By Guy Rogers
THANDI the famous Kariega white rhino whose horn was hacked off by poachers in March 2012 has come full circle.
Having survived against all the odds, she’s about half way through her 16-month gestation period (she was nearing the end of her first trimester when her pregnancy was revealed in December) and she’s doing fine.
And now she’s the face of a radical new demand reduction campaign which will soon be launched at ground zero, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam, where 500-10000 primary consumers of rhino horn are driving the decimation of a species.
The figures come from research by the new Breaking the Brand campaign developed by a group based in Melbourne in Australia founded by physicist Dr Lynn Johnson who works in the field of behaviour change.
They’re a long way from the stronghold of rhino in South Africa but Johnson and her team, all volunteers, are focusing on the species because the situation is urgent, she told me in an e-mail. With 1004 rhinos killed in South Africa last year up from 668 in 2012 and already 447 this year (including 10 in the Eastern Cape) that’s a rhino killed every eight hours by the poachers.
Leading global rhino campaigner Dr William Fowlds, based here in the Eastern Cape, confirmed the seriousness of the situation when I spoke to him this week. Kruger National Park has already reached tipping point and if the poaching trend continues then by the end of this year the country will start to see more rhino deaths than births, and the population slide will begin in earnest.
Johnson argues that the approach of fighting poaching with law enforcement alone is not making a dent. And with rhino horn fetching a higher price than even gold or cocaine it’s not surprising.
The research underpinning the Breaking the Brand campaign included interviews with rhino horn consumers in Viet Nam and the Vietnamese expatriate community in Australia. Findings were cross-checked with other specialist organisations including Traffic the wildlife trade monitoring network to pinpoint who the typical rhino horn buyers and consumers are. It’s fascinating what emerged.
The users are upper middle class men over the age of 40 including senior businessmen, celebrities and government officials. Rhino horn is for them a badge of wealth, power, social status and hard work. This is supported by an underlying belief in the health benefits of rhino horn. They believe it detoxifies the body and can therefore cure anything from a hangover to a serious illness.
Related findings show that farming rhino to dehorn to sell on through legal trade if it was approved would be futile because farmed animals would not be regarded as bestowing the same status, and all it would do is launch a new less wealthy customer base.
One half of Breaking the Brand’s flagship advertisement shows Thandi barely alive just after her horn was hacked off in a searing image shot by lensman Paul Mills. But instead of focusing on her, the ad’s message “speaks to the people causing the problem, in a currency they will respond to”, a campaign report explains. It focuses on what the user is really purchasing which is, in this case, status. The aim of the ad is to “tarnish the prestige of the person giving the rhino horn and make the act look desperate and needy”.
Thandi is “he” in the ad because of the research finding that the rhino horn user group are heavily influenced by their male peers and not at all by females. Influence, findings indicate, may possibly overlap with empathy.
The campaign has created a series of other ads to support “Thandi” including a set focused on the increasing possibility that poached horn could have been poisoned as a protection strategy. So the same businessmen from the Thandi ad feature, with a glass of elixir raised, but the message is “rhino horn can poison a business relationship.”
Another set of ads is aimed at capturing the attention of a distinct group of rhino horn buyers: affluent women who purchase it for their sick children believing – although this has been disproved by all medical tests done – that it has healing properties. The first ad is aimed at educating these women about the rhino crisis, and testing their empathy (“to medicate her child she killed a mother”) and the second at their health concerns (“rhino horn can poison your child”).
Fowlds is working with Onderstepoort specialists to build on the rescue strategy, pioneered on Thandi, for rhino injured by poaching, as well as with a grassroots “Coaching for Conservation” youth programme using soccer as a conduit. And with the Wilderness Foundation, Investec Rhino Lifeline and Vietnamese celebrities Thu Minh and Thanh Bui, he is also tackling demand reduction.
While rhino horn consumption as a driver of the poaching savagery is abhorrent, the Vietnamese are not barbarians, he emphasises. We ourselves live in a society which has radically changed over a short space of time so absolutely this changing behaviour drive can work.
Anti-poaching measures are vital to buy time but demand reduction is the only way we’re going to properly trample rhino poaching into the dust.