He'll Walk a Mile for a Rhino
Peripatetic Michael Werikhe doesn't really enjoy walking, but will take steps for this species
NEW YORK — EVEN 194th Street, in the great borough of the Bronx, doesn't see a crowd like this too often. It's a beautiful, sunny day and hundreds of beautiful, sunny people dressed in fluorescent T-shirts and bicycle shorts and athletic gear are marching down the street pressing their cause. "Give me an R!" yells one of the walkers. "AAARRRR!" goes the chorus. "Give me an H," he commands, and so on. "What does that spell?"
"RHINO!" everybody yells. Rhino? In the Bronx?
These people are heading for the Bronx Zoo, led by a Kenyan named Michael Werikhe, king of rhino walkers. "He's an amazing guy," says one of the marchers to a companion. "I call him 'my patron saint, says another walker, who has come to New York from Arizona for the occasion.
Mr. Werikhe has walked 3,400 miles in Africa and Europe to raise concern about and money for the conservation of the world's rhinoceroses. He's now in the middle of a 30-city, 1,500-mile walk in the United States and Canada. He hopes his walks will raise $2 million to $3 million for rhinos.
Werikhe is walking fast - very fast - because he wants to get to the zoo in time for a ceremony in the rhino garden. But his journey today, starting at Manhattan's Central Park Zoo, has covered almost 10 miles, and it's possible that he just wants it to end.
His strategy of walking to save the rhinos "is a bit of a sacrifice," he points out, "because personally I don't like walking long distances."
Sacrifice or no, his efforts have won him some personal acclaim - he won the Goldman Environmental Foundation prize last year and has been cited by the United Nations.
"I'm doing this because I feel by walking I can reach a lot of people and I can also raise money," he says. "It's my way of saying thank you to nature and it's my little contribution." His walks raise money through registration fees paid by walkers, who sometimes also get pledges for their footwork.
Werikhe has so far raised some $200,000, enough to cover operating expenses for his North American walks, according to Lois Kampinsky of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, one of the events' sponsors. (The other sponsors are The Discovery Channel and the African Rhino Walk Committee.) She says the rest of the money he raises will be spent on rhino conservation projects in Africa and on preservation efforts administered in the US.
A dozen rhinos found in Vietnam
The cause of rhinoceros conservation needs these contributions right now, says Oliver Ryder, a geneticist at the San Diego Zoo's Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species and the organizer of an international conference on rhino conservation held last month in San Diego.Dr. Ryder says there are fewer than 12,000 rhinos on the planet - five species spread across Africa and Asia. Only about 70 Javan rhinos are left, including a dozen or so recently discovered in Vietnam. Two other species live in A
sia: 1,400 to 1,500 Indian rhinos and 500 to 1,200 Sumatran rhinos.
African rhino populations are larger, more stable, and more closely monitored. There were 3,392 black rhinos at last count, says Ryder, and 4,745 white rhinos.
But the threats to these animals are severe. Although rhino hunting is banned, the horns are used in China and other parts of Asia to make folk medicines and in Yemen as handles for ceremonial daggers. Werikhe says poached horns can fetch up to $15,000 a pound - and rhino horns are most easily obtained by killing the animal.
Poaching isn't the only problem. "Human conflict," says Ryder, "stands to be the kind of catastrophe that in spite of long-term plans, could create a disaster" for conservationists. Conflicts can lead to the destruction of game parks and increase the spread of weapons among people near wild animals.
Geneticists also worry that rhino populations, some confined in protected sanctuaries, are too small to allow a diverse gene pool.
Michael Werikhe's contribution, says Ryder, is to "point out in a hopeful way that people are going to make a difference." The rhino walker says that only widespread popular concern will save the rhino from extinction. "The plight of the rhino is not an African problem ... it's a global problem which needs global attention because the products go beyond the boundaries of Africa."
Werikhe got his start in rhino conservation in the Ivory Room of the Kenyan game department in 1977. His job was to weigh and classify elephant tusks, rhino horns, and animal skins confiscated from wildlife poachers.
"Each week," he recalls, "we used to get new consignments of horns ... and I used to hear rangers telling me rhinos were getting killed in great numbers.
"I became disillusioned, very distressed ... to see myself in a position where I could not do much to help rhinos or elephants. So I left that job ... I'd made a decision or rather a promise to myself [to] ... do something for nature, do something to save the rhinos."
"I'm a very simple man," he says, and so the strategy he devised was also very simple. "It was to walk a few hundred miles and talk to the people ..., the people who coexist with nature, the people who have the final say." He trekked the 300 miles between two Kenyan cities, Mombasa and Nairobi, in 1982.
Protecting nature protects mankind
In 1985 he walked 1,250 miles through Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania and 1,800 miles in Europe in 1988. Sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, the walk in Europe raised $1 million for rhino conservation.
Werikhe is often asked how he reconciles his efforts on behalf of rhinos when the lives of so many human beings are also endangered. "I feel very sad when I see fellow human beings suffering," he says, noting that his 1985 walk took him through a civil war. "I help human causes as much as possible, and I also try and help nature as much as possible. The two are inseparable. There's no way man can survive on this planet alone. We have to protect nature as well as protect man."
The Rhino Walk Fund, 7970-D Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, MD 20814.