Raoul du Toit won the Goldman Prize for his courageous work in coordinating conservation initiatives that have helped to develop and maintain the largest remaining black rhino populations in Zimbabwe. We sat down with him to learn more about his work.
This week, the Goldman Prize is hosting the 2011 recipients in the US, with events and a media tour in San Francisco and Washington, DC. We’ll be posting Q&As with each recipient and we encourage you to ask your own questions in the comments section below or via our Facebook page and Twitter feed. We’ll do our best to have the recipients respond.
Q. Can you describe the rhino poaching situation in Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular?
A. There is a huge range of rhino poaching activities in Africa. In South Africa, it’s much more commercial and sophisticated with large private sectors. They have more elaborate, expensive techniques such as shooting rhinos from helicopters and poisoning their watering holes. At the same time, they have a larger rhino population, so the situation is not yet as dire as it became for us in Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, there are two kinds of poachers: 1) Low level poachers, local opportunists with low intake and 2) Organized bank robber style criminals with vehicles and automatic weapons. They’re not fancy, but they are effective. They take the horns to horn traders with Asian business ties. Poaching is an economic activity – it’s a balance of reward and risk. When we look at poaching analytically, poachers risk being arrested or even shot but they risk this because the value of the horns is so great.
Q. How are the rhino populations improving?
A. We are winning this battle and stabilizing the rhino population again. There are currently about 440 black rhinos in Zimbabwe. In South Africa, poaching is going up, they have lost 260 rhinos this year but they have so many more – but it will eventually make an impact. We’re also working in other countries, restocking and rebuilding populations in Zambia and Botswana. We’re not just trying to protect rhinos in Zimbabwe but help other regions as well so we can grow the population as a whole. In some cases this involves transplanting the animals from one region to another.
Q. When most conservationists have left the country due to the unstable political situation, what has made you continue to stay? Have you felt your own life threatened?
A. My life has not been more in danger than anyone else in the country. The work with rhinos is the same in war and peace. The country in itself is dangerous but not only for those who work in wildlife conservation. People have had to make individual decisions to stay or leave. For me, to leave my project after 20 years would have left unfinished something my colleagues and I have committed so much time to. We have such a small pool of people that the withdrawal would be felt; there would be no one else to take over.
Q. Is the Zimbabwean government involved in the poaching?
A. I am often critical of the government but we do try to highlight the things that are positive, which is how we are able to work together. It’s important to be fair and highlight the positive as well as what doesn’t work. We have a lot of policemen here that really care and are committed. Without them we wouldn’t have a chance.
A poacher that was arrested recently was an army officer. But in general the law enforcement agencies don’t directly poach. More often the corruption is in taking bribes from the organized criminals.
Q. What’s your personal motivation to continue your work?
A. We have fantastic animals in Africa that deserve to live and not be wiped out by greed. We have to save these animals for the future generations.
Learn more about Raoul and donate to his organization’s work.