Building a legacy of action – Project Rhino KZN

Francois du Toit: CEO: African Conservation Trust: A member of Project Rhino KZN

As KwaZulu Natal, South Africa hosts the world’s leaders in the COP17 deliberations, the outcome of which will bring much commentary, and the process of which is confusing even to insiders, the real issues facing conservation in South Africa and the world continue to remain as challenging as ever.

We face species and biodiversity loss on a scale never before seen in humankind, and a threat to our very existence as we destroy the fabric of our fragile world in our quest for material possessions. South African (and many developing nation) leaders struggle with the balancing act of redressing of historic imbalances, whilst building a new economy. Leaders all over the world grapple with a basic understanding of the fragility of the systems upon which they seek to build a new future. Capitalism has failed the environment. It is not sustainable. It is, by its very definition, a resource exploitative system. All around us is clear and unambiguous evidence of the destruction of the natural resource base and environmental services which laid the foundation for past growth but which is being undermined in a race for wealth. Material wealth, that is. But what is wealth? Is it purely material or is it deeper than that? Have we lost sight of the things that are important to us? Community, family, clean air, clean rivers, open space, humility, fellowship.

The “Green” movement is often seen by economic growth proponents and business as counter-productive. It becomes a “Them vs Us” battle, sides are chosen, lines are drawn, and the real issues lost in a fog of PR and spin. This is sad, but true. Radical conservationists do themselves no favours by emotional gesturing and public shock displays. These are tools, yes, but more often than not result in alienation, not only of the business sector, but also of the common public, who react with horror when faced with bloody corpses and graphic images. Without knowledge and understanding of any environmental issue, the public will not acknowledge and cannot therefore respect nor love, and without love they will not act. And action is what we require now. Not isolated action by self serving groups, (this includes, sadly, much of the environmental NGO sector, who chase the same funding sources and appear in many instances to be contradicting each other in an effort to destroy reputations and therefore credibility), but a combined effort to address the mounting pressure on limited resources and our environmental legacy.

The environmental cause has always been a complex one, with agendas, passion and historical, political, economic and social influences. Nothing has changed. What is it that we wish to be remembered for? That we were part of the greatest extinction since the Ice-age? That we sat idle whilst rhinos and other species vanished before our very eyes, within our lifetime? How will we answer our grandchildren’s questions: Why didn’t you stop them? Will you say you were too busy working, for what? For more things, or for your family’s legacy? As I reread this, I realise that only I can answer these questions, not only for myself, but more importantly, for future generations…

In the midst of this, South Africa has, over the past 3 years, experienced what can only be described as an onslaught to one of its iconic Big Five species, the Rhino.

122 rhino killed in 2009, 333 rhino killed in 2010, over 400 by the beginning of December 2011. In the period 2000-2007, a total of 100 rhino’s poached. In 2008, 83 poached. What happened? Why now? Who is doing this?

Nearly 50 years ago, in the 1960’s, a group of visionary, active, vociferous conservationists fought to bring the rhino back from extinction. And they succeeded. Operation Rhino, spearheaded by Dr Ian Player, with men such as Magqubu Ntombela, Jim Feely, Nick Steele, Ken Tinley, and many others, too numerous to mention, was an international success story. It brought to the fore the tales of yesteryear, brave men galloping through the thick, thorny African bushveld, this time not slaughtering thousands of animals in the bloodlust of trophy hunting, but trying desperately, through trial and error, to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. These men built on the actions of others before them, the visionaries who fought for the preservation of large tracts of land, Kruger National Park, Umfolozi, Hluhluwe, Ndumo, Mkuze, land which was protected and declared a national heritage (although often in not as many words, the intention was there), despite the protestations from farmers, businessmen and others who sought ownership and exploitation for their own personal gain. People like Major Vaughn Kirby, Roden Symons, Captain HB Potter, and their predecessors.

Read the chronicles of these men and women, and then you will begin to understand that we face the same threats now as we faced 50 years ago, 100 years ago. History repeats itself. Only this time there may be no turning back. The population of the world has hit the 7 billion mark. Pressure to feed this mass of humanity is mounting. Some say we have already reached the tipping point.

But history will tell us also of the incredible fortitude of humankind, of its ability to turn the tide when we collectively decide to do so. But this will require leadership, and courage, and action.

So when a group of involved, concerned environmentally active NGO leaders and their staff were moved to act, as the rhinos fell daily, Project Rhino was born. Project Rhino was not born this year, the NGO’s that form its core have not only been concerned about the plight of the rhino in the years 2010 and 2011. They have been fighting this fight for many years, some for over 50 years, and came together to work together, realising that collectively they could make a bigger impact than as separate entities.

Project Rhino is not just a project, with a limited and defined time period and budget. It is greater than that; it builds on the legacy of the conservationists of yesteryear, some living, some dead; it builds on decades and even centuries of dedication, it recognises that the sector had become fragmented, disjointed and, for the general public, often confusing. It seeks to create a platform for interaction, for a combined front to halt this devastation. It is a collective of like-minded organisations, staffed and led by individuals that have a deep sense of the current crisis facing conservation and the environment. Many of its members are deeply entrenched in “pure rhino” or species specific activities, many have a broader conservation and environment focus, but all recognise the interconnectedness of the conservation effort and that in order to survive this latest onslaught, we must act together.

Many individuals within these organisations were “simply office staff” earning a wage or a salary, and not necessarily embedded in environmental issues. Such is the nature of the sector today, where we exist as part business, part social enterprise, part magician and part conscience. Some staff and leaders have a quiet history of engagement. Without fail, all are deeply moved by this “sudden”, visual and disturbing slaughter.

Project Rhino, for me anyway, is not just about the Rhino. The Rhino is an icon, a species that is under threat, daily being decimated, severed heads placed on public roads in national reserves as a blatant taunt by poaching syndicates to the authorities. Project Rhino is indicative of the tip of the iceberg, the unseen hideous cancer that is destroying our communities, eating away at our souls. We have lost touch with the wilderness. Our leaders have forgotten what it is like to be a civil servant (in many instances they are neither civil nor servants!). Neighbours do not know each other. We operate in isolation, watching BBC documentaries about species under threat, without realising it is happening under our noses.

Is the Rhino going to be this generation’s Dodo, or Carrier Pigeon? Are we going to stand and watch or are we going to do something? Project Rhino seeks to do something. We are all moving in the same direction, each doing their own specialist or generalist activity, with some overlaps, but we are communicating, working together to fill in the gaps left by bureaucrats, and historically inept officialdom. Not just the past 17 years, but centuries of ineptitude! There are champions amongst this group, but their efforts are most often than not deafened by the greed of others.

Africa is a special place. Go on a true Wilderness Trail and you will be impacted, moved to action, not by some mystical force, but because you realise how vulnerable we really are, and how old the earth really is, and how fragile the relationship really is. You will gain some deeper understanding of your place, your purpose and your passion.

Your action will have been triggered, a small seed sown that may only be reaped in years to come, but it will have been sown.

It is the wild spaces that make Africa special, and KwaZulu Natal is amongst those most special places on earth. Populous, pressurised, in many places polluted, but still very special.

Project Rhino must and will build on the actions of the brave men and women who came before them. They had the foresight to stand up and fight for the spaces they knew were special. They lay in front of bulldozers for St Lucia, they were beaten and bruised to save the Rhino, they fought, they rallied, they lived, breathed, ate and slept these causes. And they continue to do so, through the alliance of Project Rhino KZN, this group of people, organisations and communities that is growing daily.

I personally hope that, one day, my children’s children will be able to proudly point to my small actions and say that though there is still much work to be done, we were a generation that did something selfless for future generations. That we stopped this slaughter in its tracks and that this was the turning point. 2011.

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