Africa, Interviews, Nature

A wake-up call

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With Africa’s rhino and elephant poaching worsening by the year, Charlie Mayhew, founder and chief executive of conservation charity Tusk, says nations must pass tougher legislation or risk losing their prized wildlife.

In early December last year, four black rhinos were found dead at the Lewa Wildlife Sanctuary in Kenya. They had been shot. The news was shocking: this was Africa’s most secure facility. Protected by 150 armed officers, it had gone from 1995, when it was founded, to 2010 without losing a single rhino. Two weeks later another discovery was made. A four-year-old calf was found dead, its body riddled with bullets.

The slaughter highlighted the increasingly brutal reality of rhino and elephant poaching that Charlie Mayhew and fellow conservationists are fighting against. The continent he visited in his gap year has always fascinated him, so much so that he in 1984 organised a 33-strong, seven-month-long expedition from London to Cape Town, mainly consisting of youths from across Europe, to carry out community projects in Kenya (a “hairbrained idea,” he admits). Six years later, when illicit ivory trade was at its worst, he founded the Tusk Trust to support wildlife preservation, education and community development in Africa. The charity has since invested more than £16million ($25million), supported more than 100 projects and captured Prince William as its Royal Patron – his support coming after a visit to the very sanctuary where five rhinos were killed in December.

Yet for such efforts, the illicit ivory trade industry is growing. The continent’s most prized species are hunted down and killed, their horns and ivory sold for fortunes. Poor villagers can make a year’s salary from a few nights’ hunting. Criminals are becoming harder to stop; lone gunmen have given way for organised groups using night vision scopes, silent weapons and helicopters. From the one million elephants roaming Africa in the 1980s, 300,000 remain. In South Africa, where most of the continent’s rhinos live, more than 600 were killed last year – a rise from 448 in 2011. In 2007 the number was 13. The threat of extinction is real. But do people – and tourists – know it?

“The quick answer is no,” says Mayhew. “People are genuinely surprised about some of the statistics we quote about how bad the crisis is. I can understand that from the general public who’ve never been to Africa. But when people who are seasoned travellers to Africa are still unaware of how bad it is, that confirms that we desperately need the general public, travellers and the national governments to become far more aware of the issues.”

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Africa’s problem is twofold, he says. One relates to security, where Tusk is heavily involved, protecting sanctuaries and erecting fences. Another centres on the market drive. Most rhino horn is sold illegally to Asia, particularly China, where it is valued in traditional medicine for treating strokes, convulsions and fevers – despite no scientific proof. “We are seeing a market that is driving this trade to what we saw 20 years ago,” Mayhew says. “That’s primarily because China is a big player and the biggest consumer of both rhino horn and ivory, whereas China 20 years ago did not have the wealth it has now.”

Stopping the demand is necessary, but not necessarily easy. International ivory trade was banned in 1980 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – which today has 177 member nations, including China. But a loophole in the act means trade is still allowed domestically, which some African countries exploit. Amid China’s surge into the continent to extract resources, workers can legally buy a rhino horn before selling it illegally in Asia, to a street value of £40,000 ($65,000) – more than gold.

Mayhew says that loophole needs to close. “We don’t feel that the current measures adopted by CITES are working,” he says. “Although there it is an international ban in place on rhino horn and ivory, that is clearly not enough. The international community has somehow got to think again, and find a way of halting consumer demand. It’s one thing to impose a ban, but if some countries are not willing to invest the time and energy to enforce that ban and police it, it’s hopeless.”

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That some are not is difficult to understand. “It’s an attack on the economic assets of these countries – not just wildlife. It relates to tourism. If our generation allows species like rhino, lions and elephants to disappear, those are key species that provide the attractions for tourists to visit the game parts of Africa.”

The first opportunity to tighten legislation on domestic trade comes when CITES gathers for its bi-annual convention, in Bangkok, in the beginning of March. But Mayhew says it will take a huge effort on behalf of the international community to turn the current situation around. “I don’t think it all falls on CITES,” he says. “We have to find a way to pressurise and control countries like China to not only enforce a ban but to educate their consumers that this is no longer acceptable.”

Otherwise, scenes such as those at Lewa Wildlife Sanctuary may no longer come as shocking. “They’ve had an unbelievable success at breeding rhinos – and up until two years ago they had never lost one,” says Mayhew. “It was Fort Knox, if you like. It’s a very big wake-up call.”

Support the Tusk Trust here.

Photos: Courtesy of Tusk Trust and Chris Jackson of Getty Images.

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