There is to be no New Year let up for beleaguered rhinos as leading experts warn the ‘tipping point’ for these animals, where poaching out-paces population growth and rhino numbers start going into decline, is likely to come in 2014, two years earlier than previously predicted.
We met up with leading South African vet and rhino expert William Fowlds while he was on a brief visit to the UK. He has been working with seriously injured rhino survivors of poaching incidents and is the founder of Rhino Lifeline. ‘In 2014 we’re going to reach tipping point, that’s my understanding of it,’ he told us. ‘Two years ago we said that was going to happen in 2016. Now we’ve got to adjust those expectations, which is a sad state of affairs’.
His words echo the warnings of rhino conservation specialists at a US meeting last month convened by the International Rhino Federation. The group also stressed rhinos are fast approaching this tipping point, with poaching deaths nearly outnumbering births after two decades of population recovery.
‘This is simply unsustainable and is a serious threat to the conservation gains of the last decades,’ said Susie Ellis, executive director of the IRF. ‘If we do not take urgent action we could see the permanent loss of viable rhino populations that ensure long-term survival of the species.’
William Fowlds agrees we have to act now. ‘The most significant thing that’s happened in the past two years is a huge amount of awareness, a lot more public interest, and a lot more political will internationally,’ he says. ‘If for the next two years we can double that effort, we will start seeing a difference.
‘If we don’t then we’re going to be down the other side and if that happens, the big fear is, the drivers of it all, organised crime, start saying ”The end is near, we’re going to start stockpiling”. If that then quickens the thing, then we’re finished.’
To date this year in South Africa alone a staggering 891 rhinos have been lost to poaching compared to 668 in 2012 and 448 in 2011. In 2007 there were just 13 rhinos lost to poaching in the country.
Despite the terrible outlook Will Fowlds still remains positive. ‘There are too many passionate people in South Africa alone to let it happen,’ he adds. ‘What we are allowing to happen now is a tragedy, but there is a response. If you keep this thing in the public domain we have a chance of saving them, the minute we lose that public interest they’re gone.’
‘If I look at my own involvement with the survivor stuff, it’s affected me a lot emotionally. I’m a different emotional person than I was four years ago,’ he adds. ‘What’s helped me so much is reading every single Facebook comment. They’re incredibly uplifting. If you’re not getting some sort of encouragement, recognition, and so on it’s bloody hard to keep going…’