World-renowned Conservationist Lauds Israeli Rhino Breeding Program

South Africa's Braam Malherbe says programs like the one conducted at Ramat Gan Safari zoo act as an insurance policy to prevent possible complete extinction of rhinoceroses due to illegal hunting.

Braam Malherbe

The past two years were the worst in the history of protection of large mammals in Africa. Species such as elephants and rhinoceroses were hunted at an unprecedented level.

Braam Malherbe, a major figure in nature protection from South Africa and a well known media figure in that country, where most of the remaining rhinoceroses on the continent live, is now visiting Israel. He calls for significantly improving the ability of the inspectors in the nature reserves to prevent illegal hunting – but at the same time he says carefully supervised hunting and trading of rhinoceroses should be allowed to reduce the influence of illegal operations.

Malherbe, who calls himself an extreme adventurer and conservationist, is also a writer, nature activist, philanthropist and is behind a number of extreme races intended to raise awareness of conservation issues. During his visit to Israel he is meeting with environmental activists and visited the Ramat Gan Safari Park. This Sunday he will give a motivational talk on “Lead With Courage” at a conference on leadership organized for “The Masters” series, and he will present social and business initiatives to business people and various experts. In recent years he has headed a number of funds for public involvement in protecting wild animals, as well as other conservation and charitable causes.

The crisis of protecting wild animals touches not only on rhinos that are hunted for their horns, which are used for traditional medicinal purposes in the East Asia, says Malherbe. There are many other species that are endangered because of the great friction between the wildlife preserves and the rural communities around them. For example, African wild dogs often penetrate fences into agricultural areas, and so they are shot and poisoned.

One of the major goals of nature conservation is to try and involve local communities and allow them to benefit from the profits of tourism to the nature reserves. Malherbe mentions the example of the Masai tribe in Kenya, who receive payments to protect the lions that are a tourist attraction.

Another example is the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where there are many rhinos – and over 400 wild animals have hunted there in six months. There is a very poor community living outside the park, and it does not benefit from the park economically, even though many rich tourists visit there, says Malherbe. The government is trying to help out by including local residents in its conservation activities and gives them jobs as inspectors, he says. But there is still a long way to go.

One of the poor communities whose representatives regularly come to Kruger Park is located just over the border in Mozambique. Hunters from Mozambique enter the park – which is about the entire size of Israel – and hunt rhinos. Malherbe says the “rules of engagement” allowing the park inspectors to open fire are much too limiting and make it difficult for them to deal with poachers.

The efficiency of the poachers can be seen in the statistics from 2013, when hunters were spotted 108 times. Only in 10 percent of those cases were they caught, and half of those caught were released on bail by the courts. In addition, he is trying to help the inspectors by bringing in sophisticated tracking technology, for example remote sensing equipment developed by the U.S. military. Malherbe says this will improve their ability to track anyone who enters the park without a permit.

But Malherbe does not think it is enough to only use such means against poachers. We must also influence the motivation of the hunters and also the demand for products such as rhinoceros horn or elephant tusks. For this he proposes using methods such as “trophy hunting,” which allows rich tourists to receive a special hunting license for animals such as rhinos, in return for large sums. If local communities are included in this as guides for these tourists, it is possible to provide them with jobs and also make them partners to prevent illegal hunting, says Malherbe.

Many conservation groups of course disagree with this approach and are worried it will turn into just another way to destroy the wild animal population, under economic camouflage. In response, Malherbe claims that a complete ban on hunting simply does not achieve its goal. Why shouldn’t we take an old rhinoceros who will in any case suffer a painful death after hyenas attack him; and why not allow someone to hunt him for $50,000 in a hunting preserve, he asks. The money can then be used for conservation within the preserve.

In some specific cases it seems there is no choice but to transfer the rhinos to a safe haven. A group of animals was moved last year from South Africa to a protected park in neighboring Botswana. Recently an initiative to move thousands of rhinos to Texas was reported. Malherbe objects to transferring such a large number of animals, but he does support the move of a few dozen rhinos. Their preservation in a far off country will be a sort of insurance policy to prevent a possible complete extinction as a result of continued hunting, he says. This is why he sees the breeding of rhinos in places such as the Safari in Ramat Gan as a positive thing. Once we win the war to save them, and it is a war, he says, then we can return the rhinos to a safe environment.

A baby female White Rhinoceros runs at the Ramat Gan Safari, an open-air zoo near Tel Aviv, on September 3, 2014. (AFP)

Malherbe does not even rule out supervised sales of rhino horn, which is completely banned today. He proposes starting on a trial basis with horns taken from animals that die a natural death, and trying to study the effects of such sales on the Asian market. Poachers could be supplied with such horns in a restricted and supervised manner, and provide an incentive for them to stop hunting illegally, he says. But he admits this seems to be impossible to do in the next few years, since most countries signed on the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species will not agree. He also thinks South Africa is still not capable of such supervision because of the widespread corruption in government.