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Rhino’s Up: One six-year old’s fight to protect the last Northern White Rhinos

Working in conservation and education will always feel like a blessing to me. To see how children react to the issues facing the natural world around them, and to discover time and time again how they seem to intrinsically care about the environment and the wildlife they share it with — it truly fills me with hope and positivity.

One such story that’s started August off on a positive note is that of six-year-old Frankie and his fundraising mission for Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Frankie (pictured above) is on a mission to save rhinos after discovering that there are only three northern white rhinos left in the world.

He decided to launch a fundraising project called ‘RhinosUp to raise £48,000 – the amount that a poached rhino horn might fetch on the black market.

His plan is to create a living sculpture in the shape of a northern white rhino out of bee-friendly plants. Frankie hopes his flowerbed — made in partnership with Fauna & Flora International — will encourage people to think about the plight of rhinos and spread the message that poaching has to end.

Read the full story (and watch Frankie’s video) on National Geographic Kids’ website here.

National geographic kids rhinos up article

Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO said: “I am making a special trip to the UK to meet with Frankie. I am amazed at what this formidable young man has managed to achieve at such a young age.”

“If only the world were made of more people like him, we would not be facing the extinction crisis that we currently are. The northern white rhinos need all the help they can get, and what Frankie is doing will make a huge difference in how we protect them and for the survival of the species.”

Well done Frankie!

For more information on Frankie’s ‘RhinosUp’ project, and to donate online, visit www.rhinosup.com

 

Want to know more about rhino horn poaching?

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‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’ Debate review

In a packed out theatre room in the Royal Institute of Great Britain, I attended my first ever formal debate this time last month; ‘Should the global trade of rhino horn be legalised?’

As was so rightfully and significantly acknowledged at the end of the evening, the debate was far more than exploring whether or not to commodify an essentially useless (to humans) animal product, but was about our relationship with the natural world.
rhino and calf

A rhino and calf. A photograph I took at Shamwari Game Reserve

To contextualise the debate, rhino horn has a similar street value to heroine; it is used largely for traditional Asian medicine, believed to have properties that provide headache relief in China, and increasingly as cancer treatment in Vietnam. In some countries it is also used ornamentally, as a status symbol. In literal terms, it is made of keratin, the same substance that is found in human hair and fingernails, and likewise, it can regrow.

I hesitate to use the term ‘renewable resource’, as expressed in the debate introduction by ecologist Craig Packer, as I’m not sure the tone should have been set by immediately talking in terms of harvests and exploitation, but nonetheless, the idea behind the trade would be that by ‘shaving’ the horns off of living rhino and monetising them without killing the animal, it would allow for regrowth, meaning a continuing supply of horn (and money for the rhino breeders) in attempt to meet demand.

Representing the case for legalising the trade in horn was rhino breeder and ex-property tycoon John Hume, and arguing against legalising the trade; Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation.

On first appearances, both of these characters appear to be at complete odds with one another; Will Travers wore a black suit and a tie that featured miniature embroidered rhinos, with shoes shined and a small ribbon pinned on his jacket, which I recognised as part of Born Free’s World Wildlife Day campaign. John Hume addressed the audience in his red checked shirt, and a pair of jeans — a more casual approach, and even the debate chair, Craig Packer, fresh from a flight from America, arrived in cargo trousers and sandals. I would be lying if I said first impressions didn’t matter to me, and I very much felt there was a deliberate tone to each person’s dress.

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But despite differing styles, Packer — who himself is known for his research on lions and the impact of trophy hunting on their population numbers — was quick to address in his introduction that both Hume and Travers were there for the sake of the rhino, both having interest in preventing the species from going extinct, and increasing rhino numbers in South Africa.

Though, to me, it seemed that they were very much on different ends of the spectrum (one advocating wild populations, the other advocating protected numbers in captive circumstances — owing to ‘wild’ areas in South Africa being targeted by poachers), their mutual concern about the boom in rhino poaching over the last decade was a welcome one. The figures quoted during the debate were 15,000 white rhino exist in South Africa today, and only 5,000 black rhino. The dire severity of the case was somewhat summarised by Packer’s statement: “Most of the world doesn’t care. We are in the room are the minority — we are the ones who care enough to come here and talk about this.”

rhino at Shamwari

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is”

Opening the debate, Will Travers addressed the importance of this question with regards to this year’s CITES meeting at the end of this month. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. This debate is particularly topical, as there was rumour this year of South Africa presenting the case that trade in white rhino horn should be downgraded globally from Appendix I* to Appendix II, allowing horn to be exported out of South Africa.

*Currently white rhinos are listed as Appendix II for the population of South Africa and Swaziland and for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations and hunting trophies.

After considering all angles, under the premise that legal trade could mean more funds, and therefore better protection for living rhinos, and that legal profit could equate to US$717,000,000 per year, South Africa chose not to present the case at CITES this year. As Travers thought-provokingly explained, “On first glance it looks like ‘win, win, win’, but if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. [Changing the annotation of the Appendix II listing in Swaziland and South Africa to include the legal sale of horn] gives the message that this animal product is back on the market, and the demand will only increase.”

There were two case studies presented to illustrate this:

i) Trade in wool from the live sheared vicuña (a llama/alpaca-like member of the camel family found in South America) was legalised under certain conditions, but figures show that in 2015, 90% of the export was still illegal (i.e. not meeting these conditions), with more numbers than ever poached for their hair. 

ii) Since the opening of bear bile farms, to extract the bile of Asiatic black bear to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, the surplus ‘stock’ of this product has begun to make its way into products such as toothpaste and cleanser — ‘new product developments’, which show that as available stock increases, as does demand!

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The realities of Asia’s bear bile farms

Added to this, Travers declared that poachers are ‘entrepreneurs’, stating; “if you legally sell [horn] at $30,000 a kilo, they’ll sell at $25,000 — it’s a huge assumption that the legal market will replace illegal trade.”

So, if South Africa have chosen not to present the case at CITES, why is the debate still relevant? Well, whereas South Africa have decided against legalising the trade in horn, Swaziland — with its population of just 73 rhinos — wants to seek CITES approval instead. To do this they will require the support of two-thirds or more of the delegates present and voting.

Swaziland doesn’t have the greatest track record to date, it previously shipped 11 of its 36 wild elephants to zoos in America, due to ‘over-population’. Travers concluded, “There are no simple solutions — legalising it will not make it better, it will only make it worse.”

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“I think I have the recipe”

Second to take the floor, John Hume, ‘custodian’ to 1403 rhinos, 940 of which he has bred (making him the most successful rhino breeder in South Africa). Hume bought himself a game reserve after making his money in property, and lost his first rhino to poaching in 2007, 15 years after introducing them to the property. He now trims the horn (or rather, recruits a vet to remove then from the rhinos, under anaesthetic) as a deterrent to poachers; if there is no horn on the rhino, there is no reason to poach them.

The potentially very valuable side effect of this, is that he currently has a stockpile of 5 tons of rhino horn — as much as the collective amount of all the other private rhino owners in South Africa. On top of this, the South African government has 22 tons of horn stockpiled, which John explained is more than what is currently on the market. Thinking of the value of horn per kilo, at US$30,000 dollars, the dual narrative of conservation and business is hard to ignore.

There are currently 6200 privately owned rhinos in South Africa, meaning a further 550 per year could be bred by these private owners. The worry is, however, that they would be kept in captive conditions (so not really wild rhino numbers, after all) and private owners may not all have the same high standards of care (or financial means to provide it) — it would be the ideal scenario to enforce a regulated minimum standard, but as Packer declared ‘If we look at the examples of bear bile farms or the lion trophy hunting industry, we simply don’t regulate the standards of care’.

rhinos-farmed

Hume’s main point in this debate was that making the trade in horn illegal is not stopping it, it’s pushing it underground. “If the law doesn’t help the rhino, it should not be in place. When are we going to save the rhinos instead of the horns?” he added. “Rhinos need your local support to save them — I think I have the recipe.”

I’m currently reading Craig Packer’s book, Lions in the Balance, which examines similar issues relating to lions, and Packer challenges the conservationist to consider the survival of the species over the survival of the individual. I was willing to at least open my mind to different schools of thought over this issue and was waiting for Hume’s recipe to include all the good ingredients of a well considered plan. But it simply didn’t. It was no more complicated and considered than: ‘let’s take the risk, because the current law hasn’t caused the poaching to stop, and this way we can make money legitimately from the trade and put it back into this same system of ‘conservation’, at the standards that we have set.’

The future of African Wildlife…

It genuinely worried me that this was being considered as a legitimate option. If the numbers of rhinos being poached every year continue at the rate they are currently, the entire population could be gone in 15 years. A far more beneficial tactic would be to educate, inform and inspire the people of Africa at large to value this animal in it’s whole, live form, with no bits hacked off, and no consolation prize of captive-only populations. As Will concluded:  “The future of African wildlife lies in Africa, it’s up to them, with our support, to lead the charge.” I really hope Swaziland’s CITES proposal doesn’t set the tone.

Keep up to date with this year’s CITES meeting here: cites.org

 

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 — My top picks

I’ve never visited the Natural History Museum‘s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition before, despite a lifelong love of animals and a long term interest in photography.

Growing up in Norfolk, exhibitions like that seemed few and far between. But even without the obvious inspirations, I remember spending summers sneaking round the edges of my parents’ garden taking snaps of the visiting bird life on a disposable pink plastic camera with zebra stripes all over it. The kind with no zoom and a risk of double exposure if you forgot to wind the film on.

imageNothing like the kinds of amazing prints I discovered in the Under 10’s category of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year gallery, when I finally found myself visiting. What a blessing it is to now live in London!

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Breathtaking. Breathtaking is the word for each of the hundred or so images on display in the darkened room at the back of the museum. Illuminated on screens in several different sections (an unusual way to experience a gallery!). The photographs showcased everything from climate change to urbanisation of species, to aerial landscapes and macro shots of mud in ice.

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I was overwhelmed at the quality of work; particularly from the young finalists. Long gone are the days of disposable children’s cameras with not so much as a ‘zoom-in’ setting, it would seem.

But the overall winner; A Tale of Two Foxes by Canadian doctor Don Gutoski managed to combine technical skills, an important message and ‘the perfect moment’; capturing a powerful, foreboding image of deathly mirroring.

A bleak comment, perceived by the competition judges to the show the greater impact of climate change on native species.

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“This scene is full of symbolic force: the red fox preys increasingly on the Arctic fox as a result of global warming. It is nature, brutal and yet eerily beautiful. Great wildlife photography combines learning with exploration and opportunism and this demonstrates that so well.” Chair of the Jury, Lewis Blackwell.

The scene depicts a scenerio where global warming is altering the placement of the red foxes’ territory; pushing them further northwards into the range of the smaller Artic fox. The result on the food web is that the Artic foxes’ main food source becomes prey to the red fox, making the red fox the biggest competitor, but also the biggest predator – as increasingly, the red fox hunts its smaller cousin.

imageAnother image that evoked a strong sense of the result of rising temperatures and human impact on the environment was Just Jellyfish, a finalist in the Under Water category.

Photographer Thomas P Peschak aligned the shot perfectly to demonstrate an underwater world with an absence of fish foreshadowing what the future may hold if the effects of overfishing and climate change are not kept within grasp. Warmer waters will increase the numbers of Cape box jellyfish, which then feed upon the eggs and larvae of the fish; fish numbers dwindle, which in turn has serious consequences on the fishes’ natural predator: the Cape fur seals.

imageBeing a journalist, the photojournalism category of the competition held several gems for me. Having recently read National Geographic magazine’s exposé on the political dark side of the ivory trade, it was a profound discovery to see the winning story was one by photographer Brent Stirton depicting the story of poaching from the Spoils of War (showing seized tusks), to The Survivor; an aerial shot of the remaining 450 elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park.

What interested me about this photo series was the humans at the centre of it. Rather than just depicting the plight of the animals and their surroundings, Stirton told the story of the people whose lives are most affected including those on the frontline of defence and those widowed by rangers who have fallen victim to the ivory trade.

imageThe photojournalism category of the exhibition highlighted another tragic human interference that these gentle giants face; being captured from the wild for use in circuses and ceremonies, as depicted in Emily Garthwaite‘s Chained to Tradition.

imageThe Asian elephant photographed is in ceremonial dress following a six hour procession, parading through bustling streets of large crowds and fireworks during Diwali. A far cry from the lifestyle of their endangered wild counterparts.

Sticking with the photojournalism side of things, I’ve been interested in learning about gorillas and other great apes recently, having watched the BBC series Gorilla Family & Me (featuring Born Free Foundation‘s mountain gorillas) and having researched the work of Ian Redmond and The Trimates for an earlier blog post. So I was intrigued to understand exactly what was going on in Marcus Westberg‘s shot, Gorilla Care.

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My initial thought was that the health check was taking place at a zoo, but on reading the caption, the mountain gorilla in the centre of the room, and her anxious companion (who worriedly watches over the proceedings) are two of four mountain gorillas at the Senkewekwe Centre that have been rescued from poachers and traffickers.

The Centre is now named after a gorilla who fathered the nine-year-old female at the window, watching her companion in the centre of the room have her annual check up.

The four gorillas that reside there have all had traumatic experiences, and for me, the most story-telling element of the picture is the deep felt attachment from nine-year-old Ndeze as she watches helplessly from between the bars of the window. According to the picture’s caption, photographer Marcus Westberg said:

“The deep bonds that exist between these orphans, their carers and [gorilla doctor Eddie Kambale – pictured] is one of the most touching things I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.”

imageThe last photograph of the exhibition that I’d like to highlight is one that brings me full circle to my recent move to the City Neil Aldridge‘s Little Fox in the Big City.

My first night of living in Hammersmith, I woke up in the middle of the night, unsettled in a new environment, and walked into the kitchen to spot a beautiful fox hopping and dancing its way through the car park in the centre of the square court of flats I now live in.

I must have spent about 10 minutes just watching the creature’s manic movements and comical chattering, and felt truly blessed to be watching over at this ungodly hour: probably the only person to witness this fascinating and private ritual.

Having spent my whole life growing up in Norfolk; on the edge of Thetford Forest, I’d never once seen a live wild fox (though roadside casualties aplenty)!), but moving to London I saw a fox the very first night.

The urban fox is a well-established resident, and Aldridge’s striking image captures that entirely.image

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is on at the Natural History Museum until the 2nd May, and includes many, many more striking and impressive pictures than the handful I have picked out here.

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Saving rhinos the Black Mambas’ way: Anneka Svenska interview

The Black Mambas are a nearly all-women anti-poaching unit created to protect the rhinos of the 400km² Balule Nature Reserve, and keep poachers out of the park.

Aside from the fact that the unit is made up almost entirely from women; the surprising thing about the Black Mambas is: they do it unarmed.

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Presenter, film maker and founder of Green World TV, Anneka Svenska last week released a 10-minute film of the Black Mambas and their work – having recently returned from South Africa with Producer Nigel Marven to create the documentary short on behalf of UK-based charity: Helping Rhinos.

Anneka Svenska dismantling snaresI’m a big supporter of independent films, having blogged for the St Albans Film Festival in the past (where I met Save Me videographer and camera man / editor of the official World Animal Day video 2015, Michael Dias) and interviewed fellow former Uni of Herts student Amanda Gardner, the Producer and Assistant Editor of the incredibly moving short documentary, The Elephant in Room. Despite her crazy week of interviews with The Daily Mail and BBC Radio 5 live, I caught up with Anneka to find out more…

“We want to inspire change all over the world in communities; to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.”

 

Where did the idea of filming with the Black Mambas come from?

Producer and Zoologist Nigel Marven and I were made aware of the work the Black Mambas do through supporting the charity Helping Rhinos. We did some research and realised that these ladies, despite being unarmed women have achieved some amazing things such as a 76% reduction in poaching in their reserve in just two years. It’s such a simple concept – employing poorer communities to take part in ranger projects. The Mambas simply have a visible presence, no weapons and this alone can deter poachers to choose not to poach in that area.

Anneka-Nigel-and-Michael-meet-Jade-and-The-Mambas

What was the main motivation for the film?

To spread the word that anyone can make a change. With so much corruption throughout the world, not just in African countries, the wildlife is losing, as people are more interested in money than protecting the animals. However, small uprisings of people all over the world are happening. Not just the Black Mambas, but elsewhere too. We wanted to show that anyone could make a difference. We want to inspire change all over the world in communities to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.

What was the best part of filming?

It was meeting the rhino orphans. Bitter sweet as it is wrong that they have ever ended up in an orphanage to start with, but to bottle feed the babies was out of this world. My favourite part of the trip was hearing the beautiful sounds that rhinos make. It reminds me of the smaller Frankenstein out of Carry on Screaming. It is such a very sweet sound. You must try and look it up on YouTube just to hear it. I cried the first time I laid eyes on a rhino orphan.

Feeding baby rhino - the best experience

What was the worst part of filming?

Finding the snared buffalo and realising that it would have taken four weeks to die. These animals are adapted for drought conditions, so it must have suffered dreadfully. I was also told that some locals want to kill all of the wildlife, as they feel that it belongs to the white man and not theirs anymore, so it’s important that everyone feels that they are guardians of these animals. The Bush Baby programme, which the Black Mambas have started at local schools, is helping with this, by empowering and educating the children. Also The Black Mamba programme is allowing the communities to protect their native wildlife and feel part of the equation.

buffalo caught in snare the worst part of filming

“They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but the wild animals they protect.”

I first heard about the Black Mambas last year, after reading an incredible piece about them in TIME Magazine (which I referenced in an earlier reflective blog post). Being a self-confessed advocate of school education, I was keen to question Anneka more about the education programmes that the Mambas are involved in, and whether TIME’s philosophy that: “They may not be able to stop poachers with pepper spray alone. But they can stop them with education” was one that could actually be realised…

Anneka in the classroom

How effective is education as a defence against poaching?

Many of the children are very poor and only eat at school. I was told that some of their families poach for bush meat to feed the families.

I think an effective defence would come from several things: you have to empower the children to protect the wildlife by making them feel that it’s theirs to protect. You have to educate them as to why the animals are so important to the future of the planet. Also, their culture is very different than the white settlers. It is very difficult to break tradition that has been in families for generations and many families have been moved off wildlife reservations for the animals, and this has caused resentment. You can only offer them employment in tourism and ranger programmes to make up for this. So education and employment needs to go hand in hand, with good leadership to wipe out any corruption.

Eventually as jobs are provided and Africa develops, the old ways will change anyway, as they have done in the UK and other countries. Africa is predicted to have a huge population increase and towns will expand and develop over the next 50 years – this means all ways of life will change anyhow. The importance of keeping land for the animals will become an even bigger priority.

Were any of your expectations or initial ideas about the Black Mambas challenged?

Yes, I didn’t realise that they were 100 per cent unarmed until I was out there. They are very vulnerable, but so very brave. They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but also the wild animals they protect.

Siphiwe made a valid point that she is glad they are not armed, as many people she knows would use weapons incorrectly if given that power, so they are pure to the project if they remain unarmed.

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska with two of The Mambas

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska in the classroom with two of The Mambas

Finally, when and where can we see the documentary?

Its live now, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFBXNePubjg

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Many thanks to Anneka Svenska. Please check out this fantastic documentary and don’t forget to like and share!

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Is there no end to Ivory poaching?

This fortnight elephants have been on my mind. I’ve been watching the beautiful new BBC documentary ‘Africa’ on BBC 1 on Wednesday nights, and, like most people that watched it last week, found myself  so caught up in the wonderful photography, beautiful landscapes and heart-breaking stories of motherhood and harsh droughts. What an incredible, some times painful series.

With elephants in the forefront of my mind, I found myself on a train journey the next day reading a piece of literature my Nan had passed onto me over Christmas – a newsletter from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), whom she supports. This particular issue was talking about the IFAW’s work in the National Park of Boubanjida, Cameroon, where they have liaised with Cameroon authorities to secure military presence in the park to tackle poaching. Success!

The article explains that the Cameroon military stormed Sudanese poachers whom had already killed 650 of the 1000 elephants there; another success! Bad guy’s have been caught, military are on patrol and there’s even another article about a march, thousands of people strong, demanding the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) stop allowing some limited ivory trade to continue, which it has been doing since the global banning of commercial ivory trade in 1989. Globally the IFAW   has collected 290,000 petitions to end the ivory trade, a nice backing to the July march.

So I suppose I found myself in a state of naïve, triumphant ignorance when I received a call from my mum to ask if I’d heard the news about Kenya. My sense of triumphant disappeared pretty quickly when I heard about what has been described as Kenya’s worst case of ivory poaching for years. The remains of an entire family of elephants were found in a Kenyan national park, slaughtered for ivory, including eleven adults and one infant calf. All were shot dead and their tusks removed.

When I think of watching the beautiful herds I saw moving through Shamwari Game Reserve, and the precious moments we got be close up to them, I feel even more grateful. I guess with most things in life, when it comes to ivory poaching it seems like 2 steps forward, 1 step back.

Here are some of my precious encounters with elephants at Shamwari that I’d love to share:

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Rhino Conservation

It is with great sadness this week that I have been reading article such as this one;  stating that at least 51 rhinos have been killed this year for their horns.

I have come across many articles about rhinos lately, and it’s no surprise to me that they are often in the spotlight given the fact that they have such a history of being poached and hunted. Whenever I hear another sad story about how these huge, powerful creatures are the subject of human attack I find it nearly impossible to comprehend.

A mother and Calf at Shamwari

Several times at Shamwari I had close encounters with rhinos. There are both types of African rhino present at Shamwari Game Reserve; the more common white rhino, and the rare black rhino. During my 3-month stay I only saw black rhinos twice. The two can be distinguished from one another by their size (white rhino is larger) and the shape of their nose (black rhinos have a more pointed shape; where as white rhinos have a more square nose).

The Black Rhino that I encountered

Black rhinos seemed to be the more timid of the two from my experience; the times that I encountered them they simply ran away from our vehicle when we got too close. White rhinos on the other hand were a much scarier kettle of fish! Not only was our vehicle chased in the day, but twice I was in a group than got followed by several of these powerful creatures whilst on a bush walk (just a group of us on foot, with nothing between ourselves and the animal). There was also one specific night drive where a particularly grumpy white rhino tried to charge into the side of the vehicle that I sitting on! Even as we sped up to drive away it kept pace for a good few minutes. It’s not an exaggeration to say my heart leapt into my throat and stayed there until we’d finally broke away from this grumpy male.

Being Charged!

But even after these experiences my respect for rhinos has not wavered. If anything it has increased. Through getting up close like this I have been able to see the size and power of rhinos and most impressively the speed that they can run despite their huge size (I expected them to be clumsy, lumbering  beasts).  That said, they can be a little on the clumsy side when fighting…

One other rhino incident at Shamwari that is difficult to forget is the day we had went to watch the Shamwari vet and his team remove two males from the Bushman’s River after they’d toppled off a cliff during a fight and drowned. This was a sombre day (to lose two perfectly healthy males through their own clumsiness) but this was a great opportunity for education (we got to perform an autopsy ) and a reminder of just how delicate life is (even in the biggest of creatures). Life in a game reserve really does hang in the balance and with so many threats towards animals such as rhinos; it highlights how important conservation work towards maintaining population numbers of species really is.