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Spike in rhino poaching threatens survival of species

By Meghan Frank and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

In South Africa, home to three quarters of the last remaining rhinos on the planet, conservationists, private game reserve owners and security forces are waging a desperate battle against poachers intent on killing the country’s rhinos for their lucrative horns. 

“It is an epidemic.  It’s a war that right now we’re losing,” Graeme Rushmere said.  “It’s not a South African issue as such, it’s really a global issue.”


Rushmere owns Kariega Game Reserve, a nearly 25,000 acre private reserve. The reserve is home to critically endangered black rhinos and white rhinos. 

Rhinos have roamed the Earth for millions of years, but at the turn of the twentieth century there were only about 50 white rhinos left in the world. All were in South Africa. Over the course of several decades, South Africans brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction.  Through incredible conservation work, there are almost 20,000 white rhinos today. The recent spike in poaching has South Africans worried that all of their hard work to save the rhino will be reversed.

Just a decade ago, only about a dozen rhinos were poached each year.  Last year, poachers killed more than 400 rhinos.

For Graeme Rushmere and his friend and neighbor Dr. Will Fowlds, the fight to stop the poaching is personal. They lost one of their beloved rhinos, Geza, after his horn was brutally hacked off by poachers.

“We called him Geza which means ‘the naughty one,’” Fowlds said in an interview to air Wednesday night on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.  “It was because he had such a naughty playful character.”

Fowlds is a wildlife veterinarian and co-owner of a wild game reserve named Amakhala.

Fowlds has dedicated his life to caring for animals and restoring their habitats, especially the rhinoceros. He still remembers the first rhino that was ever brought to his property. It was Geza’s mother.

“When she stepped off that vehicle and walked out onto that plain and started grazing immediately, it was as if something just fell into place,” Fowlds said. 

His first rhino became pregnant with Geza. When he was born, the mom put her baby calf on display.

“It was as if she wanted to show it to the world.  She was so proud of her little son. So those were special days,” Fowlds said.

When Geza was three, Fowlds sold him to Rushmere as a way to help grow the rhino population.

“Geza was one of our first four rhino that we introduced back into that wilderness area that basically then had rhino back on it for the first time in probably 160, 170 years,” Rushmere said.  

In February of last year, Rushmere received a devastating call that poachers had attacked Geza and that incredibly, he was still alive.  Rushmere alerted Fowlds who rushed to the reserve.

“I went in by myself and when I came around the corner and first saw him, obviously the first thing that strikes you is that there’s an animal that’s supposed to have horns on it and not only were the horns gone, but a large part of his face was missing too,” Fowlds said through tears.  “It was just an all consuming sight of pain and agony and confusion.  It was an awful thing.”

Rarely are poached rhinos found alive. The poachers had knocked Geza out with a tranquilizer dart and then hacked through his skull with a machete to get every inch of his horn.

“I couldn’t explain why, why someone would do such a thing, but to be there with that animal, I just, I just kept on saying, I’m so sorry boy,” Fowlds said.

Fowlds examined Geza and knew he could not be saved.  Before putting the rhino to sleep, he made an agonizing decision to bring a cameraman to document the rhino’s suffering. He hopes the footage will help raise awareness.

“I still don’t know if I did the right thing.  I think that will only be known when I see results, if I see the level of poaching start to decrease,” Fowlds said.  “Maybe I can say to myself, well part of that had something to do with those images we were able to show the world, but at this stage, I still don’t know if I made the right decision.”

Hundreds of rhinos like Geza are under brutal and bloody assault because of an increasing demand for rhino horn in Asia.

“The worrying thing is if the escalation continues for another one or two more years at this rate, we will very soon start to lose more animals than we can produce,” Fowlds said.

Tom Milliken monitors the illegal rhino horn trade for an organization called Traffic and links the uptick in poaching to increasing wealth and purchasing power in places like China and especially Vietnam.

“Vietnam’s entry into the trade is what has driven this upsurge that we’re witnessing now,” Milliken said.

On top of increased purchasing power, rhino horn is being marketed in a new way. Milliken said that the traditional medicine systems of Asia have long promoted rhino horn as a way to reduce fever and other ailments like nose bleeds, but an urban myth has recently taken hold that rhino horn can cure cancer. Scientists have studied rhino horn and found that its medicinal value is virtually non-existent.

“Suddenly rhino horn was being promoted in a very lucrative market as a miracle cure and that has led to just carnage in Africa and the highest prices for rhino horn that we’ve ever seen in its history,” Milliken said. 

An average sized rhino horn in Vietnam can sell for as much as a quarter of a million dollars, which makes rhino horn gram for gram more valuable than gold or cocaine.

“Highly orchestrated, highly choreographed” rings do the poaching and selling of the rhino horn, Milliken said.

Milliken explained the crime syndicates have “the modern threads of technology: cell phones, computers, Internet.” They also use helicopters, GPS, thermal imaging and powerful medicine to tranquilize the rhinos. That medicine is typically only available to veterinarians, meaning that the very people who are supposed to care for the rhinos are assisting some of the poachers.

In South Africa, the upcoming trial involving two veterinarians, a helicopter pilot, a wild game reserve owner and others accused of slaughtering rhinos, has shocked the country. 

Desperate to stop the killing, several short-term measures have been taken to try and protect the animals. 

On the reserve where Geza was killed, owner Rushmere moved the remaining rhinos closer to the lodges where his anti-poaching patrol could keep watch on them. He also decided to dehorn several of his rhinos. When done properly, it doesn’t hurt the rhino to have its horn cut off and the horn grows back. Graeme hopes the dehorning is just a temporary solution.

Neal Carter/NBC News

“They’re measures which make you feel you’re going backwards.  I mean to dehorn a rhino is defacing a beautiful animal and it’s just, it’s contrary to all of our gut instincts about conservation and wildlife, but it’s a life saving measure.  It’s one of those decisions. It’s a lose, lose scenario,” Rushmere said.

Lorinda Hern has taken an even more drastic measure. Her family owns the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve outside of Johannesburg. They decided to inject the horns of their rhinos with a parasiticide that she claims is safe for the rhino, but would make humans sick.

“We’ve armed our rhinos. We’ve armed them.  We’ve treated their horns and if you do consume the horn, you do so at your peril.  I can guarantee you, it will not have the desired effect,” Hern said.

Hern and her family made the decision after two of their rhinos were killed.  The poachers used tranquilizer darts and the animals were found dead the next day.

“It’s still hard to speak about it because of the excessive cruelty of it.  If you do need to kill it, then just kill it.  Don’t make it suffer and it doesn’t understand what’s happening to it. It’s the most vile, inhumane act,” she said through tears.

Others have added microchips into the rhino’s horns and taken DNA samples that can be used to track rhino horn sold on the black market.

Most of South Africa’s rhinos roam the country’s large national parks, making them easy targets for poachers.

“It’s actually got to the stage now where we’re at home, the phone rings and you [are] now sort of terrified that it is another rhino,” said Rusty Hustler, head of security for South Africa’s North West Parks and Tourism Board.

Neal Carter/NBC News

The fight has turned deadly for humans too. Twenty-six poachers were killed last year.

Hustler said that South Africa’s military has been deployed in some public parks to fight poachers. In others, park rangers have received paramilitary training and joined anti-poaching units.

At Pilanesberg, a park under Hustler’s watch, ecologist Stephen Dell said that it’s been several years since he has worried much about the balance of plant and animal life.  Instead, he’s become like a soldier fighting a war against the poachers.

“It is absolutely a war, they’re armed so we have to be armed…it’s difficult for us to stay one step ahead of them because they’re the ones who are prepared to take the risks and big risks.  People are dying in this, poachers are dying,” Dell said.

One member of the anti-poaching unit at Pilanesberg told NBC News that he’s willing to risk his life for the rhinos.

“It cannot defend itself. It doesn’t have a gun,” Mpho Motshegwe said.  “Poachers have guns, so I’m willing to stand up and fight for the rhino because it can’t fight for itself.”

For Dell, the ecologist turned warrior, he fears we’re nearing a tipping point in the survival of the species.

“When you have done it for so long and there are very few success stories in conservation and the rhino is one,” Dell said.  “Poaching is taking out animals that are young and female, they’re not going to breed.  They’re gone out of the system.  You’re going to go straight into a vortex of extinction and that’s how it happens.”

Click here to watch Harry Smith's full report, 'Last Stand.' The report aired Feb. 22 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.