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5. Thoughts on Conservation Issues
    Klaserie, South Africa, 9/7/2018

No doubt there is some great conservation work going on in this part of southern Africa. Recently we visited the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), founded and owned by Lente Roode. Lente developed a deep connection with cheetahs as a child after adopting a cub whose mother had been killed by poachers — as a result, she has dedicated her life to cheetah conservation.

Sign with story of the founding of HESC.

One of the main activities at HESC is rehabilitating injured animals, such as this white who was tranquilized by poachers and whose horn was then cut off with a chainsaw. Why would a poacher tranquilize rather than kill? Tranquilizer darts are quieter than bullets.

Because poachers had cut so deeply into her face,
several surgeries involving plastic and metal scaffolding were required
before this Rhino could begin to regrow her horn.

HESC also adopts animals orphaned when parents are poached, and breeds Cheetahs (IUCN status: vulnerable) and African Wild Dogs (IUCN status: endangered) for reintroduction into the wild.

Apparently, White Rhinos are quite social.
These two orphaned four-year-old males are inseparable.

These Cheetahs are part of a captive breeding and reintroduction program —
critically important for this species with such naturally low levels of genetic diversity.

Young Rhinos don’t do well alone. This young orphan
has bonded with its companion, a goat.

Sadly, the centre has decided it has no choice but to periodically de-horn its Rhinos. Poaching is such a problem that potential poachers could take a tour at HESC, scope out the locations of prime Rhinos, then later break in and poach horns.

This horn would be several times the length shown if not periodically removed —
fortunately, safely away from the face.

The centre feeds the remains of the "food" it processes for its captive carnivores to vultures at its "vulture restaurant" in order to help these scavengers that are so often persecuted.

Note the vertebrae, ribs, etc.
There was quite an odor at this "restaurant" I must say.

We also learned about "canned lion hunting", a practice that occurs on reserves that breed lions specifically for trophy hunting. The main trait selected for is size, because of course, a trophy hunter wants to shoot the largest lion possible. Breeders aren’t concerned about genetic defects resulting from inbreeding since their goal is most definitely not to promote release and survival in the wild. As a consequence, some of these lions are born with genetic defects, like these two brothers, sons of a the 49th largest male lion ever recorded, the product of "canned" breeding. These two lions will live out their days in captivity — their spines are malformed and they have difficulty running.

These lions will spend their lives in captivity. As the products
of canned lion breeding, their genetic defects prevent survival in the wild.

Fortunately, the centre has had some success in raising the funds necessary to run a pretty sophisticated operation. For example, not too long ago, a donor from the U.S. raised one million dollars for the centre to go towards its rehabilitation, breeding, and educational programs.

The centre has very nice facilities.

Fencing to keep captive Rhino, Lions, Leopards and Cheetahs in
and wild predators out is elaborate and expensive.

In the background of this video, you can see some of the nice stone
and woodwork at the centre, evidence that their fundraising efforts so far
have been successful. And though this African Grey Parrot
was quite charming, the wild population is in decline,
in part because of the pet trade. I certainly hope
this one was bred in captivity and not captured from the wild.

Despite the commendable fundraising efforts of this donor, apparently she was not too interested in human development. According to stories we heard from others, when asked whether she might help with funding for local health care initiatives, her response was "why are you wasting your time?"

When I think about this attitude, it makes me pretty crazy. There are many in the region who struggle to get enough food and clean water. How can conservation succeed without acknowledging that this entire system — including cities, villages, and natural areas — is interconnected? I thought conservationists had learned this lesson decades ago. When I was working on conservation in Madagascar in 1990, a big part of our efforts and budget was devoted to education and community development. Though I’m sure we made our share of mistakes, and I honestly don’t know how well our efforts succeeded, we were trying.

This example also reminds me of the "three pillars of sustainability" that I constantly refer to in my introductory environmental science courses. Certainly a nice model, but it’s obviously quite challenging to adequately cover all three areas (environment, society, economy) on the ground in any given project.

The three "pillars" of sustainability.
Image from:

And, in my mind this issue is directly related to the huge problem of poaching. It seems that poaching should be a pretty straightforward topic from a conservation perspective. Poachers are evil, right? Well, maybe it’s not that simple. Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly anti-poaching. But, consider the context. In many local villages, parents are struggling to feed their children, unemployment rates exceed 50%, and schools lack basic resources and don’t even have proper pit-latrines. Under these circumstances, how does one convince an unemployed father not to turn to poaching? How does one convince guards or rangers or police not to take bribes to help poachers or look the other way? (Recently, four poachers were apprehended in Kruger National Park. Three of the four escaped custody. I wonder how?)

Headline from The Letaba Herald

Of course, I have no easy answers, but reducing demand for Rhino horn seems to be critically important. In many ways this situation reminds me of the war on drugs that conveniently ignores that demand is at the heart of the problem. Regardless, killing poachers seems to me to be too simplistic a solution.

Road sign about 1 km from where we're living.

Headline from The Letaba Herald

And, the violence cuts both ways. The other night we had dinner with a couple who know the wife of a ranger who was recently killed by poachers. This woman has a young child who now has no father.

And unlike the situation in Monteverde, Costa Rica, most locals here don’t seem to benefit from the incredible amounts of money spent on ecotourism — mostly towards wildlife safaris and luxury accommodations. Most ecotourists take their shuttles from Johannesburg right into Kruger National Park and dollars never reach the vast majority of the people living in the region. While I don’t blame those spending money on an African wildlife dream (and certainly some tour operators do make efforts to support local communities), I do wonder how this system could become more sustainable.


The fact that many local villages hardly benefit at all
from ecotourism may in part explain why some would rejoice in
the killing of a lion. Headline and photos from The Letaba Herald.

Of course, there are examples where the local community and economy are included as part of a conservation and development plan. Apparently, at the recently established Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, hospitals and schools were built within a buffer zone around the park in order to support the local human community. Unfortunately, the proximity of this infrastructure to the park has been a magnet for people living further away from the park, therefore increasing human population density and the associated pressures on the natural areas within the park.

Yet in the end, there is much to be inspired by. HESC and Moholoholo are only two of many centres doing good conservation work. I sense a true love of nature and wildlife in many of the people I encounter here. And, if it’s possible to bond with something as aloof as a Bateleur Eagle, perhaps it’s possible to learn to live more harmoniously with our fellow creatures on this earth.

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I’m not sure who enjoyed the head-scratching more,
the scratchers, or the scratched.