The town that’s saying no to rhino poaching

ACPP41  Vincent Barkas outside Protrack Anti-Poaching Unit officVincent Barkas is stooped over the ground in front of his office. He’s adding yet another white cross to the many rows of white crosses that mark the loss of every rhino killed in South Africa’s current poaching epidemic. The stark memorials, lining the road in the safari gateway town of Hoedspruit, Limpopo, are a chilling reminder of just how much blood has been spilled in these latest rhino horn wars.

Behind the weathered features and shaggy, matted beard Vincent’s normally bright blue eyes look sad. He might well be the no-nonsense, macho hardman who set up Protrack, the town’s pioneering anti-poaching operation, but when he describes attending crime scenes where a rhino’s just been poached you can see he’s clearly affected by the horror of it all.

‘When you see it and it’s a cow that’s pregnant with a calf that’s been killed, it’s so upsetting. I get really pissed off. I’ve seen grown men sit on their bottoms and cry,’ he tells us.

Vincent, together with his business, Protrack, is a member of ‘Rhino Revolution’, a community-wide anti-poaching initiative set up by the people of Hoedspruit.  They want to prevent the tide of rhino poaching that’s swept through neighbouring Kruger National Park in the last two years from spilling over into their own backyard – an area rich in private game ranches and safari operations.

ACPP42  Sign to deter poachers ‘The war came to Hoedspruit in 2011,’ he says. ‘Until 2010 we’d only lost five rhinos in 20 years. In 2011 we lost 33 of them. So we looked at what we could do to keep our community together. We didn’t want to see it fragment with everybody doing their own thing which might risk opening up the cracks for the poachers. So we set up Rhino Revolution.’

‘It’s a multi-pronged effort. I can’t save all the rhinos in Hoedspruit, Protrack can’t save all the rhinos in Hoedspruit, but as a group we can do an awful lot. We brought in role players and rhino experts from all over the country and took their advice and pinched their ideas.  Before then no-one was talking to anyone about what was going on and we didn’t even have proper equipment for crime scenes,’ he explains.

When we spoke to him, only six rhinos had been lost in Hoedspruit in 2012 – a significant drop on the figure for the previous year.

ACPP44  Sign to deter poachersOne of the more radical solutions adopted by some of the rhino owners signed up to ‘Rhino Revolution’ has been to dehorn their rhinos. They’ve put up huge billboards on the few roads in and out of town broadcasting this fact. The hope is that this will help act as a deterrent to the poachers.

Clearly there’s a lot of financial pressure on private rhino owners in the area. ‘All the rhinos in the private sector have been paid for. So when a rhino gets shot on a private reserve here it’s a loss of R400,000 to R500,000,’ says Vincent.

Not every member of ‘Rhino Revolution’ is in favour of dehorning, however, including Vincent.  ‘I think the most upsetting thing for me is seeing a rhino being dehorned. You feel like a pig, just coming along and cutting its face off and saying it’s because you’re trying to save it’.

But he explains that in terms of preserving the town’s united approach to the poaching problem such personal views are not really the key issue.

‘When we started Rhino Revolution we had an open concept: it doesn’t matter whether you’re for dehorning or against it. We wanted to sit down like adults and put the species first,’ he says.

Another founding member of Rhino Revolution has his office just along the way from Vincent’s, although the smart interior is just a little bit more chic.  Patrick Jordan is an estate agent with Jordan Properties in Hoedspruit. The company develops and sells swanky homes in the bush, where the Big Five take a short-cut through your garden.  Patrick invited us into the boardroom to give us the lowdown on how Rhino Revolution got off the ground.

‘We had a rhino poached on the Blue Canyon conservancy which my Dad owns. He got tired of all these organisations just saying ‘what now?’ and not doing anything, so he invited a whole bunch of rhino owners round a table and said let’s all work as a team.

ACPP43  Sign to deter poachers‘We agreed the easiest thing to do immediately to alleviate the pressure was to dehorn. So we’ve dehorned all of our rhinos and many other farms have followed suit. Touch wood it’s working,’ he says, patting his hand on the elegant table.

Patrick explains that some rhino owners, understandably, have been reluctant to dehorn.  This is partly because of the possible adverse impact on tourism which is vital for the area.

‘My personal opinion,’ says Patrick, ‘is that at least you can say to tourists we’re doing something. Our rhinos may not have horns, but they’re alive.’

Sandwiched between Patrick and Vincent’s office is Peter Rodgers’ veterinary practice. He’s something of a rhino specialist and has been involved in carrying out many of the dehorning operations locally. Between patients, and after negotiating our way past the friendly cats in his consulting room, we ask him about the welfare implications of dehorning Hoedspruit’s rhinos.

‘Dehorning in South Africa is a relatively new procedure, although it was done in Hwange in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s. To date we haven’t noticed anything that’s a definite negative,’ he says. ‘Except perhaps in areas with lots of carnivores where a rhino may use its horn to protect a calf – but she’s a pretty big animal anyway. Or possibly where bulls fight over territory. But having said that, if you’re going to dehorn you need to dehorn every single animal so as not to leave one with an advantage over the others,’ he adds.

The people of Hoedspruit clearly have a range of views on the dehorning of their rhinos, but their united approach towards defending them and saying no to the poachers seems to be paying off.

Both Vincent and Patrick agree one of the biggest reasons for their success is the decision to make community education part of Rhino Revolution’s remit from the very start.

‘Community involvement is a big part of what Rhino Revolution does,’ explains Patrick Jordon. ‘Some of the kids here had never seen a rhino before we did this. Suddenly when they do it all clicks and they take that message home. I think that’s a big part of why poaching has decreased here.’

ACPE07 Sboniso 'Spoon' Phakathi with 'Green Kidz'‘Involving local communities has been the most important thing,’ concurs Vincent, who helped set up and sponsor the ‘Green Kidz Initiative’ eco-education clubs run by local rhino-warrior Spoon Phakathi (see previous blog entry).

‘I believe Spoon’s work has had the biggest impact on reducing the number of poaching incidents here, suggests Vincent.

‘Everybody out there’s throwing guns and ammunition at this problem. I think this country’s had enough of guns and ammunition. We need to communicate with one another more,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to go out there now and create a new energy towards conservation.’

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One Comment on “The town that’s saying no to rhino poaching”

  1. themasaidiary March 28, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Reblogged this on The Maasai Diary and commented:
    Has it been fully determined that rhinos don’t need their horns?!

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