China main reason Africa is losing war to stop wipe-out of rhinos and elephants

A conservationist from Kenya has swapped his safari kit for a suit and tie and is out to rally support for the war against the illegal wildlife trade that is decimating rhino herds in Africa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 6:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 April, 2015, 11:20am

Michael Dyer looks a little awkward in a suit and tie. And no wonder. His usual garb is a safari suit, and his natural environment is the African bush where he runs Borana, an eco-resort and wildlife sanctuary located 200km north of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

But Dyer, 53, has put on his suit for a good cause: saving the endangered rhinoceros.

Borana has been in his family for three generations. Although originally a conventional cattle ranch, it has evolved into a wildlife conservancy with a luxury eco-lodge under his management. And since last year, when Borana and Lewa, a neighbouring family-run conservancy that is also a Unesco World Heritage site, took down the fences between their properties to create Africa's largest rhino sanctuary, Dyer has found himself at the heart of its conservation battle.

In Hong Kong earlier this month to spread the word about rhino conservation, he had a grim message. The illegal wildlife trade has decimated populations in the wild in Africa. Just as elephants are hunted for their tusks, rhinos are being killed for their horns, which are mainly used in Asian folk medicine.

Years of poaching have reduced the numbers of the two African species - the white rhino and the black, or hook-lipped, rhino - to just an estimated 25,000 animals, driving them to the brink of extinction. The black rhino is particularly vulnerable: in the 1970s there were 70,000 black rhinos in Africa; today there are only about 3,000.

Poaching has reached "catastrophic levels", Dyer says, and the battle to save the rhinos will be lost unless there's a huge shift in the supply and demand.

(In 2011, WWF attributed a spike in poaching in Africa and South Asia primarily to increased demand for rhino horn in traditional medicine in Vietnam, where many believe powdered horn can cure cancer. Horns are also sent to the Middle East, where they are used to make handles for ornamental daggers.)

As Dyer sees it, the most effective way to disrupt that market is through education.

"The physical anti-poaching war on the ground is a war that can't be won; there's just too much money, too many guns and too many people who don't care enough," he says. "The war will be won in the marketplace, with cultural shifts so that the commodities from rhino horn are no longer desirable, are of little value and are therefore not worth a poacher risking his life for. When this happens, we will save the rhino, and it starts with education.

"Rhino horn is sold in Vietnam and China, and to a lesser extent Laos, as traditional medicine. Despite scientifically proven to have no medicinal properties whatsoever, [rhino horn is composed of keratin, the same substance in our hair and fingernails], it's in high demand, especially with the wealthy elite - perhaps as much as a status symbol as the aphrodisiac or cure for cancer that it is purported to be."

Dyer has spent years building a sustainable model for wildlife conservation that combines tourism with traditional pastoral activity.

With Borana, he is a founding member of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, which brings together ranchers with large properties and farmers with small plots to manage the eponymous high plains stretching out to the northwest of Mount Kenya. Since it was set up in 1992, the forum has notched a number of conservation successes by promoting small-scale adventure travel that also brings in revenue for local tribal communities.

"We delivered projects that linked good practices back to benefits like investment in tourism," Dyer says. "Small eco-lodges were developed across northeastern Kenya, covering millions of acres. We were the catalyst to a change of thinking that got different ethnic and cultural groups working together for a better future for themselves, for their environment and for the wildlife that inhabits it."

They have also been educating people about the vital role wildlife plays in sustaining the environment, and setting up schools and mobile inoculation clinics for thousands of children, he says.

But with the price of rhino horn almost rivalling that for gold at about US$65,000 per kilogram, Dyer says poachers are more motivated than ever, using high-calibre assault weapons and sophisticated night-vision equipment to hunt their prey.

"It has become a war, one we fight 24 hours a day. Sadly, it is a war that's being lost," he says.

There has not been any poaching in Borana - which introduced 20 black rhinos three years ago as part of a population of almost 100 that ranges across the Lewa-Borana sanctuary. But it's only a matter of time before poachers set their sights on the sanctuary, Dyer says.

"With pressure mounting, it is important to be on constant high alert."

As Dyer and his scouts must patrol boundaries that stretch for thousands of kilometres, it is a war fought close to the ground.

There are two components to protecting the rhinos, elephants and other species in the sanctuary: armed anti-poaching units, and the scouts, who monitor the wildlife and conduct daily counts of animal numbers, and report sightings and tracks of rhino to monitoring supervisors.

The anti-poaching team are at the sharp end of operations. Consisting of rapid response teams and patrols at places where rhinos were last sighted, they work almost exclusively at night and often in harsh conditions against heavily armed and ruthless gangs.

But monitoring the high plains is no less dangerous for the scouts, who have government-issued weapons. "They are the last line of defence against poaching," Dyer says.

Reliable information is key to fighting poachers. And one of Borana's greatest investments in wildlife security is a complex intelligence network.

"The management and monitoring of rhinos is twofold: both require large numbers of highly trained and trustworthy personnel," Dyer says. "Monitoring rhinos involves skilled tracking and perseverance in thick bush, long hours spent among elephants, buffalo and other dangerous animals in the pursuit of finding rhinos."

Dyer says the trust placed in the anti-poaching team is enormous, but so is the temptation they face from poaching gangs, which offer large sums for information on where rhinos and elephants are.

It has become a war, one which we fight 24 hours a day. Sadly, it is a war that's being lost
Michael Dyer, conservationist

Nearly all incidences of poaching at private conservancies is attributed to inside information given to poaching gangs.;

 

That's why it's vital to ensure that the scouts are kept both safe and motivated, he says.

To do this, they must have the right equipment and training as well as adequate resources. Besides enhancing their own safety and ability to protect wildlife, this also goes towards their sense of self-worth and the loyalty they feel towards the difficult task they face, Dyer says.

"Their loyalty towards the conservation ideal is crucial."

But despite the small success stories in Laikipia, Dyer paints a bleak picture.

"In South Africa, 650 rhinos have been slaughtered this year alone. In proportion to its population, Kenya has lost even more," he says. "The situation is even more dire for elephants, with some estimates suggesting that 100 a day are being killed across Africa."

(At a conservation summit in Botswana two weeks ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported that the African elephant population had decreased from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013. As the kills orchestrated by international gangs far exceed the herds' natural rate of growth, experts warned that elephants could be extinct within a couple of decades.)

As Dyer points out, he is no armchair conservationist:

"I haven't written papers or have any fixed ideas, but I have grown up in this environment. I have dedicated 35 years to frontline conservation, and I have a layman's understanding of what works and how our actions are moulding a more positive future, one that will hopefully have rhinos and elephants roaming the land.

"But we need to act now before it's too late."

Death by numbers

For some perspective on the illegal trade in rhino horn and its impact on the animal's population, consider these figures:

9.5 BILLION - what the illegal wildlife trade is worth in US dollars annually, according to a report on trafficking by development consultancy Dalberg. In 2006, a rhino horn sold for about US$760; these days, it can fetch more than US$57,000.

50 MILLION - the number of years rhinos have been roaming the earth. Fossils of their rhinocerotoid ancestors have been found dating back to the Eocene period.

100 - the number of Sumatran rhinos that remain in the wild. In Asia, Sumatran and Javan rhinos are both listed as critically endangered. Efforts at captive breeding are being made.

29 - the number of rangers killed by poachers worldwide in the 12 months preceding a July 2014 report by the International Rangers Federation. It was based on voluntary reports from 35 countries, and the IRF estimates the death toll could be much higher. Thailand, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo saw the sharpest increase in ranger deaths caused by poachers in recent years.

20 - the number of years before Africa's remaining rhino population in the wild becomes extinct if poaching continues at its current rate, according to an African species expert with the WWF.

0 - the number of western black rhinos now in the world. The IUCN's review of endangered animals and plants in 2011 declared the subspecies officially extinct after extensive surveys failed to detect signs of the rare rhinos. They had not been seen since 2006.