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Rhino Radar: Values Over Violence

Dr Jeff Muntifering represents Great Plains Zoo in Namibia as a Conservation Biologist where he has served as Science Adviser to the acclaimed Save the Rhino Trust Namibia for nearly 20 years. The community rhino conservation programs he has helped design and deliver have won numerous international awards, including the coveted AZA International Conservation Award in 2019.  He has also published over 2 dozen scientific articles and book chapters on his applied research in rhino ecology, tourism and policy. Join us on the second week of each month as Dr. Jeff updates us from Namibia. 

Over the past decade, the surge in rhino poaching has made headlines around the world.  A quick internet scan will yield numerous articles, facts and figures highlighting the horrifying death toll (at its peak in 2014 more than 3 rhinos a day were being killed) while seemingly justifying what is often portrayed as a ‘War against Poachers’.  It is thus no wonder that poaching often gets defined as the problem while catching (even something killing) poachers – who sadly are often local people lured by greedy middlemen into the criminal syndicate – naturally becomes the noble solution.   While upholding the law is obviously critical to fight crime, if the values the law seeks to protect are not shared with civil society the likelihood of lasting compliance is dramatically reduced.  In a rhino context, if local people see no or very little value in keeping rhinos alive, it will be extremely difficult and costly to protect them – especially from the highly profitable black market trade in rhino horn which is worth more than gold.  Embracing this mindset helps reframe the problem into two deeper issues such as who gets to decide how rhino are protected and what strategies improve the value local people attach to saving rhino.  Accepting this as the problem helps promote a shift from military protection to community-based solutions that cultivates lasting commitment for saving rhino which by default increases compliance to protection laws.

It is this fundamental and unconventional belief that has inspired innovative approaches to address the rhino crisis in north-west Namibia for decades.  It was also in this spirit that I became enlightened by the bottom-up versus the top-down approach to saving rhinos.  As a conservation scientist trained in ecology and wildlife biology, this realization was a dramatic shift in perspective and one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments some conservation practitioners encounter at some point in their careers – especially those who work on the frontlines of saving endangered species in developing countries.  I was completely blind to my first introduction to the importance of local values when I was invited to a community meeting in early 2003 to discuss reintroducing rhinos to a new area that had previously lost rhinos to poaching in the 1980s.  We had gathered under a few windblown trees in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.  Freshly minted with a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Capetown, I was asked to present an overview on rhino habitat requirements.  I had figured my fancy large maps displaying sophisticated scientific rhino habitat models would woo and win-over the crowd.  Instead, after my 30 minutes of scientific preaching, I only succeeded in putting a few of the elders to sleep (admittedly it was hot and after lunch).  I did, however, generate enough interest to spur a few questions – that in hindsight became my epiphany on how we would be successful in saving rhinos in this part of the world.  In lieu of asking about what rhinos need to survive and how useful and important our science was to them, I was asked three simple questions: (1) would we hire local people to look at after the rhino or bring in ‘outsiders’, (2) would the community be able to take tourists to see the rhinos and earn some income, (3) would they be able to actually see a rhino – none had ever even seen a rhino before”.   

While I didn’t realize it at the time due to my western wilderness-centered blind spots, these three questions came back to echo in my mind and have become my north star for effective community-based rhino conservation.  Stay tuned as it is with great pride and privilege that I will be introducing to you our suite of community-centered strategies that have helped nearly eliminate poaching while elevating Namibia to become a global model for successful rhino conservation.

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