What inspired your love of wildlife, particularly the rhino?
I was born in South Africa, in the northeast part where the Kruger National Park is. I spent my early life in that region and my family used to go to the Kruger National Park for holidays and I suppose that is where my interest and enjoyment of wildlife started. I would go every year with my parents and then with my wife and family – we grew up loving wildlife, essentially.
How prevalent was poaching when you were growing up?
It didn’t exist, around 2009 is when it really took off. I would imagine there has been some low level poaching along the way but nothing that would make headlines at all. It was completely foreign. There has been a dramatic escalation since 2009 from something like 60 rhinos killed and then in 2013 it had risen to 1006 and in 2014 it increased to 1215. This year it is tracking at about 120 rhinos a month. I think a lot of those statistics are understated by about 20 to 30 percent, purely because of the area of the Kruger National Park – which is as big as Wales – is they don’t find all the carcasses. It’s just a huge area.
Was it these statistics that made the biggest impact on you, personally?
Absolutely. The whole mantra of African wildlife tourism revolves around the Big Five – the lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and the rhino. If you see a rhino or a crocodile, it would be the closest we can come to seeing a dinosaur – I’m not trying to be flippant in any way, it just a fact. They’ve been on the planet for ten million years. In this day and age for an animal that is so iconic to become extinct is just unacceptable. If you and I don’t do something about it, who will?
How did the idea for the Australian Rhino Project come about?
How it all started was quite odd. In May 2013 a chap I worked with at IBM In Johannesburg called me out of the blue – I hadn’t heard from him in 25 years – and said the situation with rhinos was dire and that a few people were thinking that Australia would be an ideal place to try and start a breeding herd and why don’t I do it. That was an interesting call, I thought “why me?”. I had a chat to my wife and family and they said I should give it a go. That’s how the thing started.
We went to the Sydney University Faculty of Veterinary Science and they were very interested in helping but they said we wouldn’t get anywhere unless we spoke to Taronga Zoo, because they worked with rhinos. It was one of those things where you think you can pursue an idea until someone says “that’s a great idea but it’s not going to work” – I was expecting that to happen at any point in time but when I went to Taronga and they, to my joy, said they’d like to be involved for a couple of reasons. First was for the conservation side of things but also to introduce genetic diversity in the rhinos they already have here. What many may not know is that there are 53 or 54 rhinos already in Australia, scattered around the country.
On that note, there is an estimate that if something doesn’t change rhinos could be extinct within ten years. How correct is that statement?
I’m probably a little bit more pessimistic than that but we must qualify that by saying ‘rhinos in the wild’ because there will always be rhinos in zoos. If you look at the statistics, and it all depends on what your starting point is, it talks about a tipping point. That’s where the kill rate exceeds the birth rate. Rhinos have a gestation period of 16 months and they only drop one calf at a time and the female usually has another after four years. It just tells you about the breeding patterns – a lot of people suggest that we are there or at least close to being there, on the path to extinction, because the delays between babies and the 16 months of gestation mitigates against survival. There are two main species of rhino that are left, the African Black and the African White – both are very different. The white is what we are bringing over, it’s a very docile animal but the black is not. However the poachers don’t care – if they come across either they’ll shoot it. A rhino horn value on the black market is about $80,000 a kilo. Multiply that by an average size rhino horn and you can see how much money is on the table, a stunning amount of money.
The aim of the rhino project is to get rhinos breeding in Australia. What area have you chosen for the settlement and what makes it conducive to breeding?
The ideal ratio for rhinos to breed is one male to eight females. The male will go with anyone because that’s the nature of his world. You probably need a nucleus of 20 following that ratio for breeding to be successful. The laws of moving endangered animals are determined by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES, it’s basically the primary regulator for trafficking and transportation of endangered species. They make the rules – we have to bring them into a captive population. They will initially go to Dubbo because there is a quarantine facility there – that’s to ensure they don’t have any diseases which are going to impact on anything Australian. Our plan is to bring in 20 a year for four years. Obviously reserves cant accommodate them so we are looking for places which are suitable. We have identified a number places – which I can’t name from a security point of view – but there are potential spots in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. It’s a question of availability and affordability. From and ecological standpoint it’s a good fit.
Fast forward to when you’ve accumulated the 80 rhinos, what do you imagine the result to be?
We have selected the first six rhinos to be brought over – it was a group of 12 that became nine and is now hunted down to six. There is a sense of urgency there. We are losing three or four rhinos a day. The deal that we have put toward the source of the rhinos is that they will always own the rhinos. We have a custodial relationship, like a foster arrangement. We will look after the rhinos, keep them safe, breed them, nurture them until the time is right when we can re-seed the population in South Africa.
What can people do get involved?
The whole project is an expensive exercise. These are big animals – a big rhino will weight 2,500 kilograms and to fly them across to Australia is expensive. We are always accepting donations – anything from $10 is useful. Also, some people might have some skills that can help. There might be some people out here who have some skills and they can get in touch by our website. I respond to every single query that comes through.
Head to the Australian Rhino Project website to learn more about the dire plight of the rhino and to find out how you can help the project succeed.