Conservationists Rally Around the Rhino

Poachers after the coveted horns have greatly reduced rhinoceros herds in Africa, but new sanctuaries and international trade sanctions are slowing the slaughter

ON a rolling, grassy plain within sight of snow-capped Mount Kenya, whose jagged peaks are hidden in clouds, a baby white rhinoceros peers out from behind its mother's flank, then hides again, as our land rover pulls up.

But sensing no danger from the visitors, the baby comes into view again and starts nursing. A short drive away, a black rhino nibbles on some bushes.

Nearby, four white rhinos atop a small hill graze on grass that dances in the wind. They trot off, heads high, their prized horns piercing the air.

More than 100 rhinos live here on Solio Ranch, a 60,000-acre privately owned cattle ranch in central Kenya. Their 17,000-acre sanctuary in the middle of the ranch is surrounded by a seven-foot electric fence. The perimeter is patrolled by a Kenyan paramilitary unit. These are perhaps the best-protected rhinos in the world.

Courtland Parfet, a wealthy American who is now retired in Kenya, never planned to operate a rhino sanctuary. "It just happened," he said at his home in Nairobi. He had a lot of wild animals on his cattle ranch, and, he says, "you can't really ranch cattle with wild animals."

"My wife got the idea" of fencing off an area to be a game sanctuary, he says. It took 1-1/2 years to build the fence around the large area, which includes a swamp not suitable for ranching.

The Parfets introduced lions; there were already hyenas, jackals, and leopards. But the last rhino in the area died in about 1970. Then the Parfets found a poached rhino on the ranch. "We decided it was time to protect a few rhino," Mr. Parfet says.

Between 1970 and 1978, they introduced 22 black rhino, gathered from all around Kenya, which belong to the Kenyan government. White rhinos brought in from South Africa are the property of the Parfets.

The General Services Unit (GSU), a paramilitary government unit, has stationed guards near the ranch at government expense, since the black rhinos are government property.

Parfet says large-scale fencing, expensive as it is, holds the future for rhinos. "I'm a confirmed believer that to save the rhino you have to fence," he says.

Thanks to such private sanctuaries and stepped-up protection in game parks, the African rhino and the much rarer Asian species, though still heavily poached in Zimbabwe and some other countries, are making a slow - and expensive - comeback.

Numbers are increasing in several countries, including Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, India, and parts of Malaysia.

The rhinoceros population in Kenya, for example, has increased from around 340 in 1986 to about 420 today. Part of the increase may be improved counting, some experts say.

But worldwide, the number of rhinos has plummeted from about 70,000 in 1970 to an estimated 11,000 today, according to Esmond Bradley Martin. Appointed last year by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Dr. Martin is special envoy for rhinoceros conservation.

Kenya alone had some 20,000 rhinos around 1970, says Robert Brett, a British rhino expert working for the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS). "More than half the rhinos poached in this country were poached by Wildlife [Service] personnel," Mr. Brett alleges.

When Richard Leakey, a Kenyan, was appointed head of the KWS several years ago by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, he sought and got government approval to make the KWS a semiprivate agency with power to raise its own revenues. One result is that ranger pay was trebled.

"We've got a staff that is much more committed to looking after their charges than they were before: well-paid, well-supervised, well-uniformed, well-fed," Dr. Leakey says. [It's their] esprit de corps that has made the difference."

Poaching by people living around game parks has also been a problem in many African countries.

Kenyan biologist Helen Gichohi says Western tourists want to come to see the rhino and other wildlife. "But when you are living in direct contact [with wild animals], it's not that easy [to value them]." She says some animals trample crops on farms surrounding game parks. Lions wander out of the preserve to kill cattle, she adds.

Winning support from local people to protect animals migrating outside the parks could be accomplished by allowing limited killing of game animals to benefit those people, says Ms. Gichohi, who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, part of the New York Zoological Society. "Then they will look at wildlife as their own."

Meanwhile, dangers still abound for the rhino.

Chinese and Taiwanese demands for medicines using rhino powder are still strong, according to UNEP's Martin. Dealers can fetch up to $20,000 per pound retail for the horn of an Asian rhino.

African rhino horns, though considered less potent as a curative material, are also used in medicines in China and Taiwan. On the Arabian peninsula, the horns are traditionally used as dagger handles, particularly in Yemen, where they sell for $500 a pound.

In Zimbabwe, such demands, coupled with poor economic conditions, have reduced the number of rhinos from an estimated 2,000 in 1989 to fewer than 400 today, according to Martin.

Most of the poachers cross the border from neighboring Zambia, one of Africa's poorest nations, he says.

In 1977, international commercial trade in rhino products was banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES. Zimbabwe and South Africa, however, want to have a legal trade in rhino horns and use the profits to help protect rhinos.

China, Yemen, Taiwan, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) face sanctions if they fail to show improvement in curbing their role in rhino-horn trade, Izrev Topkov, secretary general of CITES, told the Monitor on a recent visit to Kenya. The main sanction under consideration, Mr. Topkov says, is "a total ban on trade of wildlife products" from those countries by CITES member countries.

But Holly Dublin, an ecologist with the Kenya branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (which is known in the United States and Canada as the World Wildlife Fund), says such sanctions may simply push the trade underground.

The best answer is increased antipoaching efforts, as well as greater use of sanctuaries, she says. That costs a lot of money, Ms. Dublin notes.

"It's expensive to conserve the things we give value to," she says. "You pay for your thrills," Dublin says of the pleasure of observing rhinos in the wild.

At an upcoming meeting of countries with rhinos, countries that consume rhino horns, and wildlife organizations to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, June 28 to July 1, donors to conservation causes "are going to be asked to pay a very big bill" to help save rhinos, Dublin predicts.

African nations themselves can't afford good rhino protection, she says. "It's unrealistic to expect Africans, who can barely get food in their mouths, to pump [money] into rhino [protection programs]," Dublin says.

But UN envoy Martin says "things have improved tremendously in the past few months."

As a result of pressure from UNEP, including Martin's own negotiations with officials in countries that import rhino horns and pressure from the United States and some Western nations, key consumer nations say they are reforming, he says.

Yemen officials have agreed to ban internal trade in rhino horns and are turning to water buffalo horns as a substitute for dagger handles. Taiwan has banned rhino-horn imports and internal trade.

At the end of May, China, which last last year banned the import and export of all rhino horns, took another major step and banned the manufacture of all medicines containing rhino powder. By the end of the year, there will be a total ban in China on internal trade in medicines and any other products made of rhino horn.

But it is unclear how and to what extent the ban will be enforced. And China has a stockpile of more than eight tons of rhino horns. Experts are still concerned that continued domestic use of rhino powder in medicines would provide incentives for poachers.

Many reforms are mostly words so far. Now more action is needed, Martin says.

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