Andrew Muir: Fighting rhino poachers only the start – all wildlife needs help

Part of the Davos charm is the eclectic group that gather for a week in January in Europe’s highest town. Among them this year was Andrew Muir, CEO of the Wilderness Foundation, an organisation founded by the legendary conservationist Ian Player. Andrew worked with his mentor for over a quarter of a century, continuing the work of the great man. Including the war against rhino poaching, battles are being won but the war against extinction remains very much in the balance. – Alec Hogg

This special podcast is brought to you by BrightRock and here in Davos, well certainly not for the first year, is Andrew Muir from the Wilderness Foundation. You’re becoming a bit of a regular at these events, Andrew.

Yes, they’re very useful at a number of levels. As a conservationist, I think it’s very important that we have a voice here, that we ensure that some of the issues we are dealing with on the ground in Africa have a voice and also we try and integrate that within a lot of the businesses and the talk at major global events like this.

I know the Wilderness Foundation was started by Dr Ian Player, he’s a global figure as you are now yourself, but how long have you been there, how did you work with Dr Player and how were you drawn to the field?

Ian Player: man of the wilderness

I had the privilege of working with Ian for 25 years. I’ve been part of the organisations that he founded for 31 years now. I was drawn in as a young man enjoying Table Mountain initially as an 18/19 year old and then very early on in my career wanted to get into conservation. Obviously being in South Africa, we were dealing in the mid-eighties with a lot of social strife, so I got involved in that as well and my career has really taken a route of conservation with very strong social sciences as well and I’ve been able to integrate that in the work that I’ve done through the Wilderness Leadership School and the Wilderness Foundation. I think that’s really given conservation, certainly in the work that we do, a balanced approach and a holistic approach because this is very much part of what Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela talked about and what they did in their careers.

Before we talk about the current fight against rhino poaching, many have forgotten that the White Rhino was almost extinct before you guys stepped in, what happened then?

Well, you’ve got to go all the way back to the late 1800’s. I think in about 1897 or so, a group of hunters hunting in the confluence of the White and the black Umfolozi at the time, hunted a group of rhino which they assumed were black rhino because at that point the world believed that the White rhino was extinct and only to find out that they were actually white rhino and that led to the first proclamation of a reserve for conservation purposes, in this instance, the conservation of the white rhino that had now been discovered in Africa and so the Umfolozi is the first protected area because of the white rhino and I think also that what is interesting is that even before that, at the time of King Shaka, the confluence of the White and the Black Umfolozi was by royal decree.

It was only to be used by royalty for hunting or with royal approval and so in a way that even predates modern conservation and I think those reasons led to the fact that those rhino managed to survive there. Go forward another 50 to 60 years in the late 1950’s, when Ian Player came along as a young conservationist after quite a traumatic time in World War II, found his niche in conservation, and in the early 1950’s conservation wasn’t a very big sector in Africa and Ian then really came into Umfolozi, eventually rose through the ranks and then was part of that team under the then Natal Parks Board that developed the programme and the technique, which had never been done before, of capturing and then translocating rhino back to their range state, i.e. back to areas where they used to occur naturally.

Therefore, from a DNA point of view, all the rhino that you find in the Kruger National Park, roughly 9,000 odd, their genes hail from the confluence of the White and the Black Umfolozi, but what was amazing about that time in our history, and which made South Africa one of the world’s great conservation countries was because of the techniques that were developed, they came up with Operation Rhino to move these white rhino that are now bred up in the Umfolozi to other parts of Southern Africa, and they had to come up with the techniques of what is essentially modern game capture and those techniques have been replicated many times over throughout the world.

That’s really a wonderful, positive story of conservation and I think going all the way to where we are now, where through slightly different pressure and forces, we are facing tremendous extinction events, not just with rhino, but we have massive issues with, as you know, giraffe, and elephant, and lion all over Africa and so here we are again having to deal with these issues in this time about how to keep conservation and keep finding techniques and ways to preserve these species for all mankind, but more than that.

As Ian Player always used to say, “As humans we are one of 13-million species which make up planet earth. That is our biodiversity, that’s our life force, without biodiversity, we as humans could not live” and yet we’re in the process now, through many forces including global warming of getting to a point where we have put 20 percent of all those species, nearly three million species at risk of extinction and one of the talks of Davos, which has been very interesting is there have been numerous sessions on the six extinction event and that’s where we are right now in 2017 as a society and looking down that barrel and what we do over the next five years now is going to determine the impact of that and the impact of that on business and on all life on this earth.

So sentient beings are pulling together hopefully in the right direction, but just to close off with, Ian Player, he’s then done for conservation worldwide what Gary, his brother did for golf in many ways and certainly built up a whole industry in South Africa. You knew him well. What was it in the family, was it something in the genes that did that? I mean where do you get these two incredible brothers who’ve changed the world?

Look, I’ve been lucky enough also to have spent a bit of time with the whole Player family. They really are extraordinary people. They have a very strong sense of value and of place; they are very focused on what they do. Ian literally slept, drank, ate, and walked conservation, as Gary did the same for golf. They had a great respect for each other as brothers. It was always lovely to see that when I interacted with both of them, but they were very passionate ambassadors of South Africa and of Africa. Ian, right until the point that he passed away, nearly just over two years ago, never stopped believing in Africa, in its role for humanity as the Cradle of Humankind, but also because of its biodiversity and its incredible wildlife and he always talked about that depth of human spirit that he thought all Africans really showed and he was always optimistic, as we are.

Well, as we have to be because we believe in it, we believe in the story and we believe in the people, but moving onto the next big challenge, the one that you’re facing right now, the rhino poaching where perhaps human greed is now really reaching a level unprecedented. Are you winning that war?

Well, statistically in the last three years the numbers have plateaued, but that’s not –

The numbers of poached rhino?

Of poached rhino. Some would argue they may be slightly down, they may be slightly up. The point is that when you go from 13 rhino poached in South Africa in 2007 to 1280 in 2015 that’s a rapid growth. We’re now still at that number of 1200, 1300, somewhere around that, so it does seem to be levelling off. The challenge is though that we are at a point of being at the point of a negative population growth rate because we’ve lost many female white rhino to poaching and because of the management makeup of the populations.

Remember, even if there was no poaching we would still have a one to two percent natural mortality rate annually anyway with the overall population, so we are probably still not out the woods in terms of losing more rhino that are being born and that’s what’s really worrying all of us as conservationists and there’s debate about that, but the debate aside, it’s either on that point, below that point, or just above that point. It’s there and thereabout and so particularly with the drought that we’ve been experiencing, as you know, in parts of South Africa, that impacts also on the breeding rates of all wildlife including rhino, so all these factors need to be built in.


Having said that, what has happened is there has been a very positive response from numerous elements of society and the only way that we are going to stop and address this issue is through a toolkit of not just one or two solutions, but multiple factors working, so everything from your intelligence and information gathering process to boots on the ground, to the use of technology, which has been quite a feature at Davos. I’ve given a couple of talks about how technology is helping to aid the conservationists on the ground in Africa to what we call demand reduction, which is really educating at source, in the East, in China, in Vietnam, in areas where illegal wildlife products are being used, educating at school level, and then of course through just becoming better at prosecution and the justice side of what needs to happen.

When you put that all together, without a doubt, we are beginning to have positive results and in the last two years alone there have been substantial and important successful prosecutions and we are beginning to get to some of these syndicates and we are beginning to have successful results. However, we are running out of time for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but what always gives me hope is in my travels around the world there definitely is a global understanding and a global realisation that although we as South Africans have nearly 85 percent of all rhino left in the wild under our watch, this is a global issue and as citizens of the world we all have a responsibility to try and save this species from extinction and so I am seeing a response that’s in the public domain, there is a lot of interest in this issue.

Then my final point would be, and let’s not forget the rhino is a charismatic species, it’s an apex specie, so it gets a lot of attention, but this is not just about the rhino. The rhino is really an indicator of, as I said earlier, the beginnings of a mass extinction event of species, so let’s use the rhino as a core bearer, as a bearer to arms, as a core that we really need to address this issue globally and at every possible aspect and every possible level and that’s really about how we as species, as humans living on this earth, how we are consuming things, how we are treating habitats and ecosystems.

We seem to be getting better in that regard.

It was very positive here. Seeing the advancements at Davos in technology, in renewable energies, in food production, there are some positive signs, but we really, as always we tend to wait till the last moment. We’re really at the point where we don’t have much more time to make those changes, but yes, we are getting better at it. Sustainability is no longer just a word, it’s an action, it’s a core, it is happening. Companies and businesses are reporting not just on economics and on their social impacts, but they’re now reporting on their environmental work, and on sustainability action. It’s becoming part of mainstream business.

It’s also hardwired into the millennials, they want a better world. Maybe their parents were absent from this area, but they’ve been pushing it aggressively which can only give us hope for the future.

Absolutely and that really is our hope. There is no doubt that we are turning a corner, there is absolutely no doubt. My concern would be that we really are at the tipping point. This is no longer talk, we’re really at the point of falling off that cliff and it’s because it’s not just climate change, it’s not just the utilisation of resources, it’s not just the fact that we are destroying habitats for agriculture and taking out rainforests, it’s the perfect storm of all those factors combined, which is really causing the collective damage and so it is out there, there is awareness, there are movements, there has been and there are many positive changes. We just need to make sure that we keep the momentum and as Ian Player always used to say, “We need to keep these issues in the public domain”.

Andrew Muir is the Head of the Wilderness Foundation, here in Davos, it’s Alec with a special podcast brought to you by BrightRock.

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