When Culture and Conservation Collide

What do rhinos, pangolins and vultures all have in common?

It is no secret that the overall biological species composition on earth is declining at a rapid rate. The internet is “littered” with articles, videos, podcasts, and social media posts that tackle conservation related topics and raise awareness around critical environmental challenges that face the globe today.

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I say this with a heavy heart as although there are concerted efforts from numerous parties to reduce the negative impacts that humans have on biodiversity, it is still estimated that between 150 – 200 biological species become extinct every 24 hours. In fact, the current human population is likely the direct cause for one of the greatest mass extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs nearly 65 million years ago.

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Welgevonden’s previous, CEO, Bradley Schroder, is committed to running marathons to raise awareness for the “Save The Rhino” foundation

Although there are many anthropogenic factors that contribute towards animal extinction such as: habitat loss, pollution, agricultural development and exotic and introduced species to name a few, this article focuses on an unsustainable human activity that has been the direct cause for decimating a number of wild populations around the planet – illegal wildlife trade.

According to the WWF, the world is dealing with a massive spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatening to overturn decades of conservation progress. Bizarrely, in a world governed by scientific and technological development, it is the ancient beliefs of certain cultures that drive this destructive industry. For the most part, members of these cultures wrongly believe that the body parts of certain animal species have either healing or supernatural properties.

Although Welgevonden Game Reserve offers refuge to a number of these targeted species, this article focuses on three particularly threatened animals namely, the white rhino (Cerathotherium simum), Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), and certain vulture species.

Southern White Rhino

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A young rhino stomps her foot in an attempt to scare off a dove nearby

Thanks to the success of our anti-poaching incentives, Welgevonden is informally referred to as a rhino sanctuary. With the abundant population happily grazing throughout the Reserve, it is difficult to imagine that the species faced near extinction during the early 20th century.

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It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the conservation of these species gained traction. This was largely due to the efforts of “Operation Rhino”, which resulted in the increase of the population from 20 individuals to approximately 8 466 by 1997.

Sadly, this success story has been short lived and since 2007, poaching of rhino species for their keratin rich horn has increased by 7 700%! Records show that some 1 028 South African rhinos were illegally killed in 2017. It is well publicised that rhino horn is in demand in Asia, particularly Vietnam, where it is wrongly believed to cure a number of medicinal ailments. The horn is also known to be carved in to works of art and has lately even become a popular club drug.

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Fortunately, the current rhino poaching crises is widely supported by various parties across the globe and new and improved methods of tackling this issue are constantly being explored. 2018 has proven to be an exceptionally exciting time for anti-rhino poaching developments with concepts such as Welgevonden’s “Wildlife Protection Project” and Sabi Sand’s “Connected Conservation” proving that innovative technology has the power to alleviate the intensity of poaching and save both rhino and human lives in the process.

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Kololo guide, Andrew Dawson, watches over a small crash of grazing rhino

Ultimately however, even if South Africa manages to bolster their own law and enforcement thereof, empower the underprivileged communities tempted by the reward poaching has to offer, and enhance their anti-poaching techniques, without Vietnam and the rest of Asia’s cooperation, the poaching will inevitably continue until Africa’s “supply” has expired.

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Pip Myram smiles during a rhino intervention at Welgevonden Game Reserve

Pangolin

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This scaly anteater, often referred to as the most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of, is a rather unusual animal. The only mammal known to be armoured in thick keratin scales, this shy little insectivore can be spotted late at night scurrying across the Savannah floor in search of its favourite treats – termites and ants.

Unfortunately, all eight species of pangolin across the globe are highly sought after by the Asian market for their supposed succulent meat as well as their outer covering of scales. While the former is eaten as a delicacy, the latter are thought to cure skin disease, asthma and promote lactation.

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In conjunction with China’s rapidly expanding middle class as well as the country’s growing presence in Africa, illegal pangolin smuggling is now greater than ever before. In fact, pangolins are thought to be the most heavily trafficked animal across the globe.

Unlike the publicised plight against elephant, rhino and tiger poaching, the pangolin pandemic has remained almost as elusive as the little creature itself. Failure to recognize the severity of population decline, protection of the vulnerable species was swept under the radar until 2016 where it was formally (and finally) announced that a global ban on pangolin trade would be implemented.

In spite of this ban, the lustful demand for pangolin scales and meat is ever on the rise. In addition, with a considerable increase in the price of pangolin scales, the animals remain an appealing target to poachers. Although enforcement efforts are essential, increased public awareness of the issue along with a decrease in demand are vital if we are to save this special species.

Vultures

Where anti-rhino poaching is globally understood and supported, and the plight of the pangolin has just begun, vultures are still highly neglected from a conservation standpoint. Although shunned for being “ugly” and “disgusting”, one cannot ignore the significant role vultures play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem for both animals and humans alike.

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White-backed vultures flock to feast on a zebra carcass- Photo by Matthew Thorp

Vultures are exceptionally skilled garbage disposers that have evolved to keep the environment clean and healthy by efficiently locating and consuming carcases. This, in turn, recycles energy within the food web, preventing the spread of disease.

There are numerous factors that contribute to the rapid decline of vulture populations across the globe. The reasons for this steady decline are multifaceted as these specialized creatures fall prey to as many as 16 severe threats directly caused by humans. Some of these include: poisoning, poaching, and execution and collision with power lines.

Recently, 7 African vulture species silently surged upwards on the IUCN red list, moving from “vulnerable” to either “endangered” or “critically endangered”.

Certain South African indigenous cultures consider vultures as “birds of the gods – divine creatures providing foresight into the unknown”. It is further believed that if a person were to consume certain parts of the bird’s body, they too will possess supernatural powers. As a result, these birds are being poached at an alarming rate so as to keep up with the current demand at traditional “muthi” markets.

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Animal parts photographed at a local “muthi” market

Although vulture parts are not sought after by the Asian community, poachers are known to lace rhino and elephant carcasses with potent poison to kill the vultures that feed on them, ultimately avoiding detection by reserve officials. What’s more is that local farmers tend to poison predators that threaten their livestock, serving as yet another contaminated food source for the already dwindling species’. It is estimated that poisoning accounts for 61% of all vulture deaths.

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Poisoned vultures photographed in Kwazulu-Natal

Vultures might not be as charismatic as rhinos or pangolins, but they are a critical component of our natural ecosystem. If these specialised creatures are eradicated, there will be collapses all across Africa which will affect every element of life. In fact, where vultures have been eliminated completely, such as India and Pakistan, local governments have had to spend over $34 billion on human health issues.

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In spite the ominous situation, there are a number of campaigns, charities, NGO’s and protected wildlife areas dedicated to: raising awareness around these issues, rehabilitation of targeted species, habitat provision and, promoting population recovery to name a few. However, these endeavors would not be successful if it were not for the continued support of the public.

No conservationist can solve these issues alone. It is only when members of the public sphere rally together against these unspeakable acts of environmental destruction that we will one day live in harmony with our fellow species.

“Alone, we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller