By Simon Bloch
Johannesburg - The experiences of thirteen Belgian tourists – including the personal aide to the Belgian deputy prime minister – who witnessed the horror of a mutilated rhino in Kruger National Park last week could raise the stakes and ultimately become the “game-changer” in the war on rhino poaching.
The episode was recorded by the tourists, who posted a video to YouTube and photos to Facebook, which soon went viral, shocking millions across the world.
On Friday, the Belgian ambassador to South Africa, Johan Maricou, told Weekend Argus: “I am absolutely numbed by what I have seen, and am sorry that Belgian tourists had to be confronted by this horrific incident at the world-famous game reserve.
“I urge the South African government to put this at the top of their agenda,” Maricou said.
“I am also outraged by the numbers of rhinos that lost their lives to poaching here (1 004) last year, and the ever-increasing numbers reported to date,” the ambassador said. “South Africa carries a certain responsibility. But without international co-operation and agreements, especially with Asian countries where the demand is mostly, this is a very difficult issue.”
Maricou said he was encouraged that President Jacob Zuma mentioned rhino poaching in his recent State of the Nation address, saying there was co-operation with China, Vietnam, Kenya and Mozambique, although this was not as advanced as it seemed.
“I am sure there will be more pressure from the European Parliament, as it is one of the issues they are very much concerned with. It is a very important issue at the international level and it concerns all of us,” he said.
The video of the macabre event, filmed by Patrick Herman, and an equally grotesque photograph by Marc Braeckman, have appalled senior members of the European Union’s Parliament, according to Karin Devis, one of the tourists,.
Devis, personal secretary and aide to Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Johan Vande Lanotte, was among the group of Belgian tourists who encountered the southern white rhino which had been shot, had its horns hacked off and been left to die.
“We are still feel shaken by what we saw at Kruger Park. It was something so terrible, we never expected anything like that would happen on our trip,” she said. “I cannot describe how horrible it was, it was terrible… there are no words even in my own Dutch language to describe it,” Devis said.
“This was the only rhinoceros we saw in Kruger, and I am sure it will haunt us forever. We were about to end our visit to Kruger, and the rhino was the only animal of the Big 5 we had not seen... we had seen all the other animals of the Big 5, so when all of a sudden saw this animal coming out of the bush about 3km from the Phabeni Gate, we were very happy to see our first rhino...
“But when the rhino turned towards us, I was so... I couldn’t even take a photograph – I was so appalled, I wanted to throw up. I cannot describe how horrible it was.
“I was aware there are elephant and rhino killings by poachers, but I never expected this to happen in my life. It was a live poaching in front of my eyes, and although I did not see the poachers, I never expected to see it in a beautiful place like Kruger Park”.
Also describing his encounter, Louis Dillen, an engineer from Heusden, near Gent, said he broke down and wept.
“I was in the second safari vehicle. When I saw the rhino coming, that was what we were waiting for, it was very nice to see a white rhino, I was taking the shots so I was not looking very closely at the animal, but it was moving very slowly towards the vehicle, and when I got the pictures, I looked over my photo equipment and noticed the rhino’s horns were missing.
“At that moment everybody got very emotional and the rhino disappeared back into the bush. It was at that moment we realised we were seeing something that has never happened before. It’s very emotional for all of us. I couldn’t stop crying. You can’t stop crying when you see something that outrageous.
“We have to stop this. If we can do something to save the rhino, we will surely do that, even from Europe,” Dillen said.
Francoise Malby Anthony, widow of the late conservationist and acclaimed author Lawrence Anthony, said it was ironic that “the rhino’s horn has become its worst enemy”.
“Now that a group of Belgium tourists has witnessed this horror, we can only hope that it will start reaching more people, and bring awareness to the tragedy these magnificent creatures are suffering,” she said.