Kelbe Photography

Life In A Blink Of An Eye

Rhinos Saved

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Living in the heart of Zululand it is no surprise we identify strongly with many current wildlife and ecological issues. After all this is such a beautiful, unique and precious corner of the world. However the rhino occupies a special place in our hearts. Perhaps because 1 hour down the road from our little village is the Umfolozi-Hluhluwe park. It is here that the battle to save the rhino from extinction so gloriously began in the 1960's. We were all heartened by the apparent success of the white rhino breeding program pioneered at Umfolozi and have felt personal pride when visiting other parks both here in South Africa and in our neighbouring countries when we find they have been successfully restocked with rhinos from Umfolozi. Its like meeting up with a long lost relative who emigrated, although the happiness may be a bit one sided!



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The last white rhino was seen in the Kruger park in 1896. In 1961 the first white rhino was reintroduced into the Kruger and over the next 12 years 345 white rhino were relocated successfully from Umfolozi. In 1971 the first of 78 black rhino was reintroduced into the Kruger park from Umfolozi and the Kruger Park now boasts the largest rhino population in the world. So the rhino is the mascot of Zululand and we all identify with this. However our sense of exhilaration has been all too brief and has been replaced by a sense of impending doom as the reality of exponentially increasing rhino poaching takes its devastating toll . Suddenly we are looking at the reality of rhino extinction, not as a distant possibility but as a near certainty within our lifetime.




Rhino Facts




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There are 5 species of rhino, the black and white rhino are endemic to Africa and the Javan, Sumatran and Indian rhino to Asia.

The white rhino is the largest and most populous species and has 2 subspecies, the northern is critically endangered with only 3 still living in the wild, and the southern is our beloved white rhino which numbers just over 20,000. We are lucky to get to see and watch this rhino often as the Umfolozi park still has a healthy population of white rhinos who are never far from view, grazing on the grass by the road or wallowing at nearby mud holes. We have also been able to walk in the park on several walking safaris when we bump into the white rhino often. He is fairly blind and placid but he can turn on a tickey when he wants and has an impressive turn of speed for such a large creature. We have had a few heart palpitations while picking off thorns from the nearby tree in case we have to climb it to get away from a mock charge. I swear on one occasion my heart rate never went below 160 bpm for 3 days as we ran into, and were mock charged by, so many of them.


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The grumpy black rhino (we once saw 2 black rhino chase a car for 500 m down the road just because they could!) has 5 subspecies. There are just over 5000 black rhino in total and in 2011 the first rhino subspecies to be declared extinct was the West African black rhino. The black is a bush browser and usually hangs out in thick bush so he is much more difficult to find and a rarer photo opportunity, except that is in Etosha where he frequents the night water holes, and in the Ngorogoro crater where he behaves much more like his white cousin and has taken to grazing the grasslands.

The Indian rhino is critically endangered with only a few left in protected areas of India , Nepal and Pakistan.

There are only 60 Javan rhinos left all in a protected park in Indonesia. The last Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed in 2010 , shot in the leg and its horn removed.

The Sumatran rhino is the smallest hairiest rhino and only 275 remain. It too is critically endangered with one subspecies already extinct.

Rhinos Poached


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So what is the problem actually? The first threat to the rhino came from loss of habitat and increased urbanization and population growth. The numbers in Southern Africa fell from 500,000 at the turn of the 20th century to just 70,000 in the 1970's and this was the impetus for the work done so successfully by Umfolozi. However this was before the black market rhino horn trade took off and poaching became such a huge factor, indeed the most significant factor in rhino survival. The rhino horn trade raised its head significantly first in the1980's. Before that the numbers poached were very small, less than 15 a year. In 2008 86 rhinos were taken and since 2015 it is over 1000 a year and growing on an exponential curve. In our neighbouring countries a similar trend is evolving and the rhino children of Umfolozi are being decimated across the rhino range, albeit on a smaller scale which reflects their smaller populations. 2013 saw the last 15 rhino in Mozambique poached.

Rhinos Horn

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Rhino horn is used widely in south east Asia. Vietnam is in fact the biggest user of rhino horn, not China as many believe. Nor is it traditionally an aphrodisiac. That is a common western misconception. It was used traditionally as a Chinese medicine for fever, liver disease, convulsions and to cleanse the blood but was removed from the Chinese pharmacopeia in the 1990's 's after a multinational agreement. That, along with trade bans and poaching crackdowns controlled both supply and demand until the 1980's. So what changed? It is believed one of the driving factors for the increased demand was fuelled by a Vietnamese politician who announced, In the mid 1980's, that he had been cured of his cancer by rhino horn. Why was this important? Well to answer this you have to understand something of the epidemiology of disease and infrastructure of the health system as well as social and population development in Vietnam.


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In the last 5 years the tally of multimillionaires in Vietnam has increased by over 150% This burgeoning economy has created a middle and upper class with much more disposable income. As in many rapidly developing countries the infrastructure and facilities have not caught up with the demands and expectations. Health infrastructure, in particular, is still lacking. Cancer has a high incidence with 150,000 new cases per year but the waiting time for treatment is long. There are only 25 radiotherapy machines in the whole country. This equates to 3.5 million people per machine as compared to 500,000 in South Africa and 200,000 in the UK for example. As a result cancer is diagnosed in late stages and treatment is delayed with predictably poor response and outcomes. What happens in medicine when traditional medical systems fail? It is a desperate and emotional diagnosis and people are driven to great lengths to find a solution. They fall back on alternative treatments which is one of the driving forces behind the demand. Never mind there is no scientific rationale. Even some highly respected doctors recommend it. The high cost would have been a limiting factor previously but is no longer such a barrier because of the increatse in disposable income and the burgeoning middle classes. Suddenly this means the demand and means increased exponentially. Additionally a status has been applied to the horn because of the high cost, more expensive by weight than gold, cocaine or diamonds. So there is additional use as a symbol of wealth, as a gift, especially to people of influence, or in a social situation. Spurious indications have also broadened with the lifestyle associations to include the use as a hangover cure. Again a growing middle class with greater disposable income has led to a much heavier and more ready and regular use of alcohol. Even people in authority promote and readily admit to the use. The market expands, the demand increases, risks to profit ratios become attractive and the poaching epidemic is born and driven. Newer hunting technology fed by a deep reservoir of funding complete the picture of this unequal battle. Clearly education and social and health reforms must form the backbone of the fight against the consumer use of rhino horn but the Vietnamese have shunned any responsibility for the program and believe the guardians of the rhino bear this burden alone. Under resourced and battling corruption and perverse incentives ourselves it seems like an insurmountable challenge but like Jon Comm says South Africa bears the responsibility with strength and patience. We pay tribute to all those involved in the fight who remain committed to saving this noble beast. Our rhino. Your rhino.