Monthly Archives

May 2020

Hundreds of North West rhinos dehorned in secret operation (South Africa)

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Paul Ash, Times Live | May 28, 2020

Read the original story here.

Hundreds of rhinos living in game reserves in North West have been quietly dehorned to protect them from poachers.

The mammoth and highly secret operation was carried out in Pilanesberg National Park over the past nine days by North West Parks officials assisted by wildlife vets, volunteers and anti-poaching organisation Rhino 911.

“It has never been done before in a reserve as big as this in the time that we did it,” said Rhino 911 chief pilot Nico Jacobs. “It was hugely satisfying.”

With its roads and mountains, and surrounded by struggling communities, the park is difficult to protect from incursions by poachers.

It has never been done before in a reserve as big as this in the time that we did it.

But now that the country’s game reserves are closed for lockdown, NW Parks decided the time was right to carry out the project, which involved tracking the animals and darting them before removing their horns.

“Obviously there are no people around now,” said Jacobs.

Even though the lockdown has also made it difficult for poachers to operate, Jacobs and his team found the carcass of a rhino cow butchered just days before the project began.

Tracking the rhinos required two helicopters and teams of people on the ground.

“It was the most efficient operation I’ve ever seen,” said Lynne MacTavish, a game reserve owner who volunteered to help out on the project. “We could just concentrate on [finding] the rhinos.”

While dehorning often attracts criticism from animal rights activists, Jacobs says the procedure gives the animals a much greater chance of survival.

“This is my 16th year of doing this,” he said. “We’ve tried everything. We owe it to the animals to try every method to make a difference.”

The horn grows back by about 10cm a year.

For security reasons officials would not give the exact number of rhinos dehorned. There was no indication that dehorned rhinos were more stressed than horned rhinos.

Dr Samuel Penny of Brighton University’s school of pharmacy and biomolecular science said his recent doctoral research had shown that dehorning rhinos did not affect their physiology or behaviour.

“There were no real changes in behaviour in how the rhinos were acting [after dehorning],” he said.

While doing research in SA Penny also examined dehorned rhinos for stress responses by measuring corticoids.

“We looked at changes over time. There was no indication that dehorned rhinos were more stressed than horned rhinos.”

Rhino horn is mostly made up of keratin, the protein found in human hair and nails. It is widely prized in traditional Chinese medicine as a cure for fever.

Owing to its high price in recent years it has also gained favour in countries like Vietnam as a “status cure” for various ailments. With rhino horn currently trading on illegal markets for about $67,000/kg (about R1,2m), dehorning the animals may be their last chance of survival.

“There is literally no other option,” said Jacobs. “I’d rather see a rhino without a horn than a dead rhino.”

Coronavirus presents Africa’s precious wildlife with a familiar death sentence

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Tourism
Andrew Christian, Wee Tracker | May 28, 2020

Read the original story here.

Tourism is Africa’s new gold, and the continent’s world-renowned wildlife are the carriers of that treasure. With the outbreak of coronavirus came the general shutdown of tourist centers, international flights and national borders.

The region’s tourism is now at a worrying all-time low, but there’s an even bigger problem that threatening the industry in and out of a global pandemic.

Shots Re-fired

One of the reasons Southern Africa is the epicenter of tourism in the continent is the presence of a diversity of wildlife that cannot be found elsewhere. But now, the very creatures that attract droves of tourists from within and outside the continent are at the mercy of a familiar problem.

Thanks to the lockdowns instituted to slow/stop the spread of the novel virus, poachers have an opportunity to resume their nefarious hunting activities.

More so, they are capitalizing on the scarcity of people, patrol teams and enforcement officers—most of whom are observing self-isolation—to once again pursue their illegal activities.

In Botswana—Africa’s best safari country—6 rhinos have been gunned down since the nation imposed the closure of its borders. The country’s military claims to have killed 5 suspected poachers in the space of 4 days during anti-poaching operations at Okavango in April.

It is no news that rhino skins and tusks are in high demand. Their illegal trade offers a promising business opportunity to poachers who are yet unable to meet the surging demands from Asian countries, chief of which is China. There, a kilogram of rhino tusk can sell for as much as USD 60 K.

Almost 50 of the species have been slaughtered in the landlocked country in the past 10 months, as the southern African wildlife have reported a surge in poaching of the endangered species. More frustrating is that some conservationists can’t be present in the countries due to emergency visa restrictions.

In South Africa

South Africa accounts for 93 percent of Africa’s estimated 20,000 white rhinos and 39 percent of the remaining 5,000 are critically endangered black rhinos. But these animals are far from safe, especially now that 7 deaths have occured since the nation’s national lockdown.

Rhino 911, a South African emergency service for rhinos, was called on March 25th, 2020, to rescue a 2-month-old white rhino calf whose mother was reportedly brought down by poachers. On March 26th, two black rhinos were called in for rescue, but their horns were already hacked off, leading to their death.

The South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries says that 594 rhinos were poached in 2019, though it is progress compared to the 769 were slaughtered in the year before. 2019 was the fifth year in a row that poaching numbers have declined in South Africa, since numbers peaked at 1,215 in 2014.

In South Africa, poachers kill an average of three rhinos per day—or about 100 per month—to feed the demand for horn on the black market. Nearly two-thirds of rhinos poached in the country in 2014 were killed in Kruger National Park.

Rhino horn is one of the most valuable natural commodities on earth, worth more than gold. Such a demand drives record poaching rates, especially now that nations are on lockdown and business is not as usual. Nevertheless. scientific studies have proved that rhino horn has no medical properties. Therefore it is of no use to anyone except the rhino.

African Wildlife: The Other Problem

While rhinos are being targeted for their horns, African wildlife in general is not spared the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak is posing a challenge to the protection of iconic species as key wildlife parks go without a single tourist.

Large mammals, especially lions, are the leading attractions, pulling big crowds of European, American and Asian tourists to Africa with good revenue generation to respective safari destination countries within the continent.

But now, in safari destinations like Kenya and Tanzania, wildlife conservations parks are posed with a huge challenge. Animal protecting depends on tourist revenue, but as tourism is on hold, the sources of those funds are threatened.

There is reason to believe that tourism will not pick up in the continent until the mid stages of 2021. This means going more than a year without revenue from tourism and dealing with the reality of unemployment.

With African governments trying to borrow to augment their public health spending, conversationalists are worried the continent’s wildlife may not get the financial attention it needs to survive the pandemic.

As tourism infrastructure are likely to deteriorate, so will wildlife spots should investments not be made to battle challenges like poaching and the destruction of favorable habitats. Tourism jobs are being lost on a large scale. As a result of lesser income, insiders, including rangers, might be tempted to poach animals to make some bucks.

Since 2008, a small number of ranch owners, hunters, game capture operators, pilots and vets have become involved in poaching.

Tourism on a Costly Holiday

Even though the WHO has said Africa is the least Covid-19-affected area globally, the economic effects are plentiful. The continent’s overnight, hotel bookings have since been canceled, safaris are postponed and cultural tours remain abandoned.

All looked good for tourism at the start of 2020. Africa had the world’s fastest-growing tourism industry, one that is projected to bring in billions of dollars.

But the mighty, fell hand of Covid-19 drastically turned things round. Lockdowns in a lethal combination with a tiny local tourism customer base and an industry targeting high-paying foreigners has offered the region’s tourism a situation it is not prepared to handle.

There is no telling how tourism-based business will survive since they are mostly dependent on international visitors. No one is also certain when borders will be opened again and when international flights would be released from their necessary grounding.

However, in South Africa, the Department of Tourism is offering eligible small-, micro- and medium-sized enterprises to apply for a share of the ZAR 200 Mn (USD 10.6 Mn) Tourism Relief Fund

Much of Africa’s tourism growth was expected to benefit the wildlife economy, paying for park management, community conservation, and jobs for 23 million Africans—many of whom dwell in wildlife rich rural areas. Wildlife forms the foundation of Africa’s natural ecosystems. Wildlife-based tourism employs 9.3 million Africans directly and indirectly.

Poaching in Indonesia’s biodiverse Leuser Ecosystem on the rise amid COVID-19

By Antipoaching, Conservation
Junaidi Hanafiah, Mongabay | May 28, 2020

Read the original story here.

BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA: Wildlife poaching is on the rise in a key Sumatran habitat that’s home to some of the rarest species on Earth. But hunters in the Leuser Ecosystem appear to be targeting animals for food, rather than the area’s prized tigers, rhinos or orangutans, according to conservationists.

“Our teams have found a lot of deer snares, and these aren’t set up by professional hunters,” said Dedi Yansyah, wildlife protection coordinator at the Leuser Conservation Forum, an NGO.

“We think those snares were set up by people whose activities have been disrupted by the corona,” he added, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Noviar Andayani, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), agreed, saying in a webinar last month that her own organization’s patrol teams had reported an increase in poaching activities amid the pandemic. She attributed this to economic losses suffered by communities living in the area as a result of shutdowns imposed in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

A forest ranger shows a wire snare found inside a national park in Sumatra. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Local authorities working with conservation groups manage 26 patrol teams to protect the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The protected area spans 23,000 square kilometers (8,880 square miles), more than double the size of Jamaica, and is the last place on Earth where the Sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant and orangutan coexist.

But rates of illegal poaching and logging there are estimated to be some of the worst in Indonesia. And local lockdown measures meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus have halted patrols, Dedi said.

“There are many challenges in protecting wildlife currently. Teams can’t be mobilized from one region to another,” he said.

Indonesia has shut down conservation areas for tourists to stem COVID-19 transmissions both among people and to wildlife such as orangutans. Many communities have also restricted access to their areas, and these local lockdowns have slammed the country’s tourism sector, including the small businesses relying on tourists who visit the parks.

With some 4 million people currently living in and around Leuser, the ecosystem is already under heavy human pressure. Species like rhinos that persist there do so in small, fragmented populations and remain highly sensitive to any human activity, Dedi said. “Rhinos are very different from other species that can live near human settlements. Rhinos need an environment that’s truly safe and sound away from human activities,” he said.

A guide feeds an orangutan as tourists watch in Mount Leuser National Park. Image by Aria Danaparamita for Mongabay.

Noviar of WCS called for more efforts by the authorities to beef up security across wildlife habitats like Leuser and an end to the wildlife trade. “Protect the wildlife in their natural and healthy habitat,” she said.

Banner image of a Sumatran rhino captured by camera trap in Mount Leuser National Park, courtesy of the park agency.

Greater transparency needed from a badly bruised ministry.

By Editorial

Last week I reflected on South Africa’s dismal showing in The Breaking Point–Uncovering South Africa’s Shameful Live Wildlife Trade with China. This hard-hitting report will have left Minister Barbara Creecy and her colleagues in South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries smarting at the government’s failure to apply its strong regulatory powers and, by design or neglect, to allow thousands of animals to be exported to China.

To her credit, Minister Creecy did immediately meet with the authors of the report. But, somewhat predictably, little beyond a few vague assurances resulted. There was certainly no willingness to engage in policy discussions or a moratorium on the international export of live wild animals.

Ms. Creecy must have been relieved, therefore, to have had some diverting news. She was able to report that April this year “saw a marked decrease in rhino poaching countrywide. In Kruger, there were fewer rhinos poached than in any single month since September 2013.” She would be unwise to set too much store by this, however, as any respite might well prove to be very temporary. As travel restrictions ease as the country attempts to revive its economy in the wake of Covid-19, few would be surprised not to see a resurgence of rhino killings.

Neighboring Zimbabwe has already noted a spike in wildlife poaching as the wildlife management efforts have been redirected towards combating the spread of Covid-19. Let’s not forget that Zimbabwe’s poaching spike in 2008 was a warning of what was to follow in South Africa.

And although poaching is unlikely to reach the awful levels of 2013–2017, they will undoubtedly stretch the financing of anti-poaching efforts to the limit. Particularly so, given that meeting the costs of conservation security is so heavily dependent on tourism income, which for several months now has been non-existent. The economic knock-on of this is painfully evident in claims that as many as 600,000 tourism-related jobs are threatened in South Africa.

The same press release states that, by the end of 2019, the number of rhino births for the year in Kruger had equaled the combined natural and poaching deaths. It has been five long years since this last happened—a sad reflection on how ruthless and prolonged the attack on rhinos has been.

During the 11 years from 2009 to the end of 2019, some 8,372 rhinos fell to poachers in South Africa. A total of 5,048 of them happened in the Kruger National Park. There would, of course, also have been natural mortalities. These would have been higher than the average because of the twin stresses of prolonged drought and the rhinos’ susceptibility to tuberculosis.

Furthermore, there is collateral damage from poaching. Many young calves would have perished alongside their mothers. A number of the slaughtered adult females would have been pregnant at the time of their death, and some of the unborn offspring would have been females. All brutally removed from the potential breeding pool for no reason other than insatiable greed.

The effects of the poaching scourge are sobering.

In 2011, South African National Parks (SANParks) reported that the Kruger’s White Rhinos appeared to have leveled off at approximately 10,600 animals. Then, in 2016, a survey using “the scientifically accepted block count method” recorded that a total of 6,649 – 7,830 White Rhinos lived in the Park, a drop of more than 1,600 from the previous year. And the decline continued throughout 2017. At the end of that year, White Rhino numbers in the Kruger had dropped to somewhere between 4,759 and 5,532 individuals. The shocking reality is that in six years, Kruger’s White Rhino population fell from 10,600 to as few as 4,759—a 55 percent crash.

Some commentators feel that even these figures are high. In 2015, Dr. Salomon Joubert, former head of Kruger, estimated that there were only some 6,000 White Rhinos. Wildlife vet Dr. Kobus du Toit was even more pessimistic, saying that he put the total population at somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000.

Black Rhinos in Kruger are far fewer in number and have fared better, and it seems that they were less affected by the recent drought conditions. The count for 2017 was 427 to 586. These are the descendants of a founder population of 90 individuals originally from KwaZulu Natal.

Kruger’s conservation team stands by their grid pattern population counting methods, but these have been questioned along with the length of time between annual counts and the release of the results. It is understandable, therefore, that there is a great deal of speculation as to the “real” population figures for White Rhinos in the Park.

If Ms. Creecy wishes to regain some much-needed kudos for her rather bruised ministry, she must reverse its historical unwillingness to share statistics timeously and openly. Not to do so will only lead to further, mostly negative, speculation.

Her most sensible course of action would be to show greater transparency in all matters to do with her department. And in respect of rhinos, to allow an independent population count to take place in Kruger.

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Poaching incident in Botswana

By Antipoaching
Botswana Government Media Statement | May 28, 2020

The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) in the execution of its mission of defending Botswana’s Territorial Integrity, Sovereignty and National Interests, informs the public about an incident whereby there was an exchange of fire between BDF members and poachers.

The incident occurred on the 21st May 2020 around 0800 hours, in the general area of the Okavango Delta (near Splash areas), where members of a BDF patrol team were involved in an exchange of fire with poachers, resulting in two (2) being killed. As succinctly stated in the past, poachers continue to target endangered species such as rhinos.

Notwithstanding its involvement in anti-poaching operations, the BDF will continue to execute its mission and other assigned tasks, while simultaneously in collaboration with all Batswana, fight a war against the invisible enemy in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The BDF therefore, continues to appeal to all Batswana to join its members in fighting COVID-19 through adherence and compliance to the extreme social distancing pronounced by His Excellency the President and Commander in Chief coupled with protocols outlined by the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Together we can conquer COVID-19.

Thank you.

Colonel Tebo K Dikole
Tel: 3662671

Horn trimming of rhinos in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve (South Africa)

By Antipoaching
Media statement from North West Parks Board

Pilanesberg Nature Reserve boast a very important white rhino population, and it is certainly one of the important white rhino populations in South Africa, and even the world. Both white and black rhinos have shown to be adapting extremely well in the reserve and excess animals from this populations have been used to establish new populations across South Africa, and in Botswana.

The rhino population in Pilanesberg Nature Reserve has been plagued by poaching for at least the past 7years. Over this period, the reserve has lost more than 120 rhinos due to poaching. This obviously has had a deteriorating impact on the population, and it is showing a steady decline over the past few years. The current situation has prompted North West Parks Board to take drastic measure of intervention to save the species.

The North-West Parks Board decided to trim the horns of all rhinos in the reserve with the help of a veterinary services experts who arrived in Pilanesberg on the 12th May 2020. The team worked through the park trimming horns of all black and white rhinos, males, and females, and calves they found in the parks. Including treating old gunshot wounds and injuries of other animals.

Over the years, the procedure of trimming the horns of rhinos has been developed into a detailed protocol with almost no risk to the animal. It has been proven that the risk of loss of an animal, as well as injuries or improper removal of the horn is eliminated when it is conducted by a qualified and experienced veterinarian.

The animal is located, darted and immobilized by a veterinarian from a helicopter. When the animal is down, it is located by the ground team in the shortest possible time, the eyes and ears are immediately covered, and condition immediately monitored. The cutline on the horns are marked, and the horns are cut very close to the base with an electric wood saw.

The stump is then rounded with an angle grinder to remove all excess horn. The whole operation takes less than 15 minutes per animal, followed by the team withdrawing from the animal, the animal woken by the veterinarian and stroll off, slightly disorientated, but completely healthy and strong without any injuries or fatalities.

“Although we prefer rhinos to have their horns and be able to roam around safely without any threat, the horn trimming operation was necessary to relieve the pressure of poaching of the rhino population to allow it to recover to the levels it was prior to the escalation of poaching in the reserve” said the Pieter Nel, the Chief Conservation Officer.

Strategically, from a security perspective, Pilanesberg has a few severe challenges. However, the size of the reserve, the mountainous terrain, the size of management blocks, provincial roads surrounding, etc. all makes this reserve a target for poachers. The motivation behind the operation was to ensure the “reward to poachers is reduced” and “the risks to the poacher are increased”. This was also a key finding in a study commissioned by the National Department of Environmental Affairs on the effectiveness of horn trimming as a deterrent to poaching. The Board is in the process of increasing its security efforts in Pilanesberg and other reserves significantly.

There are fears that horn trimming may have an impact on the behavior of the animals, specifically in terms of defending territories and exerting dominance over other inferior bulls. However, data from the Zimbabwe Lowveld Conservancies shows that trimmed rhinos are as likely to retain territories as horned individuals. It needs to be acknowledged that a rhino’s horn is its primary defense mechanism. The bulls use it to defend its territory and dominance, and cows to defend their calves from predators and other bulls. For this reason, all animals in a population need to be trimmed in the shortest possible time to prevent horned individuals of displacing or injuring trimmed animals. However, possible ecological or behavioral problems associated with horn trimming can be justified against the imperative of keeping the rhinos alive.

It is estimated that the total cost of this operation is valued at approximately R2million due to horn trimming being a costly operation. The cost includes veterinary costs, helicopter flying time, as well as veterinary supplies. However, this operation was made possible by sponsorships from Rhino 911, Rhino Pride Foundation, Pilanesberg Wildlife Trust and Copenhagen Zoo who are all registered as non- profit organizations. The Board received additional assistance from Zodiac Dierekliniek, the pilots and ground crew who unselfishly made available their professional time and equipment at no cost to the project who worked hand in glove with the Park staff who supported the operation and whose dedication is acknowledged with pride.

Coronavirus crisis slams brakes on race to save rare white rhinos from extinction (Kenya)

By Science and technology
CBS News | May 25, 2020

Read the original story and see video here.

NANYUKI, KENYA: Groundbreaking work to keep alive the nearly extinct northern white rhino subspecies — population, two — by in-vitro fertilization has been stalled by coronavirus travel restrictions. And time is running out.

The two northern white rhinos are female. The goal is to create viable embryos in a lab by inseminating their eggs with frozen sperm from dead males, then transfer them into a surrogate mother, a more common southern white rhino.

As of January, three embryos had been created and stored in liquid nitrogen. But further key steps now have to wait.

“It has been disrupted by COVID-19, like everything else,” said Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home of the two remaining rhinos. “That is, the process of collecting more eggs from the females as well as the process of developing the technique to introduce the northern white rhino embryo into the southern white rhino females.”

It’s an international effort that includes conservationists from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy — many affected by closed borders or restricted travel. For those involved in the effort, acutely aware of time, the delay can be painful. The procedure to create viable embryos has proven to be safe, they say, and can be performed regularly before the animals become too old.

In January, the transfer of the embryos to surrogates had been planned for the coming months. In March, the plan had been to collect another round of eggs from the two remaining females.

Because those eggs are limited, scientists are working with embryos from southern white rhinos until they can establish a successful pregnancy. Seven or eight transfers so far have failed to take hold. A receptive female is needed, along with the knowledge of exactly when she ovulates.

“We know time is working against us,” said Cesare Galli, an in-vitro fertilization expert based in Italy. “The females will age and we don’t have many to choose from.”

He hopes restrictions on international travel will loosen in the coming weeks so key steps can resume in August. “The problem is quite serious,” he said. “Certainly as soon as international travel is resumed, it will be the first priority to go” to Kenya and collect more eggs from the two females.

Even when travel can resume, another problem looms. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy also is home to primates — non-human primates — which are susceptible to the coronavirus, Galli said. “If you bring in the virus accidentally, it’s an additional risk,” he said. “You threaten one species to save another.”

So for now, the two northern white rhinos wait. Fatu and her mother, Najin, roam and graze within sight of rangers in the company of one intended surrogate mother, a southern white rhino named Tewa.

One of the rhinos’ keepers, Zachariah Mutai, was sympathetic. “They won’t have a chance anymore to have babies in a natural way, but the only hope is to save them with the scientific way,” he said.

The ultimate goal is to create a herd of at least five animals that could be returned to their natural habitat in Africa. That could take decades.

Decades of poaching have taken a heavy toll on rhino species. The animals are killed for their horns, which have long been used as carving material and prized in traditional Chinese medicine for their supposed healing properties.

The last male northern white rhino was a 45-year-old named Sudan, who gained fame in 2017 when he was listed as “The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World” on the Tinder dating app as part of a fundraising effort. He was euthanized in 2018 because of age-related ills.

This effort to keep the northern white rhino subspecies alive has been a good way to draw the world’s attention to the issue of extinction, Vigne said.

“The rate of extinction of species on this planet is now the fastest that has ever been recorded, much faster than the rate dinosaurs went extinct, and that is as a result of human activity,” he said. “So there comes a time where we have to draw a line… and say no more.”

Pete Morkel, wildlife veterinarian par excellence, conservation legend and beloved mentor

By Conservation
Gail C Thomson, The Daily Maverick | May 22, 2020

Read and listen to the original story here. 

From Namibia to Gabon, Chad, Angola and Niger, wildlife vet extraordinaire and conservation legend Dr Pete Morkel has left an indelible mark. Now he is fighting for his life in a battle with cancer. Friends and colleagues have launched a global fundraising campaign for his treatment. Gail C Thomson (formerly Potgieter) pays tribute to his remarkable career.

This is not an obituary. This is a tribute to a living conservation legend who is nonetheless fighting for his life. He has always been a fighter, though, long before cancer came knocking on his door. He has spent his life fighting for animals, particularly those that inhabit his beloved Africa. His name is Dr Pete Morkel.

This name is well known in conservation circles, but especially among wildlife veterinarians, where he is known as a pioneer. The conservation biologists who have worked with him have similarly recognised his abilities and have expressed deep gratitude for his help. While he is on a first-name basis with Prince Harry and received a lifetime achievement award from Prince William, Pete is relatively unknown to the general public. My purpose in writing this article is two-fold: to allow some of his co-workers to express their gratitude and to share some of their stories with those who may not be familiar with Pete’s work.

Pete is a pioneer wildlife veterinarian who has brought innovation and a new level of professionalism to his trade. Many of those who shared their stories with me (including several vets) consider him to be the best wildlife vet in Africa. According to Dr AK Kes Smith: “He was the only vet we trusted to immobilise the precious Northern White rhinos.” This effort included the very first efforts to save the remaining population in the wild, and bringing the last few of the species (including the famous male “Sudan”) from zoos to Ol Pejeta in Kenya.

Pete is especially known for his innovation, which is a result of his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and ability to think laterally. Who would have thought that airlifting a rhino upside down by its feet was a good idea? Pete did, and it is now known to be the safest way of airlifting these hefty creatures via helicopter. His work also includes helping develop new tracking devices for rhinos – transmitters in the horns last longer and are safer for rhinos than the old ankle bracelets; and giraffes – neck collars don’t work on them, so small devices are fitted to their ossicones (“horns”) instead. Dr Kes Smith (rhinos) and Dr Julian Fennessy (giraffes) both testify that Pete was closely involved in both developing and testing these new tracking methods that have since become standard practice.

One of the most important responsibilities a wildlife vet has is to ensure that the entire process of darting, capturing, moving and releasing an animal is as safe as possible. Pete is driven by such a fierce love for the animals that he works with that he will do absolutely anything, even at great risk to his own safety, to keep each animal safe. As noted by Jessica Groenendijk when she witnessed Pete doing everything in his power to persuade a newly translocated rhino to eat a different diet in a new environment: “It was clear to me that, for Pete, each rhino was an individual in its own right, with a unique personality.”

Indeed, his personal safety and comfort seem to be the last thing on his mind. He is known to abandon his shoes altogether when approaching a dangerous animal to dart it, despite the vicious thorns found throughout African savannahs. He approaches each lumbering elephant or rhino extremely closely before aiming his dart gun. Shoes make slightly more sound than bare feet, and by doing without them he could get closer before firing, which meant that his shot would be more accurate and he could get to the darted animal as soon as it was down. The choice between improving animal safety (even marginally) and tearing up the soles of his feet by running full tilt through thorny bushes is an easy one for Pete – the animal comes first!

Before Pete helped develop transmitters to be implanted in horns, rhinos were either collared (pictured) or ankle bracelets were used – neither option was ideal.

Concerns about the safety of the animal do not stop after the initial darting. If the purpose of the operation is to translocate an animal from one place to another then the vet has to keep the animal in a state of semi-wakefulness throughout the transport phase. This is especially challenging for long-distance transportation, where the animal may be carried at different times by helicopter, truck and plane.

Dr Mark Jago, who has translocated many black rhinos himself, describes the procedure as a delicate “dance” between chemicals that wake the rhino up and put it to sleep. The aim is to keep a perfect balance between the two, so the rhino is awake but calm. This is especially tricky for black rhino, as Dr Jago explains:

“During movement, or translocation… it is said that the greatest threat to the black rhino is the black rhino. Cooped up in specially designed steel transportation crates, the explosive nature of the black rhino has the potential to result in serious damage to itself or even death as a result of its vain attempts to escape from confinement.” He learned from Pete how to choreograph this “dance” to perfection.

In such a delicate operation, there is always a chance that things can go wrong. And when they do, one needs nerves of steel and incredibly quick thinking to prevent the loss of life – human or animal. In one instance that Dr Jago recalls, Pete injected a rhino that was sleeping too deeply with a drug to make it slightly more awake. Little did he know that the syringe he used had previously contained another drug – one that wakes a rhino up 100%! What happened next, in Dr Jago’s words:

“Within less than 30 seconds the gargantuan colossus lumbers to his feet and stares at us from only a few metres away. Pete stands between us and certain chaos. He returns the rhino’s stare with equal menace and conviction. The moment hangs in the balance. Slowly, very slowly, the rhino turns and walks away. Pete looks into the distance deep in thought, and then without moving his feet he gradually and deliberately looks over his shoulder uttering the memorable words, ‘Gentlemen, that is how not to do it’.”

In the days before this chemical “dance” was as well refined as it is now, and before rhino translocations had a big enough budget to hire aircraft for the purpose, Pete was moving rhinos on transcontinental flights – a crazy endeavour at the time. In one case, he had to transport a female rhino from Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa to Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in the UK (in the last few years, he has spearheaded a project called “Back to Africa” to release the progeny of some European zoo rhinos back into the wild). Keeping a rhino calm during a long flight is one thing, but because this flight was not chartered for the purpose, it carried other cargo (including frozen fish) and had to make several stops along the way.

Pete came prepared for this arduous journey – with plenty of oranges. Each time he fed “Vuyu” the rhino an orange, she would go into a zombie-like state of total satisfaction, until she came back to earth and demanded another one. As he was one of the only witnesses to this amazing journey, here is some of it in his own words:

“Our first stop was Kinshasa. We had to reorganise all the pallets on the plane and this meant off-loading Vuyu onto the apron and keeping her there for about 30 minutes while they shuffled things around. Although there was a lot of aircraft movement, noise and strong lights, she was a sweetie-pie – as long as she had oranges! When it came time to put her back in the aircraft the hydraulic scissor lift was unable to get her pallet up to the level of the cargo door. We finally found another lift that did the job and off we went.

“Due to the delay, it was pretty obvious we were not going to make it with the oranges – and Vuyu without oranges was not the happiest rhino! After a quick stop in Lagos, our next one was going to be Vitoria in Spain, so I asked the pilot if he could radio ahead and get the people there to have plenty of oranges ready for us for when we arrived. When we got to Vitoria there were heaps of delicious Spanish oranges ready for spoilt Miss Vuyu – so needless to say she was happy all the way to the UK!”

Wildlife veterinary work isn’t just about handling animals, however, and many of Pete’s admirers were impressed most by the way he handles the less glamorous parts of the job. He has worked in countries that are politically unstable and where basic facilities and infrastructure were non-existent, yet some of Africa’s most endangered animals inhabit these countries and are therefore in dire need of conservation.

Dr Hubert Planton, who worked hard in the 1990s to save the now-extinct Western Black rhino, recalls the working conditions he and Pete endured in their three-week expedition in Cameroon during 1996:

“It was the onset of the rainy season, which means: no road, no defined trails; we had to do everything on foot, and there were no bridges to cross the streams/rivers. Daily temperatures reached 40°C with 100% humidity just before the heavy storms hit, which happened every day. For lunch, we shared stale bread and a can of sardines, plus a few dried bananas. Every evening we cooked couscous and added another can of sardines. We slept every night on the concrete floor, without a mattress, just under a mosquito net. Pete never complained, never.”

In Chad, Pete worked tirelessly to collar 70 elephants, darting each one on foot (as opposed to from a helicopter) under hot, difficult circumstances, without losing a single animal. Dr Dolmia Malachie, who worked with him on this mission, relates his experience:

“The first thing Pete impresses me with is his endurance. He likes to track elephants every day, regardless of weather conditions: hot or cold, wet or dry, day or night. We had to wake up early each morning and drive a little way before walking the rest of the way to find the elephants we were tracking. Pete then got into his rhythm: military-style, taking giant strides through the bush, he would hardly eat or drink for days at a time. Pete is no less than 20 years my senior, but I had to run to keep up with him!”

Perhaps the most dangerous work he has undertaken is darting forest elephants in Central and West African countries. These elephants are under severe poaching pressure and are thus known to be more aggressive than most savannah elephant populations. Furthermore, working in the confines of a rainforest means that visibility is highly limited and one can walk almost straight into an elephant if you’re not careful. As Dr Tobias Graessle, who worked in the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest in Central African Republic with Pete, recalls, “At times I was afraid my heart would escape my chest, pounding like a jackhammer.” While extremely dangerous, this work is immensely valuable, as little is known about this species of elephant, which is nonetheless even more threatened than its better-known savannah cousin.

Because he is willing to go places and do fieldwork that most would baulk at, Pete has had a hand in conserving, researching and managing animals that few people have ever seen. From giant sable in Angola and giant eland in Chad to forest elephants in Gabon and West African giraffe in Niger, he has overcome the odds posed by extreme environmental conditions and proved to others that nothing is impossible.

Part of what makes his work so successful is his ability to improvise and come up with solutions to the major challenges posed in each situation. This is what Dr Julian Fennessy fondly terms “Morkelling: the act of fixing or building/adapting something in the field – like MacGyver”. Considering that Fennessy specialises in the research and conservation of one of the most difficult animals in Africa for a vet to immobilise – the giraffe – he knows what he’s talking about! He and Pete have worked together in west, east and southern Africa on all of the giraffe subspecies and under every conceivable circumstance. Pete’s methods of capturing and translocating giraffe have thus become “best practice” for working with this tricky species.

Translocating animals is about so much more than just darting, loading and unloading. It is a complex operation that requires teams of people all working together for the same goal. Each operation comes with its own challenges, which allows Pete to showcase his out-of-the-box thinking. Dr Marketa Antoninova, who worked with him on many such projects in various countries recalls:

“He never hesitated to follow the most insane proposition to satisfy our operational needs, while always keeping the animal’s well-being in first place. He brought a simple and realistic approach to any conservation operation in which he participated.”

While many vets are good at working with animals, Pete is also exceptionally good at working with teams of people, a skill that has become a hallmark of his career. As expressed by Dr Antoninova:

“He was always willing to share knowledge gained from his vast experience and put other people together to share. That is a very rare phenomenon in conservation, especially in the current era where data are overly protected.”

As a result, Pete has helped build game capture teams from scratch and has contributed immensely to those in South Africa, Namibia and Uganda, among others. He has been integral to the many successful large-scale reintroduction efforts by African Parks in countries such as Chad, Malawi, Rwanda, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Moving beyond game capture, Pete has been instrumental in broader conservation projects like Dr Pedro Vaz Pinto’s award-winning work on giant sable in Angola. Dr Vaz Pinto credits Pete for going far beyond his role as a vet:

“Pete selflessly assumed a crucial advisory role on many aspects of the giant sable programme – he created a network of relevant and usually the best people to assist the project. He even used his personal influence to expose our work to potential donors and actively assisted us with fundraising. It is no exaggeration to say that the results obtained on the giant sable project, which has so far succeeded in rescuing this amazing species from the brink of extinction in spectacular fashion, would hardly have been possible without Pete.”

Building a good team that can carry out large-scale operations requires a certain kind of leader. Pete intuitively recognises talented, dedicated young people and then mentors to become the professionals he knew they could be when he first saw them. Numerous young vets, field biologists, rangers and conservation managers credit Pete for giving their careers a vital boost through his direct training and his general influence as a mentor.

In the words of Jean Labuschagne and Erik Mararv: “Pete loves passionate and hardworking individuals, especially youngsters, and always goes out of his way to help give them experiences and boost their confidence in whatever it is they are doing.”

One of his early mentees, Cathy Dreyer, first met Pete in 1999 when she was fresh out of university and had very little field experience. At that time, Pete was the head of the SANParks Game Capture Unit in Kimberley, South Africa. She recalls:

“Pete introduced me to my first black rhino and from that day on my life was never the same. I not only learned everything I know about black rhino from Pete, but learnt the art of boma training these animals and preparing them for journeys all over Africa.” Since then, she has been appointed as conservation manager for Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa and has won the Tusk Trust Award for Conservation in Africa.

Many young vets and researchers met him while attending the internationally acclaimed “Course on Chemical and Physical Restraint of African Wildlife” in Zimbabwe, where he and other experienced vets taught them both the theory and practice of game capture for a wide array of species. One of these, Dr Anna Haw, suggests that Pete’s training went beyond technical know-how:

“I knew that I wanted to be a vet like Pete, and stick to my values and principles. Pete’s example gave me the courage to turn down lucrative private wildlife vet jobs that went against my conservation values. I cannot be more grateful for following his excellent example.”

At his suggestion, she went on to complete a PhD focusing on rhino immobilisation and has thus contributed to further improvements in this field – a contribution after Pete’s own heart.

Dr Amanda Salb is another young vet whose career and work in Malawi has greatly benefitted from Pete’s mentorship. In her words:

“Pete was really one of the biggest mentors in my career here and his foresight has helped us so much in Malawi. Every time he was here, he let me tag along with him and learn from him.” In common with many others, Salb knew that Pete was always just a phone call away and would willingly offer his advice, day or night:

“I remember darting my first elephant, which was caught in a snare. I called him at 6am for help and he answered the phone and was critical to the success of that snare removal.”

Another young vet from Uganda, Dr Robert Aruho, jumped at the chance to express his gratitude to Pete, echoing the sentiments of many others:

“Pete has inspired courage and patience to look after wildlife in a way no one else I know has ever shown. He has taught me wildlife veterinary practice like a father teaching a son. For this I am very grateful. Despite our age differences, I consider him a friend. He is selfless and will do anything in his power to save a wild animal from distress.”

Besides assisting other vets, Pete has interacted with many conservation researchers in the early stages of their careers. Among these is PhD candidate Emma Hart, who witnessed first-hand Pete’s renowned giraffe-capturing skills during her research in north-western Namibia. She recalls:

“In 2016 Pete taught me to shoot a gun, drive a 4×4 vehicle and rope a wild giraffe in the Namib Desert. Pete has the rare ability to both believe in and nurture the best from those he meets. During my first months in the Namibian conservation scene, as well as teaching me countless field skills, he took the time to personally introduce me to a network of invaluable contacts.”

Dr Colleen Begg, now a well-known carnivore conservationist working in Mozambique, was also fortunate enough to work with Pete while still a PhD student herself. With her husband, Keith, Dr Begg did some ground-breaking work on honey badgers in the South African Kalahari Gemsbok National Park during 1996-99. Keith recalls:

“Pete was very important in helping us get SANParks permission that allowed Colleen and I to track, immobilise and radio collar honey badgers”.

They realised early on that collars didn’t work on their feisty study subject, so Pete and other vets were brought in to surgically implant radio transmitters under the badger’s skin. This allowed them to observe the secret life of a honey badger, which led to a greater scientific understanding of the species, a multi-award winning National Geographic documentary called Snake Killers, and the now-viral videos on the theme “Honey badger don’t care” that have attracted over 90 million views.

This is just the just a small selection of the work Dr Pete Morkel has done over the years. If this sounds to you like an incredibly fast-paced, hectic career, then you are right. For most conservation researchers and park managers, darting and translocating animals is a time of high-paced stress that only comes around every few months or even years. The rest of the time one can get back to normal-paced, less stressful tasks. For Pete, this was life. From weeks of arduous trekking through the bush in Chad to dart elephants, to multi-day transcontinental flights with precious rhino on board, to running for his life from forest elephants in central Africa, Pete was almost continuously on the go. Indeed, he and Dr Fennessy were just about to embark on another West African giraffe translocation project in Niger when Pete was forced to slow down his breakneck pace in January this year.

His cancer diagnosis came as a shock to all, particularly the doctor’s prognosis that it would be extremely difficult to treat using radiation or chemotherapy. Thankfully, Pete has a wonderful, close-knit family and a huge network of friends who are there for him in this time of difficulty. Throughout his storied career, Pete’s wife Estelle has been his rock – no matter how far or for how long he had to be away from home, she was always there for him, just a phone call away. His colleagues and friends have always recognised Estelle as the heartbeat of this seeming superhero. Furthermore, his two children Chéri and Benoit have most certainly made him proud by enhancing the Morkel name even further through their own conservation careers.

Given the rather bleak prognosis for conventional cancer treatment, a medical doctor close to Pete has suggested that he try immunotherapy. This treatment is extremely expensive, so a group of Pete’s close friends – Mike Kock, Hugo van der Westhuizen and Rick Clark – launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs, knowing that the expense was way beyond the family’s financial means. The speed with which this campaign reached its initial $100,000 target is a testament to the number of lives Pete has touched both personally and professionally. While this covers the treatment, there will be many more expenses to cover, so the target has been raised by $50,000 for this purpose.

If it were up to Pete, every cent of the funds raised to help pay for his cancer treatment would go to conservation instead. He’s just that kind of man. Thankfully, his circle of family, friends and colleagues recognise that the value of his personal contribution to conservation over the years utterly dwarfs the amount he needs for treatment. Considering all that he has sacrificed over the years, our contributions are just a small “thank you” for his priceless work.

If you, too, would like to say thank you to one of conservation’s heroes, follow this link.

For more about Dr Pete Morkel’s life work and dedication to conservation, his biography, written by his brother, Michael, can be purchased here.


Tourism industry working around the clock to prevent loss of up to 600 000 jobs

By Tourism, Uncategorized
By Tshidi Madia, Media 24 | May 24, 2020

Read the original story here.

Stakeholders in the South African tourism industry have told President Cyril Ramaphosa the industry could lose up to 600 000 jobs by September, if Covid-19 lockdown regulations continue to prevent it from operating.

On Friday, Ramaphosa held a virtual meeting with the sector as part of his ongoing engagements with numerous stakeholders ahead of his address to the nation on Sunday evening.

Over the past week, the president met with the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), opposition parties in the National Assembly, religious and traditional leaders.

Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told News24 that many in the sector were struggling, with those in the informal sector, such as tour guides, being left in distress by the pandemic and the lockdown.

The country’s borders were shut in March, after Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown. This was part of government’s efforts to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

This meant a ban on both international and domestic travel, along with the closure of hotels, schools, parks and recreational areas.

The lockdown also prohibits gatherings of large groups of people.

Huge job losses

Kubayi-Ngubane said the industry anticipated the loss of 500 000 to 600 000 jobs if it remained shut until September.

“A lot of the informal sectors aren’t covered and are seriously in distress and won’t get part of the relief fund and won’t get UIF (Unemployment Insurance Fund). It’s difficult because we want to help everyone, we want to support everyone but the money that we have is too little,” she told News24.

The tourism department instituted a R200 million relief fund, which would be handed out as once-off R50 000 grants to help businesses survive as the country prepares to be open up more sectors of the economy.

Kubayi-Ngubane acknowledged the money simply was not enough, and government couldn’t help everyone. She encouraged some big businesses in the industry to help their smaller counterparts and share some business once the industry was back in full swing.

The meeting was also attended by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni and Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who she said committed to support her portfolio in aiding the industry to find its feet.

“We have said allow us to put together the recovery strategy but commit to supporting us once the recovery strategy is in place, and they have agreed to that,” said Kubayi-Ngubane.

No sense in demanding more money

The minister said when it came to the adjustment budget, set to be delivered by Mboweni in June, it made no sense for her to demand more money when it was needed for more pressing issues.

“We have to be practical, all of us as colleagues in Cabinet. If we asked for money to do marketing while there is no money for PPEs (personal protective equipment), can we justify this in the public domain?” she said.

“When Mboweni says I need more money for fighting the battle, for health, you can’t ask for money to do marketing, it becomes illogical,” she continued.

The tourism minister said numerous reports were presented to the president and he in turn tasked her and other government leaders “working around the clock” for ways to address outstanding challenges.

“He said we needed to look at our employees as a sector. In mining, they are able to isolate cases, screen, test and then isolate affected people. The president said considerations were needed on how employees who got affected would be assisted,” she explained.

Hotels to remain closed

While the minister did not give details of how Level 3 of the Covid-19 lockdown would affect her industry, it’s understood hotels and other tourism facilities would remain closed.

Kubayi-Ngubane said the tourism sector was people and interaction based, which made many uncomfortable about how it would function during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, she said, this was precisely what the protocols would be addressing.

“The protocols we are working on is to give comfort to people so we can operate,” she said.

Some of the stakeholders also pitched for interprovincial travel and self-catering accommodation to be included on Level 3 of the lockdown.


Spike in wildlife poaching as poachers take advantage of lockdown laxities (Zimbabwe)

By Antipoaching, Tourism
Leopold Munhende, The New Zimbabwe | May 25, 2020

Read the original story here.

Zimbabwe has realised a spike in wildlife poaching as the wildlife management authority has redirected efforts towards combating the spread of Covid-19 during the current lockdown period, a top lobby has said.

The Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), a non-governmental organisation that promotes proper extraction and administration of natural resources, said Zimbabwe had noticed a surge in wildlife animals including lions, elephants, and rhinos being killed for poaching purposes since the start of the Covid-19 national lockdown on 31 March.

“Zimbabwe started implementing the preventive measures against Covid-19 on the 17th of March 2020 and subsequently went on national lockdown on the 30th of March 2020,” CNRG said in a statement.

“However, not much effort has been directed at ensuring transparency and accountability in wildlife management during the ongoing lockdown.

“In Zimbabwe, between January and February, three elephants were killed by poachers, but since the beginning of the lockdown, at least seven elephants have been lost in the Hwange National Park and Bubye Conservancy.

“Two white rhinos were also killed in April, although the poaching incidents were not reported publicly. Lions and buffaloes were also among some of the animals that were killed in April.”

CNRG also took to task government for failing to solve human and wildlife conflicts especially during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“Governments have taken unprecedented measures to curb the spread of Covid19 since it was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation in January, however, in Zimbabwe, human-wildlife conflict which is defined as any human and wildlife interaction which negatively impacts human being’s social, economic or cultural life is an ignored epidemic.”

According to Justice for Wildlife Commission (JWC), poachers have seen closures, the diversions of law enforcement to Covid-19 related duties and reduced ranger patrols “as ideal opportunities for exploitation”.

The lack of tourists “who may unwittingly act as ‘capable guardians from within the parks only increases this risk, the JWC said.