Unsung Heroes: Michael Grover
Ecologist in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve /co-creator of Rhino Rescue Project, South Africa /winner of Coalition WILD’s 2013 Wilder World Challenge
At the 10th World Wilderness Congress we discovered hundreds of young activists who were working quietly behind the scenes to make the WILD vision a reality. We felt that these people’s activities should be recognised. In keeping with the knowledge that young people are the future, we asked our team of young trainee journalists in the press office to go out and interview them.
There are 18 000 white rhinoceros in the world, 75% in South Africa, and each year rhino poaching is increasing: in 2006 20 were lost, two years later 80, and by the end of this year about 1,000 will have been lost.
My work as an ecologist in South Africa was normal. I was checking on animals, making sure that everything was running smoothly …. but when rhino poaching started, my work changed completely: 90% of my day was spent running after poachers and trying to find a way to stop them. We started using alarms on our fences and using cell phones to gather information, but it became too much hassle.
So I founded a company called Canvas – for smart phones applications, with apps that everybody can adapt for their own use. I wrote an app to track down the poachers, with data collection of photos, GPS locations, the direction of footprints, what type of vehicle might be used, any information that might be linked. However with rhino horn being in such demand, and such high amounts of money being paid for information about rhinos often we don’t know who is using the information.
At the beginning of this year we realized this was not enough so we started another project called “Rhinos Rescue Project”. This involves putting a mixture of indelible, red dye and an ectoparisitide poison into the horn, so when poachers take the horns for medicine and drink it they get sick. We organized a big campaign in our community with signs all over the reserve to advertise this. It’s continuing, but we have funding problems.
The rhino problem has got two time spans – in the short term, we protect them now (fences, helicopters..) but in the long term we need to build a community economy, educate people here and in the East, doing campaigns. We would like rhinos to belong to the community, so people protect their own rhinos. Another option would be make rhino horn legal to trade, because you can cut it without killing the rhino – it is like cutting the fingernails and it grows back, but current legislation’s does not allow that. And for poachers it’s easier to shoot them, it’s cheap.
Local people in South Africa don’t use the rhino horn – it’s sent to Asia. It’s rumoured that rhino horn can fetch $65,000 per kilogramme in Vietnam or China and an average horn is 5/ 6 kilogrammes. We know people use it in traditional medicine but also it’s used to show off your wealth.
Rhino horn is just fingernails, but people are willing to pay for it. The guys who are poaching rhinos are getting money, more ammunition, more arms, more cell phones, and more people are getting involved. The rhino could save African animals, because we could farm rhinos, which is really easy as they don’t need big areas, they just eat grass and if you cut off the horns, they grow back.
For me, rhinos are magic animals and we have the opportunity to save them and other animals in the process as well, and it is sustainable, it’s renewable. This way we could make money. But of course we will keep wild rhinos with horns in reserves as well because we have tourists.
At the moment we communicate by radio, and people use a special channel to let us know that there is dead rhino, so when the radio goes your heart drops, because you know that they found another rhino. Every time you hear that, you get sad, but about three weeks ago we had a rhino, she died and she had a baby calf of eight months old, which ran away from the poachers so we caught it and took it to the orphanage. Although we have lost over 30 rhinos in the last few months, just that feeling of helping that one baby rhino made me feel good, and made me believe that I’m here for a good reason. Those are the days that you need to keep going.
This interview was conducted by Malwina Gan – Originally from Poland, Malwina is finishing her Masters Degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Salamanca, Spain. She would like to work with the development of indigenous audiovisual communication.