Covid-19 could be a 'potential lifeline' for rhinos — but it's complicated

What does the halting of global travel and eco-tourism mean for the embattled rhino? Elizabeth Sleith looks for answers

10 May 2020 - 00:04 By Elizabeth Sleith
Rhino's have been hit the hardest by poaching, and are critically endagered.
Rhino's have been hit the hardest by poaching, and are critically endagered.
Image: councilofcontributors.com

We've all seen those pics lately of nature running wild while humans hide from Covid-19. Goats gone gangsta in Llandudno, Wales, penguins jaywalking in Simon's Town, monkeys making bollemakiesies into pools in Mumbai ... all good for a viral-video chuckle, but hardly victories for conservation.

One creature that may turn out to benefit, however, is the rhino — at least, this is the hope of Fabrice Orengo de Lamazière, co-owner of the Motswari Private Game Reserve in Limpopo and co-founder of Rhino Disharmony. Since 2014, that campaign has tackled poaching by trying to raise awareness in the places where horns are sold and thus bring down demand.

Orengo de Lamazière says Covid-19 is of course devastating for humans, but it is a "potential lifeline" for rhinos.

Mainly, this is because of the suspected origin of the virus: a gigantic "wet" market in Wuhan, China, where animals of all varieties could be bought live, or slaughtered before customers' eyes.

Epidemiologists say the danger with such markets — common across Asia — is that the animals are typically densely packed, making it easier for diseases to spread from species to species, and ultimately to "jump" to humans in circumstances where hygiene standards are difficult to maintain. This is what is thought to have happened in Wuhan.

China, of course, has been here before. Fingers were pointed at wet markets after the SARS outbreak of 2003, and authorities promptly cracked down on them — but eased restrictions as the health crisis abated. With Covid-19, the signs are promising that the practice could end for good.

In February, China announced a ban on the farming and consumption of wildlife, which is expected to be signed into law this year. The southern city of Shenzhen went further, extending the ban to eating dogs and cats.

That, for Orengo de Lamazière, is the glimmer of hope in the disaster, especially if it ultimately leads to a mind shift.

There have been reports that those selling rhino horn in China and Laos are now advertising medicines containing it as a cure for Covid-19

"If the Chinese completely change their attitude towards the consumption and trade of animals and animal parts, that is the biggest victory. It's what we have been trying to do for years — to stop the trafficking."

Motswari co-owner and Rhino Disharmony co-founder Marion Geiger-Orengo agrees: "If the demand stops then the killing stops, so this is what I'm hoping the ripple effect will be."

The problematic loophole for the rhino, however, is that the ban excludes the use of animal parts for "medicinal purposes" — the supposed purpose for which rhino horn is sold.

Even more worrying, the International Rhino Foundation says it has received reports that those selling rhino horn in China and Laos are now advertising medicines containing rhino horn as a cure for Covid-19.

LIVES UNDER LOCKDOWN

It's well known that SA, home to 80% of the world's rhinos, has been hardest hit by rhino poaching, with more than 1,000 killed each year between 2013 and 2017.

Anti-poaching units in our national parks and private reserves have been fighting hard to stem the tide. But with those places now shuttered, the tourists gone and the lodges surviving on skeleton staff, what has the impact been?

Since the lockdown began on March 27, there has been a decrease in the number of rhinos and elephants poached
Albi Modise, communications director at the department of environment, forestry & fisheries

Albi Modise, communications director at the department of environment, forestry & fisheries, says law-enforcement officials remain on duty in the national parks. In fact, since the lockdown began on March 27, Modise says there has been a decrease in the number of rhinos and elephants poached, as well as a decline in marine poaching.

This, he says, is likely due to low demand for the products and the fact that "law enforcement has been strengthened in ports of entries".

At Motswari, which shares unfenced boundaries with the Kruger National Park, Orengo de Lamazière says "incidents of incursion" initially increased.

"Criminals must have seen the absence of people as their chance to poach and also to attempt to rob the lodges."

But discussions with the national park and private anti-poaching units have led to skeleton staff at the lodges in the Timbavati and Umbabat private reserves also participating in patrols, day and night, just to have "feet on the ground and wheels on the sand roads".

Incursions have since decreased, which has also been the experience at Tintswalo Safari in the Manyeleti Nature Reserve, also adjacent to the Kruger.

General manager Alistair Leuner, who is spending lockdown at the lodge, says this is "most probably due to the presence of police and the army in the surrounding communities".

Many of those virtual safaris to which we've pointed you in recent issues — including Motswari's Instagram and Tintswalo's website — are really thanks to security patrols — the real reason those rangers are out there.

STILL 'TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE'

The fear, of course, was that poachers would be emboldened by the absence of people in the parks. This was the situation painted last month by the New York Times, which quoted Nico Jacobs of Rhino 911, a nonprofit that evacuates injured rhinos by helicopter, as saying "at least nine rhinos" had been poached in the North West alone since the lockdown began.

In fact, Jacobs says the reporter misunderstood him on the dates, and that, though the first week of the lockdown was extremely busy — "and so was the week before, nothing abnormal" — things quietened down after that.

Jacobs attributes this to the stay-at-home order, to roadblocks, and to the closure of national borders, which all hamper poachers' ability to get the horns out.

"It's been proven that poached horns get to China within the first week," he says.

The actual number of rhinos lost in the province during the lockdown so far is "three or four". Jacobs is emphatic, however, that this is still "totally unacceptable".

Nico Jacobs of Rhino 911 with four-month-old Jessie, evacuated on April 30 after her mother was poached in the North West.
Nico Jacobs of Rhino 911 with four-month-old Jessie, evacuated on April 30 after her mother was poached in the North West.
Image: Nico Jacobs

"People must realise that we are sitting with a huge problem in SA, which has not been resolved. Is it a little bit better? Yes. But we are still far from acceptable norms, where we can say we've got numbers — not stable, but increasing numbers — with mothers raising their calves and the calves getting to adulthood."

He emphasises, too, how hard the people in the parks are working — patrolling at all hours and doing their absolute best to protect the animals with very limited resources.

Botswana, meanwhile, has lost six rhinos since March 27, a situation so dire that National Geographic reports the government is now evacuating black rhinos from the Okavango Delta to save them.

THE MONEY MATTERS

The more complicated issue for rhinos — and wildlife in general — relates to funding. Tourism levies, now totally dried up, are funnelled into conservation and protection measures, and also provide a sustainable living for neighbouring communities.

The shutdown in tourism is a conservation disaster from that perspective, something Geiger-Orengo calls "a full-circle damaging effect", with livelihoods jeopardised and protection money halted.

Gary Harwood, from communications agency HKLM, which represents eco-tourism brands across Africa, recently wrote an opinion piece on the impact of Covid-19. He says the shut-down of global travel will likely lead to a "slowdown of poaching of endangered species to supply the once-thriving eastern markets" but cautions that if this tempts reserves to "pull back on anti-poaching initiatives in order to save money", this could exacerbate bush-meat poaching, where local communities are desperate to put food on the table.

It's estimated that in the North West meat poaching has risen 200%-300% since the lockdown began
Nico Jacobs of Rhino 911

This seems to already be playing out in the North West, where Jacobs estimates meat poaching has risen 200%-300% since the lockdown began. That situation undoes years of hard work in terms of buy-in from local communities.

As Jacobs says with regard to saving the rhino, "We need to get communities involved to protect these animals for future generations because that's where their money lies."

It stands to reason that if the money is gone, so is the incentive to conserve.

SAVE THEM SO THEY CAN SAVE US

Ultimately then, the outlook is worrying. And with tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane having said last week that even domestic tourism will likely only re-start in December, that's a bleak picture for the people, landscapes and animals whose survival depends on the sector.

Many in the tourism industry, of course, pray that Kubayi-Ngubane is wrong. In the meantime, rescuers such as Jacobs "are still flying and patrolling and doing what we can", while the likes of Motswari and Tintswalo are poised to resume welcoming visitors — and bring back their staff — just as soon as they can.

Orengo de Lamazière insists there is hope, and that eco-tourism will be key to SA's post-corona recovery because our natural assets are so incomparable. "We will always have people, everywhere in the world, who will want to come to see the wildlife," he says.

Harwood, meanwhile, adds: "Whilst you may have experienced the disappointment of having to cancel or postpone your own getaway, consider making a donation to ensure the people, the animals and the wilderness within your planned destination also survive during the trying times ahead.

"Then, once we are able to start travelling again, please also consider returning to Africa's incredible destinations. Simply by being there, you will be contributing towards conservation."


LITTLE JESSIE, THE ORPHANED RHINO 

The most recent rescue for Rhino 911 involved a female thought to be about four months old. She was evacuated on April 30 after her mother was killed by poachers. She is now at the Rhino Orphanage, a registered nonprofit company based in Limpopo, where she has been named Jessie.

Founded by Arrie van Deventer in 2012, the orphanage is dedicated to the care of orphaned and injured baby rhinos, with the goal of ultimately releasing them back into the wild.

After Jessie spent her first night at the orphanage blindfolded and pacing, her caretakers posted on Facebook the following morning: "It is clear that the little girl has been through tremendous trauma the past few days, just looking at her behaviour. She is scared and confused but wants comfort."

A few days later, they introduced her to another newly orphaned rhino, Amelia, who was rescued by Rhino 911 on March 25.

Amelia and Jessie, now firm friends at the Rhino Orphanage.
Amelia and Jessie, now firm friends at the Rhino Orphanage.
Image: The Rhino Orphanage

Head caretaker Yolande van der Merwe explained: "It is always better for rhinos (and any wild animal really) to have an animal companion. For rhinos, it makes them less dependent on human affection, so we always try and pair them up. It makes their rehabilitation so much more successful and easier."

This week, Van der Merwe said they were "bonding very well, snuggling up close together. In a week or two they will be inseparable."

You can see a video of Jessie's rescue - shot on Jacob's GoPro — on Facebook and follow her and Amelia's progress on Facebook/TheRhinoOrphanage.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Visit Rhino 911's website to donate, as well as to see a breakdown of what the funds are for, from helicopter fuel to "baby formula". Shockingly, it costs R80,000 to wean a baby rhino.

You can also "adopt" a baby or donate once-off to the Rhino Orphanage. See therhinoorphanage.co.za