conservation

How collaboration is saving rhinos

Early last week I attended one of the most inspiring events that I’ve ever been to. It was the launch of Remembering Rhinos, a collaboration in book form of some of the world’s best wildlife photographers with the collective goal of raising much needed funds for rhino conservation. Not only is the book a stunning collection of breath-taking photos highlighting the five species of rhino in Africa and Asia, but it has so far to date raised £115,000 of which 100% is going directly into helping these prehistoric creatures in the areas where protection is needed the most.

The book

The book itself is the second in the series following last year’s Remembering Elephants. This ran on the same principle and has since raised £135,000 which has gone directly into elephant conservation in Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

After seeing a poached elephant first hand, founder Margot Raggett decided to spring into action and really do something to help; not wanting to be someone who sees the destruction in the world and simply despairs about what to do before going back to her everyday life. After speaking out to photographer friends and getting in touch with some of the current leaders in the industry, she quickly found that everyone was willing to help when it came to an initiative to protect these creatures that are so terribly running out of time. All of the photos in the book were donated by the photographers, and the initial funding of the book printing was raised by a Kickstarter campaign back in February, meaning that 100% of the money spent on purchasing a copy of Remembering Rhinos goes straight into conserving them on the ground.

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Why do we need to protect rhinos?

Rhinos are in dire need of our help. We hear about their declining numbers but do we really know the full extent of the problem? There are currently five species of rhino left in the world, two in Africa and three in Asia, of which one of the species, the Javan rhino, have less than 60 individuals remaining.

The preposterous reason behind the slaughter of so many of these huge mammals is for their characteristic horn. Rhino horn is made out of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up our own human hair and nails. Yet there is a huge market for it in Asia, both for medicinal use, of which it has none, and for use as a status symbol.

There have been countless claims from these markets where there is demand that rhino horn can be used as a cure for everything from a hangover to cancer. Together with this, the rhino horn market has recently had a huge shift with the demand being more for use as a status symbol. Yes, people would gain a product that a precious animal has lost its life for to be used to brag to friends, in the form of carved bracelets and jewellery pieces, as well as ground down as an alternative to cocaine.

Poaching

Poaching has now got so bad that for one species, the northern white rhino, there are only three individuals left in the entire world, two females and a male, all of which are incapable of reproducing. Anti-poaching patrols work tirelessly to protect these animals, but it is simply not enough. There is not enough funding to sustain it, and purchase the technology needed to aid these heroes in protecting these wonderful animals. But that is where Remembering Rhinos is doing a terrific job.

Rhino horn trade

During the event, I was honoured to be in the presence of great conservationists who risk their lives to protect these precious creatures. But unfortunately, that also means learning about the horrendous rhino horn trade. I was absolutely astonished to learn about the prices that people in Asia would pay for something that is exactly the same as the nails on their own hands; $80,000/kg for a rhino horn bracelet, $50,000/kg for a slice of rhino horn, and $120,000/kg for a rhino horn wedding ring, to name just a few of the many preposterous items.

To legalise or not

There is currently debate occurring about whether to legalise the sale of rhino horn or not. The thinking behind this is that rhino horn, unlike ivory from elephant tusks, grows back. Rhino horn is not connected to a rhino’s skull, and if done properly, it does not cause much harm to the rhino to “trim” the horn just as we would do our nails and hair. So why not just legalise the sale of rhino horn to eliminate the illegal market and stop the killing of rhinos?

This is the argument of some people, but unfortunately it is highly flawed. In a perfect, imaginary world perhaps harvesting rhino horn would work, but sadly, not in our world. If rhino horn was sold legally for, $50,000/kg, poachers would sell it for $40,000. If rhino horn decreased to $40,000, the poachers would sell it for $25,000. At those prices, there is still an enormous profit to be made. We must also remember that the poachers on the ground are not the problem, and would do a lot of things to earn some money to feed their families; it is the heads of the poaching syndicates that are the cause of this market and the killing of the rhinos.

Together with this, well calculated figures have shown that “rhino farmers” who harvest rhino horn do not have nearly enough to sustain the market, meaning that poaching would still continue to fill the current demand. Added to this the fact that the same idea was thought about legalising the ivory market a while back, thinking that this will eliminate the killing of elephants as demand for ivory was met with stockpiles. They were incredibly wrong which had a disastrous effect on elephant populations.

I’ll never forget the time that I was working in South Africa with an anti-poaching unit and they told me that even if a rhino has had its horn safely removed by its owner, this will not deter the poachers and they will kill the animal anyway. It takes a lot of effort to poach a rhino, sometimes trekking for many days, cutting fences and risking their lives unseen, whilst tracking a rhino day and night. If the poachers then finally get to the animal to find that all they have is a small stump of a horn, they will kill it regardless and hack out that stump, knowing that that small part will still earn them more money than they would ordinarily make in years.

How can you help?

It’s simple. Spread awareness. Share articles, images and videos that highlight the plight of our rhinos, how crucial it is to protect them and how important it is to educate people about the non-existent medicinal uses of rhino horn.

Chew your nails. Save a rhino.

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Why we should all love vultures

When most people think of vultures, they envisage giant, feathered, dirty scavengers, the characters from the Lion King hanging around on the branch without really contributing much, and big scary birds to be afraid of. But vultures are in fact hugely important to a healthy ecosystem, and keep everything in balance in the natural world. Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, which is a day to understand and share the plight of these ancient creatures that frankly, the world would be a very different place without.

What actually are vultures?

Vultures are birds of prey that can actually be split up into a total of 23 different species, and each have their own unique role to play within an ecosystem, which they are specially adapted for. In fact, at least one type of vulture can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Primarily, they can be split into two types, the New World vultures, which include the Andean condors and are found in the Americas and Caribbean, and the Old World vultures, which are those that can be seen around carcasses in Africa. For this article, we are going to focus mainly on the Old World vultures.

Known as ‘nature’s garbage collectors’, these birds are classed as scavengers because they often eat the leftover parts of carcasses that have been discarded after the initial predators have eaten the main parts of meat, or the parts that other animals are unable to digest.

Why do they get a bad name?

Due to their scavenging nature, vultures have been given a bad name, both when seen by tourists in the wild, by the media and in fiction films. People have the perception of scavengers scrounging from others who have made huge efforts to get their kill, instead of finding their own food. But the truth is, vultures often indulge in the parts of the carcass that would otherwise be left to rot, meaning that diseases would be spread, and frankly, the wild would be a very messy place. According to the IVAD website, studies have shown that in areas that contain no vultures, carcasses can take up to four times longer to decompose, which means a much higher spread of diseases in wild and domestic animals, which can be further spread to humans.

Another reason why they get a bad name is because it has been commonly said that vultures circle above a dying animal, waiting to feed. This is a myth. Whilst it is true that vultures can be seen circling in the sky, what they are actually doing is catching thermals which helps them to stay in the air whilst they look for food using their incredible sense of sight or smell.

Why are they so important?

Although vultures prefer to eat fresh meat, they are still able to consume rotting carcasses due to their strong stomach acid which kills any bacteria from the carcass that would be toxic to other animals. In this way, they are crucial to an ecosystem because they prevent the spread of diseases to many other animals.

When you look at vultures, you will also notice that despite their huge feathers, their head and neck is completely clear of any feathers at all. This is a special adaptation which means that any bacteria or parasites from the rotting carcass cannot latch on to the vultures, which therefore stops any infections.

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How are they under threat?

Perhaps lesser known than the plight of rhinos, tigers and elephants, vultures are also severely under threat for many different reasons. Out of the 23 species of vulture, 14 of those are currently considered to be either threatened or endangered.

One of the factors that aid hugely in their decline is the act of poacher poisoning. This is done in a few different ways depending on the desired outcome. One way is not targeted directly to vultures at all, but can result in a huge number of bird deaths. This involves poachers poisoning an elephant with a dart, for example, which will eventually kill it. Not only is this devastating due to the loss of an elephant, but it also means the death of any other animal that feeds on that carcass, which is now poisoned throughout. Just one elephant that has been killed by dart poisoning could then unintentionally cause the death of a large number of lions, hyenas, leopards and vultures. Furthermore, as many species of vultures work on a single carcass together, this one elephant poisoning could cause the death of hundreds of vultures.

Another way that vultures are poisoned is one that is specifically targeted at killing them. Due to the huge illegal wildlife trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, there are many carcasses for the vultures to feed on. However, as the vultures are seen locating the carcass in the sky before swooping down to have their meal, these sights of huge numbers of vultures above a carcass are a key signal for the authorities to find the carcass quickly, and be on the tracks of the poachers. As poachers do not want an increased chance of being caught, they purposely poison the carcasses, causing vulture populations to severely decline.

A further factor that causes the decline of vulture populations is ancient traditions in certain cultures that use various parts of a vulture for medicines, of which 29% of vulture deaths are attributed to. In some cases, individuals will use the eyes of a vulture, as they believe that this helps them see into the future due to the impeccable eyesight of the birds, whilst in other cases they will smoke the vulture brains, as they believe this will bring them good luck.

What can you do?

As always, the best thing that you can do is spread awareness on the issues surrounding the drastic declines in vulture populations around the world. The majority of people will not know about their decline, or about why it is so important for us to protect them. The main reason why the drastic decline of vultures is so devastating is because the loss of vultures will also lead to the loss of many other species.

In addition, you can support and donate to organisations that work to protect vultures in the wild, including monitoring their numbers and reducing their threats. These include VulPro, 4Vultures, Tusk, and BirdLife.

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