Al Jazeera Correspondent

The Last Rhino

As demand for rhino horns increases dramatically Jonah Hull examines the poaching industry from South Africa to Asia.

The rhinoceros is one of Africa’s iconic animals, but greed and corruption, myth and superstition have brought the rhino to the brink of extinction. For millenia its best protection, the rhino’s horn has become its worst enemy.

Rhino horn is now worth more than gold and demand for it is at an all-time high. South Africa, which has the largest reserves of the wild animal, is a prime hunting ground for poachers. In 2010, South Africa lost 333 rhino to poaching and this number is expected to double in 2012.

In a personal journey, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull encounters greed, ignorance and corruption – highlighting how South Africa became the epicentre of rhino poaching. What caused the global epidemic and how does it threaten the survival of a species?


By Jonah Hull

Jonah Hull examines why a dramatic surge in poaching is pushing rhinos towards extinction [Al Jazeera]

The winter of 2010 brought the kind of South African weather no visitor expects. It was bitterly cold. People came in their hundreds of thousands anyway, defying the scary crime statistics, resisting the media’s foreboding.

They came for football, or ‘soccer’ as South Africans know it. This was, after all, the World Cup.

I was thrilled to be sent home for the occasion, to join Al Jazeera’s reporting teams in South Africa. I did not particularly mind that our brief was to look for stories of organisational chaos and disaster, half-filled stadiums, mugged and murdered foreign fans. I just hoped none of it would happen.

In the end, the World Cup was all about the sport, and as joyful a fact as that was for my country, the uneventful excitement of it all became a dull talking point on air.

We scratched around for something more interesting to report.

That was when I heard about the Tugela Valley rhinoceros and her appalling disfigurement.

The Last Rhino tells the story of a rhino cow attacked by poachers who come by helicopter. They dart her from the air with a powerful tranquiliser, a drug three thousand times more powerful than morphine.

As she succumbs to deep sedation, they take a chainsaw to her face. The machine’s sharp teeth tear into her skull, removing her nasal cavities, exposing parts of her brain. She remains asleep, but very much alive.

The horn is removed and they are gone. It will be sold to a middle man for a small fortune; the cow will be left to die. Her calf, just months old, has fled in terror. It will run for days. Then, unable to find its mother but following another primal scent, it drops dead from exhaustion on the same spot where its life began, drawn there by the still-lingering smell of its own birth.

Remarkably, the cow survives.

She is the only known survivor of such an attack, but her wounds mean she will face a difficult future, deprived of a rhino’s acute sense of smell, and with no horn for protection.

In 2010, as I discovered, attacks like this were happening all the time.

Somewhere in South Africa, a rhino dies in savage, agonising circumstances almost every day, slaughtered for horns that have no proven use or worth outside the traditional medicine markets of Asia. Over there, rhino horn that has been valued for centuries as a cure for headaches, is now believed to cure cancer.

Here, in the dust of Africa, it is a substance with the same chemical composition as human fingernail.

On the black market, rhino horn is worth more than gold.

Under threat

Dr Ian Player: ‘A rhino war’

More than two years later, the killing has almost doubled, despite the efforts of conservationists, the police, the South African courts and even the national army.

Not for the first time, this magnificent, ancient creature is under threat. The Last Rhino tells the story of efforts to save the species, all over again.

Fifty years ago, the white rhino species was brought back from the brink of extinction by a team of game rangers, led by Dr Ian Player. Today, in his mid-eighties, Dr Player fears the rhinos might go the way of the dinosaurs.

The narrative is a simple one: A wilderness species under threat because of humanity’s greed and its baseless beliefs. It is easy to be outraged by the savage methods, the fickleness, the official complicity and inaction.

I am no bunny-hugger, nor for me the protests of Greenpeace – my profession has made me sanguine, if not cynical. However, I do feel a sense of betrayal on behalf of the rhino, wandering the earth since prehistory, a humble, discrete vegetarian, unthreatened and unthreatening.

Until one day man becomes its only predator: The poachers and breeders, the rhino horn dealers, the purveyors of false hope combing the hospital wards of Vietnam toting a cure for cancer in a cup of powdered fingernail dissolved in water.

 Dr Joseph Okori, WWF: Tracing the poachers

I was born, and grew up, in Africa. I feel I will always be more African than anything else. I cherish the quality that Africa holds closest to its heart – its exquisite, unforgiving, enduring wildness – and I want my child, and my child’s children to cherish it too.

Obscurely, the poachers understand it. Most are Africans, dirt poor, illiterate and, like the rhino, trying to survive the continent’s harsh rhythms. Those who sell rhino horn on, and buy it, do not.

The Last Rhino begins with a mother’s improbable survival and ends with her giving birth. Amid tragedy, a calf is born. Life continues. But if there is an uplifting end to the rhinos’ story, then it has yet to be written.

As filmmaker Clifford Bestall and I travelled through South Africa and Mozambique for seventeen days in May, our own mothers were with us in spirit  just as that Tugela Valley rhino mother – the cow known as Thembi – became central to our story.

Back in Johannesburg, Clifford’s elderly mother, Anna, had fallen victim to credit card fraud. He was on the phone to her often, soothing her confusion, talking to the police, promising to visit as soon as we returned.

Also in Johannesburg, my mother, Heidi, staunchly supported our project. Ever a wise and constant sounding board, she was even called upon to book last minute accommodation for us on the road. We brought her carved wooden chickens from the Blyde River gorge to say thank you.

Since May, we have lost both Heidi and Anna. Shortly before the film’s completion, we heard too that Thembi’s calf had died of pneumonia. The winter of 2012, it turned out, was also an exceptionally cold one. Out of it has come a story underscored, for all of us, by sadness and loss.