On September 13, 2013, Yao Ming returned to Africa, nearly one year after his first visit. He visited Kenya and the animals he works to protect. This is the diary of his journey.
The next morning, we see five magnificent white rhinos in the Park, sizing us up before crossing the path in front of our vehicle. It’s refreshing to see them as they should be, with their horns intact.
Back in Johannesburg, I meet Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association. Pelham has been very active in assisting law enforcement officials track down poachers.
It is no longer the occasional shooting from an AK-47 obtained in a neighbouring civil war. Now, it might be a professional single shot from a high calibre hunting weapon or a dart from a veterinary tranquilizer. In some cases, helicopters have been used.
The war is escalating. Perhaps it’s time to defund it.
From my trip it’s clear that South Africans feel the same way about their rhinos as we Chinese do about our Pandas. They are a source of inspiration and great national pride as we brought them back from what looked like inevitable extinction.
For South Africa, it’s also an important source of tourism revenue, which is now under threat.
Unfortunately, a very small number of people in Asia are still buying rhino horn, either as speculation or for what they may believe is a medicine or a tonic. The horns are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up our hair and fingernails.
Legitimate traditional medicine in China ended rhino horn use in 1993.
As I leave Africa, I go with incredible positive memories of the beauty, the wide open spaces, the incredible diversity of large animals wiped out elsewhere on the planet, but also with sadness that the actions of just a few people in a world of 7 billion can jeopardize the future of the two largest animals walking the earth.
Collectively these people are sabotaging African economies and stealing from us all.
As the vast majority, we need to let them know that this is not acceptable and is damaging China’s relations with our friends and trading partners in Africa. We would be outraged if people were killing our pandas, we should be just as upset with what’s happening to rhinos and elephants in Africa.
From the conversations I’ve had, and the conversations WildAid has had with Chinese officials, there is a clear government commitment to collaborating to solve this. Peter Knights tells me Vietnam is also willing to collaborate.
But laws will only go so far. We need a drastic increase in awareness to reduce markets. Myself and other prominent Asians will be working with WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation, and other organizations to this end and we hope you will join us.
That means any of us who know people buying rhino horn or ivory need to ask them to stop, explain to them what is at stake and ask them to be part of the solution and not the problem.
Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s oldest national parks and South Africa’s flagship. It covers an area nearly the size of Israel and is home to roughly half the world’s white rhinos. It is manned by thousands of staff, who study and protect the animals, and look after the 1.4 million tourists who visit every year.
Kruger is home to between 9,000 and 12,000 white rhinos and approximately 600 black rhinos. Given the size of the park and the number of animals, it’s a difficult task to monitor the wildlife, even for the 2,500+ staff members.
The black rhinos are harder to keep and breed than the whites. They are more temperamental and solitary. From 100,000 in 1960, their numbers in Africa dropped to a low of 2,400 in 1995 before climbing back to 4,880 following a sales ban for rhino horn in China and other parts of Asia and increased protection in Africa.
We meet with the Director of Public Relations for South African National Parks, William Mabasa, who tells us the greatest challenge currently facing the park is poachers from both South Africa and Mozambique. Here elephants have been untouched, but rhinos are being hit constantly. Things have gotten so bad that now the South African army has been called in. But, finding poachers is still like looking for needles in a haystack.
Between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching in South Africa averaged 14 animals a year according to trade monitoring group TRAFFIC and the populations were growing steadily. But in recent years, rhino poaching has risen again, with 440 animals killed in 2011, and this year’s figure expected to top 500.
On our very brief visit, we learn of seven rhinos recently killed in a reserve near Pilanesberg and four more in Kruger. Peter Knights of WildAid again apologizes for having to put me through the unenviable experience of seeing the results of this poaching.
We visit the body of a black rhino with Kruger’s Crime Scene Analysis team, searching for clues, like bullets or discarded debris, and collecting DNA samples so that if the horn is found, it can be traced back to here and not claimed to be an old horn.
The smell is so intense that I have to step away. This magnificent beast has been reduced to carrion for a horn.
And then I meet Thandi.
Thandi is a seven-year-old white rhino, one of three that were shot with tranquilizer darts before their horns were brutally hacked off. One died immediately, the other succumbed to its wounds and drowned in a watering hole two weeks after the incident, and Thandi miraculously pulled through after a series of operations and treatments by Dr. Fowlds.
When I first see her, she is out with two other female rhinos in a beautiful open plain scattered with gazelles, wildebeest, giraffes and other wildlife — a tranquil, natural scene.
It is an emotional moment for Dr. Fowlds, seeing his patient behaving normally after months of trauma — her wounds finally healing. Previously, she would hide in the bush in fear, still remembering her torment. Now, there is only the rim of a scar. Of course she looks strange without a horn, but many other rhinos here have had their horns removed to lessen the incentive to poach.
It seems tragic that we have to take away a rhino’s identifying feature, its horn, to try and stop people from killing them.
Dr. Fowlds shows us where he had found Thandi in a pool of blood, fearing her dead, and talks us through the painstaking rehabilitation. For each treatment, she needed to be tranquilized, a risky procedure that could have easily resulted in her heart stopping.
Thandi’s story has gathered support from all over the world, including Beijing, where Dr. Fowlds recently visited.
Dr. Fowlds corroborates what I had heard in Kenya: that private rhino owners are being hit by a downturn in tourism due to the poor global economy, while at the same time facing increasing security costs and threats to the safety of their rhinos from poachers.
Next, the WildAid team heads to Kruger National Park, the frontline of the rhino wars.
From Nairobi, we fly to Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s quite a contrast. It feels like a European country here — with paved roads and European style architecture — until you reach the wilderness.
As we drive out to Kariega Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape, we pass farms and dozens of private game reserves where South African and international tourists can see animals up close.
Wildlife tourism is a major industry here and one that has enabled the steady increase in the number of rhinos not only in national parks, but also in private reserves.
South Africa is home to three quarters of the world’s rhinos. The recovery of the white rhino here has been one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories. From a low of only 50, the white rhino population has recovered to 18,800 and has thus been removed from the “critically endangered” list. This is a sharp contrast to the Northern Whites I saw in Kenya that skirt on the edge of extinction with only seven individuals remaining.
In Kariega, I meet veterinarian Will Fowlds and he takes us to see a very special rhino, a rare survivor of the rhino wars.
In my next post, I will introduce you to Thandi.
On the way out of Daphne Sheldrick’s Orphanage, we turn a corner and come face-to-face with a large black rhino wandering loose. He snorts and comes to challenge us. It’s very intimidating.
Then his keeper arrives and starts tickling him and soothing him and he rolls to the ground in response. I am able to tickle him behind the ears. Another adopted orphan. A two-ton baby named Solio.
We leave Kenya stunned by the natural beauty, charmed by the welcome of the people, impressed by the elephants and their social interactions, the feeling that maybe we have more in common than I had thought, and shocked by the ferocity and brutality of the war being waged for their ivory.
From my conversations, it is clear that Kenya needs to pass legislation, which has languished in parliament for years, to increase the penalties for poaching. Currently, you can get a more severe punishment for stealing a few goats than for killing an elephant.
But they also need help from the international community, not just to support conservation work and enforcement efforts, but also to end the demand. This is a war that needs to be defunded and I hope we can raise public awareness to achieve this. As the WildAid slogan goes, “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
I have been heartened by the support that conservation work has received from both the people and government of China and I know we can do even more to help with increased enforcement and collaboration.
Back in Ol Pejeta, I visit some of the local community projects funded by the wildlife tourism. A school that now has a library and bank of computers some of the kids use to study (and play video games, I’m told).
The school teachers thanked me for coming and for all the good things China is doing in Kenya, like building a new road, but also appealed for our help in stopping the ivory poaching.
It’s clear that through the jobs provided by tourism, as well as the benefits to the local communities, wildlife is a very valuable resource for Kenya and many other African countries. Poaching robs communities of these benefits. When you buy ivory anywhere in the world, you are contributing to this theft.
Next stop, South Africa.
The baby elephants at Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, on the edge of Nairobi National Park, have been orphaned by poaching and other causes. They are taken in, cared for, and ultimately reintroduced into the wild.
While the tragic circumstances of their arrival is depressing, the atmosphere and relationship the elephants have with their keepers is very moving.
For the new arrivals, they are so traumatized by losing their family that a keeper must sleep in their stall to keep them company. They are fed from bottles from behind a blanket to replicate the shade their mother’s belly would provide.
Not only do they get the care from the keeper, but the other elephants quickly adopt them and protect them as we’ve seen in the wild.
The latest addition, Kinango, barely comes up to my knee.
He’s only two weeks old and is here because of poaching – his mother was killed for her ivory tusks.
He pushes against me partly for contact, but also testing his strength.
He greedily guzzles the milk formula I feed him from a bottle.
Every day, a parade of elephants walks out into the park to feed and exercise. It’s a chaotic, comical bustle as they charge around looking for tasty leaves and wrestle with each other by locking trunks and shoving backwards and forwards.
They like to lean on you and push against you, but can also be very gentle with their amazing trunks – displaying both strength and precision. The little ones are quite hairy with dense black bristle. They lose this hair as they grow. I also notice how warm the babies are – their skin is thinner and they loose heat quickly so they are kept with blankets wrapped over them to keep out the morning chill.
Just like human babies, they need to be fed regularly – every three hours.
At one point, something in the bush scares them and they all stampede through our group and despite the chaos, they manage to avoid us. Though, everyone counts their toes afterwards since even these little guys weigh several hundred pounds.
The good news is the orphanage has perfected the process and if the bables can survive the first few weeks and take to food, they can usually make it to be eventually released to join a wild herd. The bad news is they may not be safe from poachers once back in the wild.
Visiting the orphanage is a fantastic experience. It is open to the public, which helps subsidize the considerable cost of this rehabilitation.
On the way out, we turn a corner to come face-to-face with large black rhino wandering loose.
Check back to find out what happens…
Then I get to meet Najin and Suni, two of the world’s remaining seven Northern White Rhinos – representing one of the most endangered species on the planet. The Northern White Rhino once roamed through Congo, Uganda, and Sudan, but now only seven remain, four of which are at Ol Pejeta.
The four Northern Whites were translocated to Ol Pejeta in December of 2009 from a zoo in the Czech Republic in a last attempt to save the species. They have been totally decimated in the wild, due to poaching fueled by demand for rhino horn for traditional medicinal uses in Asia.
The transfer was aimed at providing the rhinos with the most favorable breeding conditions in an attempt to pull the species back from the verge of extinction. It was thought that the climatic, dietary and security conditions that the rhinos will enjoy at Ol Pejeta will provide them with higher chances of starting a population in what is seen as the very last lifeline for the species.
Because they were animal zoos all of their lives, these rhinos are easily approachable. This is how I’m able to get so close to them. Don’t try this at home!
I meet Najin and Suni with their keeper Mohammed. I’m even able to feed hay to them and tickle behind their ears. It’s clear these are Mohammad’s babies. He dotes on them and if anything happened to them he would be heartbroken.
These are immense and powerful creatures. As one of them pushes me, I’m reminded of the immense pressure I used to feel when I had to guard Shaquille O’Neal. You knew that pressure while guarding Shaq, and you know it when a rhino leans on you.
But this power is meaningless in the face of a poacher’s bullet or wire snare. To make them less of a target, they have been dehorned – a painless process removing the top of the horn, but because there is still a substantial nub they are still under constant threat.
It’s tragic to know these impressive animals are among the last of their kind, just because some people believe their horn, which is just keratin like our fingernails, has healing properties.
It would be a tragedy if we lost them.
I arrive at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy – an impressive place.
It’s a private, non-profit wildlife sanctuary and home to Kenya’s highest concentration of wildlife. It’s also the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, making Ol Pejeta a key player in protecting one of the world’s most endangered species.
Together with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), they have created an elaborate security system at the Conservancy, which combines rhino patrols, armed teams, tracker dogs, aircrafts, cattle herders and local communities, and even an electrified fence that surrounds the entire perimeter of this 90,000 acre sanctuary!
Rhino patrolling is no joke- it involves walking for hours on end, several times a day, until every last rhino is spotted at least once every three days. The rhino patrollers know each and every rhino by name and sight, and if they can’t find one during their daily patrol, then they use a plane to patrol the entire conservancy until all rhinos are accounted for!
However, poaching has become such a serious problem in East Africa, that last year alone, Ol Pejeta lost five of their 88 rhinos to poachers, which has been their greatest loss in twenty years. Ol Pejeta and the KWS have had to step up their game to defeat poaching, and some members of the security team undergo intensive training programs to sharpen their surveillance skills.
As you can imagine, protecting rhinos from illegal poaching is not only time intensive, but also expensive! Richard Vigne, the CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, believes that the public and local communities should play an important part in protecting rhinos and wildlife in general. That’s where tourists, like me, can help out in a big way.
Ol Pejeta opens its doors to visitors who come for safaris or to volunteer with rhino patrolling. The revenue generated by tourists and volunteers is what fuels Ol Pejeta’s conservation efforts, and in essence, what keeps black rhinos safe.
Did I meet any rhinos, you may wonder? Stay tuned!
For several years now, I’ve been working with WildAid to promote wildlife conservation and to reduce the demand for products derived from endangered or threatened species. It’s encouraging to see how many people have been supportive of the campaign to reduce pressure on the world’s sharks by saying “no” to shark fin soup. Since becoming involved in this campaign and learning more about the threats to wildlife, I wanted to go and see what’s happening to some of these animals myself and so I’m heading to Africa for the first time to learn about elephants and rhinos, two species in peril as a result of demand for ivory and rhino horn.
After finishing up the great experience of commentating on Olympic basketball for CCTV, my journey begins at London’s world-renowned Natural History Museum, a beautiful building dating back to 1873, with one of the world’s best collections of fossils and animal specimens – approximately 70 million items in total. I wanted to learn more about our planet’s wildlife, both past and present, and better understand the root and the implications of extinction.
My guide is Dr. Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London, who spent time studying in China. We started in the Dinosaur Hall – beautiful and impressive. It would have been amazing to see one of these animals alive. Next to these guys, I’m feeling pretty small. Their extinction is thought to have been caused by an asteroid hitting the earth, causing a massive dust cloud – unavoidable and natural.
We saw the skeletons and exhibits of many animals that are now extinct. I learned that, in the grand scheme of things, extinction can be a natural process, a part of animals and plants adapting and changing – all part of evolution. But every so often there is a mass extinction event like the asteroid strike, which scientists believe wiped out the dinosaurs.
Many scientists believe we are now in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction, but for the first time, it’s being caused by an animal – human beings.
Now for many species facing extinction or near extinction, the threat is being caused by human activity – deforestation or the conversion of habitat to agricultural land, introducing foreign species that wipe out local species, and from over hunting.
Scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is perhaps 1,000 times greater than what would be considered natural. And the scale and pace of the changes is so extreme that animals don’t have time to adapt and evolve.
Seeing all these animals made me realize the amazing diversity of this incredible planet we inhabit and how shortsighted we are if we let more creatures disappear on our watch and by our hand.
The tour continued with wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths, and the Giant Moa bird. From what we know, it seems many large animals like this lived all over the world. Today, Dr. Turvey tells me that the only places you can really see animals of this stature and witness great wildlife diversity are in Africa and a few isolated parts of Asia. I learned that elephants and rhinos once thrived in China, but today we only have a few elephants and rhinos are long gone.
Both elephants and rhinos are being hunted at record levels for their ivory and horns. I was really shocked to learn that even dead rhinos aren’t safe. Across Europe, organized criminals have been stealing rhino horns from museums to supply the Asian market for rhino horns. Now, museums are replacing the horns on exhibit with fake ones. Sam told me, ironically, many of these museum horns may have been treated with preservatives so anyone trying to use these stolen horns may actually be poisoning themselves.
It’s sad that even our museums aren’t safe from the demand. If people are resorting to stealing rhino horns from museums to meet the demand, this doesn’t bode well for rhinos in the wild.
We’ll find out more in Africa.