For a month or more the plight of the Kariega Park rhinos has been much on my mind. They even cropped up in my thoughts during an early morning walk amongst the rock-pools at the beach.
Some years ago this coastline was plagued by as ruthless a set of poachers as those that now hack the horns off rhinos. This earlier bunch of criminals – and who knows, they may even be one and the same as the latter day savages – stripped the coast of perlemoen.* The market for these creatures, as for rhino horn, is in Asia, and we became for a time accustomed to seeing young men wearing wet-suits brazenly putting to sea in rubberducks to search among the shallow reefs for these shellfish. We were warned not to accost them personally, but to notify the police of their activities. This was done but seemed to have little or no effect, giving rise to the suspicion – perhaps unjustly – that the poachers were in cahoots with the constabulary. That the poachers no longer are regular visitors to our beaches is ascribed to the fact that the perlemoen population has been more than decimated. (I almost wrote ‘exterminated’, but a diving friend assures me that there are still perlemoen to be found in the reefs, albeit only juveniles, so there is the hope that the population will recover.)
But the pools among which I was walking are themselves very different from the same pools thirty or more years ago. There is no longer the abundance of sea-creatures to be found as was once the case and this change is as a result of an increase in the number of holiday-makers looking for shell-fish, anglers in search of bait and of subsistence fishermen. While not all their collections have been strictly legal, they have not been driven by the greed of the rhino- or perlemoen-poachers, but nonetheless the pools have been stripped. So the mere presence of the human species, although not necessarily driven by greed, has seen a loss of biodiversity.
Many years ago I went together with a group of young people on a trail in the Umfolozi Reserve in kwaZulu/Natal. Our Zulu ranger led us to a mother rhino and her calf. Having warned us to keep absolutely quiet we approached the two animals more closely. Eventually we were only a few metres away, although partly hidden by a low, rocky outcrop and some bush through which we peered. Unbeknownst to our guide or the rest of the party, one young fellow decided to climb a dead tree in order to get a better view. Suddenly, with a rifle-shot detonation, the weathered trunk snapped depositing the youngster at our feet and startling the rhino mother and child. For a horrified second we watched as the alarmed matriarch turned towards us, before dropping her head and trotting off into the bush together with her child. Only then did the guide turn to find the cause of the unfortunate disturbance lying in the dust. Realizing what had caused this heart-stopping moment, his stern face suddenly broke into a grin and in moments we were all guffawing and rolling around with mirth to the discomfiture of the tree-climber.
At the present rate it seems that the rhino-horn poachers are aiming to exterminate the population of these magnificent creatures. (As I write the news has come through that 164 rhino have been killed during the last three and a half months, more than a rhino a day.) Will our game parks and reserves soon be as devoid of rhinos as are the reefs of perlemoen and the rock-pools of shell-fish? Will it ever again be possible for our grandchildren to experience what we did at Umfolozi, or will they only be able to view rhinos that have been de-horned and are behind bars? And which creature will next be targeted?
*Perlemoen = Cape abalone, Haliotus midae.