rhino from extinction

JOHN GRIPPER was awarded the OBE in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to rhino conservation and to animal welfare. Here he describes his work in Zimbabwe to protect black rhino.

I AM often asked how I got involved with black rhino in Zimbabwe. It all started in 1987 when Annie and I were on a wildlife holiday in Zimbabwe at the invitation of Ray Gripper, my cousin who lives in Harare.

We were camping at Mana Pools and saw the row of rhino skulls outside the National Parks Office and were told that despite Operation Stronghold, the black rhino in the Lower Zambezi Valley were being killed on a daily basis by poachers from Zambia for their valuable horn. Many of the black rhino were being darted and translocated to safer areas.

In 1970 there were 65,000 black rhino in Africa. Now there are only about 4,000 black rhino and 17,000 white rhino living wild in Africa, mainly in Kenya, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The black rhino are smaller and fiercer than the white rhino, they are browsers, with a prehensile upper lip so that they can eat leaves and branches as compared to the white rhino who are grazers and have a square lip for eating grass.

Later in our holiday we spent a few nights with Bob and Jenny Swift on their farm at Bemthree Ranch, near Kwe Kwe, and saw in the New Year at a party attended by most of the local farmers and I was asked if I could help them to set up a Rhino Conservancy in the Midlands as some of the rhino had been translocated to their farms.

So Annie and I came back home to set up a registered charity and started fund-raising. In order to understand the requirements of a rhino conservancy, I went to see Anna Merz, a remarkable lady who had set up a rhino conservancy at Lewa Downs in Northern Kenya and is one of the patrons of our Trust.

The objectives of the Trust are to support the Midlands Black Rhino Conservancy to keep a breeding group of black rhino under free range conditions and protected against the poachers. We helped with the erection of a perimeter fence around 18 farms in an area of 100,000 hectares, provided radio communications, salary for full-time conservator and wages of the guards.

Poaching of rhino was still a serious problem and all the rhino in both private conservancies and National Parks were dehorned in 1993 as an emergency measure as the numbers of black rhino in Zimbabwe had fallen to 263. In the Midlands Conservancy over the next 15 years the rhino population increased by 5% a year to 50 rhino.

Then in 2000 along came so-called Land Reform and nearly all the farmers in the Conservancy were given eviction orders. Now only five of the original farmers remain and the other farms have been occupied by senior politicians, war veterans and the army. Whilst the new farmers give lip service to the Conservancy, they are not always prepared to put the effort or funds into its success. Many of the new landowners have little capital or farming knowledge and agricultural production has shown a dramatic fall in output.

Greater risk

Due to the economic crisis in the country, poaching of wildlife for bushmeat has been a major problem and snares have been set with wire stolen from the perimeter fencing. These snares are a danger to rhino but the damage to the fencing also means rhino can escape from the Conservancy and be at greater risk from poachers.

Throughout Zimbabwe there has been a big increase in the killing of rhino by gangs of professional poachers with AK 47 rifles. Some rhino have even been darted by the poachers, the horns hacked off, and then left to die. The number of known black rhino killed by poachers in Zimbabwe over the last three years is 108 (data from TRAFFIC).

We have been badly affected in the Midlands and we translocated three rhino to a safer area and now have only five adult rhino in a smaller section of the Conservancy where they are heavily guarded by the conservator and his 20 guards and monitors.

The poachers are well informed; they have the back-up of new 4WD vehicles and have even used helicopters for their getaway. The rhino horns are smuggled out of the country to the Far East. These poachers are often arrested but many go unconvicted as evidence is lost or they just abscond abroad when out on bail. Recently there has a shootout in the Lowveld and four poachers were shot and killed.

The new Unity Government has been formed between the MDC and ZANU PF but power sharing is not working and recovery is slow. The collapse of the Zimbabwe local currency and its replacement by the US Dollar and the Rand has brought food back into the shops and fuel to the petrol stations, but this will only benefit those who have access to foreign currency.

I believe that the best way to protect endangered species is to keep them in their natural habitat rather than in a captive breeding situation. However, it is not good enough just to keep them fenced in a Conservancy without having the fullhearted support of the local people, so we decided that we needed to build a Conservation and Education Centre to provide environmental education courses to schools, universities and local communities.

Our Education Centre was opened in 2005 by the Vice President of Zimbabwe and has been a great success. We have continued to support the local medical centre, assist in the building of new primary schools, feed the schoolchildren with high protein drinks and started a scholarship scheme so each year pupils can now go on to secondary school.

Despite all the difficulties and setbacks, we are fully committed to the Conservancy and the Education Centre and are dependent on the generosity of our supporters who take out membership of the Trust, adopt a rhino or just make a donation to Sebakwe Black Rhino Trust, Manor Farm, Ascott under Wychwood, Oxon. OX7 6AL.

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