Let’s End Poaching Before It’s Too Late!

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“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” ~ Stewart Udall

Let’s End Poaching Before It’s Too Late: A Conversation with Mr. Tom Tochterman, Founder of Rhino Mercy

At the turn of the 19th century there were an estimated one million Rhinos in Africa; today there are less than 30,000. Since beginning of 2014, 1,173 Rhino’s have been slaughtered in South Africa. Rhino’s are drugged so they can’t move, but they still hear, smell, and feel everything, while their horn is chopped by an axe. And why? Simply for a horn that is nothing more than a keratin compound that has no medical value with most recent use for preventing hangovers from drinking alcohol! This is 2014, humans should be smarter than believing in myths that did not even exists in the pre-historic ages! Rhinos are intelligent, social, emotional animals and can feel pain just like humans. If things remain the same, your newborn children will no longer see a Rhino. The technology and resources wildlife conservation groups need to stop this is nothing sci-fi like. The technology they need is already developed and has been used in other applications. We need to act now and do whatever it takes to use our expertise and resources to save the last Rhinos!

If we don’t act now to save the Rhinos, the rest of wildlife from elephants, tigers, lions and many more are doomed.  We need awareness and immediate action from individuals of all backgrounds, artists, scientists, engineers, historians, entrepreneurs, film producers, inventors , and world leaders and policy makers to take your expertise to help save the remaining Rhinos. It’s still possible to save them by educating the world, allocating necessary resources, adjusting policies, and the use of existing technologies, but we need to act NOW.

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Tom Tochterman, Founder of Rhino Mercy. Rhino Mercy in partnership with a South African/UK organization Transfrontier Africa is implementing actions to save the remaining rhinos. Here  are Tom’s valuable insights on the history of African Rhinos, what is happening to them, current strategic initiatives and actions being taken to save the Rhinos, technologies such as Drones, RFID, Camera traps being used; and additional technologies and resources needed that can help save Rhinos; and most importantly ACTIONS by the individuals pleading to the governmental levels that can help  save Rhino’s NOW!

Can you tell me a little about Rhino Mercy?

Though our work began in 2011, Rhino Mercy was formally established in January of 2012 in response to the escalating and brutal nature of rhino poaching in the Republic of South Africa. RM is a US based non-profit tax exempt 501c3 corporation with no paid employees. We have four main strategic objectives which are; 1) provide support for anti-poaching units (boots on the ground), 2) explore the use of technology in anti-poaching initiatives (ie. vhf/gps collars, horn infusion, and drones), 3) create rhino ambassador through voluntourism opportunities, and 4) academic research. Our vision, mission, key objectives, core values, and key initiatives are all listed on our website at www.rhinomercy.org Rhino Mercy has partnered with a South African/UK organization Transfrontier Africa whose director (Craig Spencer) is also the Head Warden of the Balule Nature Reserve and Olifants West Nature Reserve, a 100,000 acre private reserve which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park.

Can you tell me about the history of African Rhinos and what is happening to the them now?

Nearly all of the sub-species of African rhino’s are extinct, extinct in the wild, or critically endangered per the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) and the International Union Conservation Nature (IUCN). At the turn of the 19th century there were an estimated one million rhino of various subspecies roaming on the African continent; today there are less than 30,000 (the actual number some estimate to be approximately half that amount) which breaks down to approximately 5,000 African Black Rhino (half located in the Republic of South Africa) and 25,000 Southern White Rhino (approximately 80% located in the Republic of South Africa). The Southern White Rhino was nearly extinct by the 1970’s but brought back from the brink and until recently was continuing to recruit at a positive rate. Some believe that at the current rate of poaching, natural mortalities, stock sales/professional hunts that the species is in a negative growth rate and in danger once again. The Southern White Rhino is legally classified as “Appendix II, threatened” and the African Black Rhino is classified as “Appendix I, critically endangered IUCN red listed”.

The numbers are devastating, the latest report shows since beginning of 2014, 1030 rhino’s have been slaughtered in South Africa. Can you explain why and how the Rhino’s are killed?

Sadly, as of this writing the number of rhino’s poached in South Africa stands at 1,173 which does not include calves, unborn calves, or carcasses that have not been found. It is anticipated the official number will exceed 1,200 by the end of the year. How the rhino’s are killed is probably what motivated me the most to get involved in this war (and war it is). Often times poachers will dart the rhino in the cover of dark nights aided by the poacher’s moon (full moon) with a drug called M99. The drug only immobilizes the animal meaning its sensory functions are operating at full strength; the rhino hears, smells, and feels everything, it just can’t move. Once the animal is down the butchers take an axe the front of the rhino’s face chopping into the skull to remove every part of the horn they can. Often we find the carcass with machete slashes across its spine above the rear legs indicating the rhino was able to move because not enough M99 was injected. On the black market rhino horn is reported to sell for USD $70,000 to $90,000 per kilo; there are on average four kilos of horn per rhino. Keep in mind, the horn is a keratin compound with no medicinal value. The most recent known purpose for consumption is as a supplement to prevent hangovers from drinking alcohol! Nearly all consumption/demand comes from Southeast Asia. The profile and sophistication of the poacher is varied, some are highly armed and skilled ex military from Mozambique with helicopters while others are home grown from edge communities to the national parks with homemade guns. The criminal networks have been found to include people at all levels in government, veterinarians, game rangers, park employees, pseudo hunters, lodge staff, etc….

If nothing is changed, what is the expected time frame Rhino’s will be extinct?

How do you think the loss of Rhino’s could impact tourism and the economy? The question of when extinction will occur is a one that is difficult to answer because the government did not finish its last rhino census. Some people say it’s because the numbers may be much lower than the government wants to admit. There are certainly statistical formulas that can accurately predict extinction but they require critical data that is not available. The numbers provided by the government are considered suspect. Everyone does seem to agree that the ecotourism industry would be substantially harmed if the Big Five is reduced to the Big Four. Losing an “umbrella” or “high value” species would be the sign of much worse times to come as the elephant and lion are undoubtedly just as threatened. One elephant is poached across Africa every 15 minutes and now that Tigers are nearly extinct Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors are saying that lion bones and parts are a suitable substitute! If we cannot save the rhino, the rest are doomed in my humble opinion. The rhino wars are ground zero for sub-Saharan Africa.

What are your initiatives and action plans to save the remaining Rhino’s? 

Our main strategic initiative is called the Balule Rhino Conservation Project (a pdf copy of the project is posted on our website for download). The project is essentially a multifaceted approach to the crisis from an enforcement approach and social development approach. In brief, we have armed guards and unarmed environmental monitors patrolling the Balule Reserve aided by real time and near real time rhino data. The social development initiative involved the creation of the first ever South African female anti-poaching unit called the Black Mamba’s (an extremely lethal snake in the bush). We recruited women in their 20’s from local communities and provided them training, equipment, housing, food rations, and salaries. This program is a partnership that includes SANParks (South African National Parks). The Black Mamba program is expected to elevate the paradigm of women in the workforce and specifically women in conservation. It is our opinion that women are the educators and nurturers in their communities and that they will return to their villages on their leave cycles and express to others that they are making a living protecting the environment therefore it becomes an important cultural value with both the new generation and the old guard. Noteworthy is that we have had very little turnover among the women and we are approaching a one year anniversary while we have had very high turnover among the men. Also interesting is that we have not had a rhino poached in nearly eight months but on reserves surrounding us they are dropping like flies. We are currently the only game reserve to have the Black Mamba or similar program in operation but we have recently been asked to train 19 additional women for a bordering reserve! We have high hopes for this program and firmly believe in the social development aspect of conservation.

What and how are some of the existing technologies such as drones used to save the Rhino’s?

We field tested drones in 2013 and ultimately found them to be too costly in terms of initial capital requirements as well as ongoing maintenance. Drones could be a high value asset in tracking poachers once they have been detected. Within days of the drone demonstration one of our cellular enabled camera traps transmitted pictures of three poachers with guns to the phone of the head warden; it took a tactical unit more than an hour to get to the initial location and by that time the poachers disappeared into the bush. If our staff would have deployed a drone we had the ability to track them while the tactical unit was enroute. Our current use of technology focuses on RFID tags and tracking collars/software for location and general spatial data. We also rely on day/night camera traps; not cellular enabled as data fees are cost prohibitive (we are exploring the development of a private network to solve the data cost issue). All technology comes at a high cost in initial outlay, maintenance, and operations. For example, one would think camera traps to be a simple cheap tool however that is far from the truth, camera traps are very susceptible to being destroyed by animals, data cards can be filled quickly by curious Vervet Monkeys, batteries need to be replaced often, and the wear and tear on vehicles to service dozens of camera traps is very expensive and time consuming. Further complicating matters is the extremely harsh natural environment of the bush; the extreme seasonal heat, rain, and humidity take their toll on everything and everybody.

Since time is so valuable as everyday more Rhino’s are being slaughtered, what can everyday people do NOW to save the Rhino’s?

Simply donate their time, treasure, or talent to organizations they investigate and confirm to be valid. I am often asked how to know the good guys from the bad and my standard answer is that they (the potential donor) ask for the financial statements from an organization they are interested in and check to see if they are spending money on things that matter to them (the donor). If they won’t provide financial statements then walk away. Financial statements of US non-profits are a matter of public record and should never be denied. There are likely as many environmental scams tapping into this crisis as there are genuine organizations in the fight so caution is advised. Also, I highly recommend people get educated on harmful consumptive behaviour as it relates to natural environments and engage the government and local communities on the issue of extinction and ecosystem degradation.

Are there organizations that have meetings open to the general public to attend?

In order to effectively engage with expertise one must ultimately immerse with role players. In my case, I recognized a problem, immersed myself in social media to determine who the role players were, reached out to the role players for private face to face meetings, became known as an interested party through professional associations, then contributed my time, treasure, and talent to the cause and became one of the role players (according to others). Social media is playing an amazing role as a catalyst for people around the world. I cannot tell you how many good people I have first met in the virtual world that have turned out to be true blue. If one cannot do it like I did, for face to face kinds of interactions, local zoo’s or environmental groups might be a good start in general for finding working groups. The US Fish and Wildlife Service also has a pretty good website for different kinds of opportunities.

If we had no limits in technological capabilities in an imaginary world, what are some technologies that would be on your wish list to help?

A time machine! Seriously though, there are two parts to the equation that have very different needs. First the demand side, which I am not involved with but understand that technology is very critical in effective messaging for demand reduction campaigns. The second part of the equation is the supply side which I am engaged with. I believe ultimately if we find a way to completely devalue the market price of the horn the problem of poaching goes away. My first wish would be for an effective technological process that could be applied to the rhino horn rendering the horn zero commercial value. Rhino horn infusions currently conducted by an organization called Rhino Rescue Project have been very successful but have also met with strong criticism. The infusion process which I completely support may not be perfect but it is one that is headed in the right direction and may well prove to be the ultimate tool. My second wish would be to provide better and more equipment to the rangers in the field such as night scopes and binoculars, drones with state of the art night time cameras and animal detection software, radio’s, and a secure private network for transmitting unlimited data and images. Third would be to provide military grade “rugged” laptops to our four staff members to greatly enhance internal communications. The laptops we currently use are not specified for the harsh conditions of the African bush and are often unreliable and a drain on limited resources. Fourth would be a variety of networked detection sensors strategically placed around the reserve for early detection of intrusions. Finally, a fully funded state of the art helicopter with night detection capabilities would help immensely in responding to immediate poaching threats and to aid in the maintenance of existing rhino ankle collars and snare removal operations. Currently we hire a helicopter and pilot on an as needed basis but it is a budget breaker!

Anything else you would like to add?

An important aspect of our collective efforts to save the rhino from extinction comes from the politics of conservation. There is one single issue that has become terribly divisive among conservationists and that is trade. Currently international law prohibits the international trade of rhino horn and domestic law prohibits the domestic trade of rhino horn within South Africa. Some believe that opening trade might reduce the rate of poaching but a closer look reveals something very different. Poaching has increased exponentially over the last few years after the announcement from the South African government that it intends to request a lifting of the international ban at the next CITES meeting in 2016. Rhino Mercy’s position is that any attempt to encourage consumption will lead to an increase in demand and therefore further harm the species. Even if trade were allowed under a highly regulated system there is no incentive for the beneficiaries of trade to flood the market in order to bring the price down. It is further recognized that even if the market could be flooded it could not be sustained. Similar promises were made in establishing the Kimberly process for controlling blood diamonds which has failed to achieve its goals. Even “once off” sales of stockpiles is dangerous as has been the case with ivory in East Africa where poaching of elephants skyrocketed after the once off sales closed. My general view is that while I support market economic theory in general, it has contributed to our environmental problems in several ways but specifically by ignoring the intrinsic values of ecosystems and natural resources in complete favor of their extrinsic values. This we must change.