Behind the scenes on I’m A Celebrity: One Aussie teen on big mission to save rhinos
Beth Laughlin, 19, has spent the past five weeks volunteering at the Rhino Revolution Blue Canyon Conservancy anti-poaching unit near Kruger National Park in South Africa.
“I guess a lot of people’s greed has taken over our duty to look after a beautiful creature like this,” Laughlin told Confidential.
The facts are startling. If poaching continues at its current rate, both the black and white rhinoceros will be completely extinct within five years.
There are currently just 2000 black rhinoceros and no more than 30,000 white rhinos in the world, including those in captivity in zoos and private reserves.
A Rhino dies every eight hours in South Africa, meaning at least three a day. In 2014, more than 1215 were killed by poachers, an increase of 21 per cent on the previous year despite huge efforts to stop poaching. And that doesn’t take into account those orphaned or injured and dying later.
Rhinos can fall pregnant every four to five years with gestation lasting 15 months and one baby born at a time.
Laughlin has been based at Rhino Revolution’s headquarters on the Blue Canyon reserve just outside a town called Hoedspruit.
She found out about the project by researching volunteer experiences in Africa.
Rhino Revolution combined the volunteering experience with her love of horses. As well as traditional anti-poaching measures — armed guards, car, bike and quad-bike patrols — they’ve brought in former racing horses as mounted units to patrol and protect the 50 white Rhino’s and two black Rhino’s on the property.
“I will definitely be coming back,” said Laughlin, from Yarragon in Gippsland, Victoria, of the experience.
“I think it is really amazing how they are using these race horses. Rather than sending them out to a paddock or to be used as dog meat, they’re here and they love doing this. It is like pleasure for them too. I think they really enjoy it.”
Laughlin, who is due back in Australia midyear to begin a double degree in criminology and psychological science at Deakin University, is among the first volunteers for the project and finishes up her six week stint next week.
There’s another Australian connection in that former racehorse, Sonic Barrier, was born in Australia before being bought by leading South African trainer Marcus Jooste.
Lisa Harris, whose partner Trevor Jordan started Rhino Revolution, was a respected horse trainer in Zimbabwe before she moved to South Africa to work on the project.
“We were just really battling to find homes for our horses when they’d finished racing,” Harris said.
“Short of feeding them to the lions, I just didn’t know what to do with them. And I didn’t understand why they weren’t already using horses. They’re quiet and the guides are alert and awake. They obviously cover far more ground than you would walking and they access areas that quad bikes or motorcycles couldn’t access and they’re not really ideal because they’re noisy. They leave no footprint.”
Rhinos are killed for their horns, which can earn more than $US100,000 per kg on the black market — valued higher than gold. A single horn is about four to five kgs.
Horns — made of keratin like hair and fingernails — are hugely popular in China and Vietnam and throughout South East Asia. They’re used as ornaments and ground down for traditional medicines.
Rhinoceros’ horns grow back if removed properly with some suggesting they should be farmed safely for their horns. Save up the horns, flood the market and starve the poachers of a living.
Rhino Revolution humanely dehorn to reduce chances of poaching while other game reserves inject poison into Rhino horns as a deterrent.
Horn trading is illegal in South Africa but not in neighbouring countries like Mozambique, which is on the boarder of Kruger National Park.
Some argue that the attention shouldn’t be all on the Rhinoceros and that other animals are being overlooked. Elephant are also sought after for their valuable tusks with three to four killed a day in South Africa. There’s also a thriving trade in lion body parts.
But all involved at Rhino Revolution argue that the project stops poaching across the board.
“This is protecting all the animals,” said Harris.
Rhino Revolution chief executive Chris Martin added: “We take a very military approach. We have a big intelligence network, which provides us intel on any potential incursions through the fences. It helps all species. Our anti-poaching effort isn’t just about the Rhino. They’re the kind of cover guy if you like for conservation at the moment but at the end of the day, if it wasn’t Rhino’s, it would be elephants or pangolins. The effort that we have on the ground is to combat all poaching.”
I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! co-host and Bondi Vet Chris Brown has spent time with the Rhino Revolution team in downtime from shooting.
“Pretty much everything that is African wildlife is in the cross hairs when it comes to poaching,” said Martin, an expat Brit who is also a professional wildlife photographer.
“There’s a huge amount of sadness and frustration about how big this issue is. It is nonsensical. There is no true answer as to why apart from money and that is the tragedy. You would think that given the amount of people and organisations working to try to stop it. But it shows that the suspicion of corruption and higher levels of infiltration are actually occurring because why else is it so hard to control.”
Martin’s message is clear and simple.
“I would like people to just really sit and think and understand how severe this situation is,” he said. “This is one of the greatest threats to conservation in the world and it is an iconic species. This is the potential extinction of one of the world’s iconic species and at the end of the day we’ve all got a vested interest for the next generation. You don’t want your kids and grandkids to learn about Rhinos from pictures, it isn’t right and we can fix it.”
Interestingly, Martin and the Rhino Revolution team aren’t completely against hunting.
“Culturally in South Africa, hunting is a huge thing,” he said.
“From a conservation perspective, you can’t divorce hunting from conservation because if it wasn’t for hunting conservation as we know it today wouldn’t exist. The money that is generated today pretty much funds all of the major conservation efforts that are going on across South Africa.”
Asked about Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath’s recent scandal, in which he was photographed with a dead elephant, Martin said: “It’s a very emotive subject and if I was a celebrity of any shape or form, I don’t think it would be a bright idea to put a picture on my Facebook page of me standing next to a dead elephant. You are going to incense the public by doing that. That said, hunting in its rawest form, if it is done correctly, can generate a lot of money to conservation and that is a very difficult message for a lot of people to hear.”
Martin said there is a difference between big international poaching conglomerates, tourism hunting and struggling local farmers.
“You’ve got to understand you have some of the poorest communities in Africa living next door to you so the temptation to jump over the fence and take an Impala when people are starving, you understand that,” he said. “It doesn’t make it right.”
Alex Kehoe, 40, from the UK, has also volunteered at Rhino Revolution.
“The best thing for me has been coming across a poachers den and being able to report that and actually feel like you’ve made a difference,” she said.
“These precious animals are all disappearing too fast. To think that we are going to lose these animals because of greed, a lack of education or for the pure fact that it is a status symbol to have a horn of one of these animals, to me it is absolutely crazy and we’ve got to do something.”