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Cathy Dreyer: award-winning rhino whisperer

Cathy Dreyer was presented the prestigious Tusk Award by celebrated broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough Cathy Dreyer was presented the prestigious Tusk Award by celebrated broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough Image: Tusk Conservation Awards
01 Dec
For her work protecting South African black rhino populations, Cathy Dreyer won the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa

We always say that a full moon used to be amazing, especially because we live in the place where the night skies are incredible. These days, all we do is wait out a full moon, because that’s when poachers target the rhinos. They cannot use torches because they might be detected, so they wait for bright nights. It’s a big reserve and we are never going to cover every single corner of it, so the full moon is always bad for us.

Black rhinos are in a pretty dire straits. While more white rhinos are being killed than black rhinos, we have fewer numbers to play with – there are only around 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, compared to 20,000 white. There’s such a small number of them that one big poaching incident can have a disastrous impact. From our populations, we have lost seven this year – six that have died and one that is still surviving [poached but not killed]. That was just in a period of six months. We don’t have a lot of numbers to play with, so every one that you lose counts, especially when there are other parks that are losing black rhinos at similar rates. On a personal level it can be discouraging, and for some of the rangers who have been there for 20 or 30 years, it is like suddenly losing something that you have seen grow up. It weighs heavy on you.

One of our worst incidences involved three animals: a mum, a young calf, and an older calf. Black rhinos are often misunderstood to be aggressive and solitary, but they actually have quite close family bonds. Often, when a rhino mother has a calf, she chases away her old baby only for it to come back and help raise the new calf. In this case, poachers shot all three family members. Even though the baby was only six-months-old, they cut her whole face just to get as much horn as they could. Many of the other killed rhinos were breeding cows and they lost their foetuses. Events like that take out whole generations at once.

Despite our efforts, the demand for black rhino horn seems to be increasing and the amount of groups that are out there seem to be increasing – they are starting to spread out into other areas.

tusk cathy large(Image: Tusk Conservation Awards)

To tackle that pressure, we have been making our populations more robust. Since I have been working with South Africa National Parks (SANParks) we have started setting up new populations of black rhinos, donating animals every year or so to new properties. Because it only takes a big disaster to cripple a single population, we are trying to expand their range. We cannot keep all our eggs in one basket with just one reserve. The challenge there is increasing land availability for rhinos to spread them out a bit more.

We have created two big populations of 20 animals each in the last couple of years. The animals are donated, so the owners don’t need to pay for them, they just need to look after them. Every year new calves are being born and that’s exactly what we want. However, the opposite is happening in some places where it becomes too expensive and risky to have rhinos. In fact, a lot of people are trying to get rid of their populations. They need dedicated anti-poaching teams and not every owner can afford that. So in some instances we are losing conservation land. It’s a knock-on effect from poaching.

Because I don’t come from a background of conservation, everyone is always asking me how I got into it. I used to go walking in Cape Town and Table Mountain, so I always knew I wanted to do something outside. I studied nature conservation for three years, which included two years of theory and a whole year of practical. For that, I chose to go as far away from Cape Town as possible and that’s how I ended up in Addo National Park and working for SANParks. I did not see my first rhino until I was 19.

I discovered my passion for rhinos at Addo. Working there, I was just doing general conservation, but luckily it was a time of year when they were moving a lot of rhinos. When we were keeping them in holding pens, nobody really knew what to feed them so I had to do a little research project into their behaviours. When we started doing crate training with them – getting them used to getting in and out of the moving crates – I just fell in love with them.

Cathy02(Image: Tusk Conservation Awards)

Sometimes it can be difficult to find funding – people get tired of it. Since the dramatic increase in poaching in 2008, we have been fighting for eight hard years and yet you still hear of more rhinos being poached. People wonder, ‘What are you doing? Why is it that the poaching hasn’t gone away yet?’ Without the support from donors and NGOs, we wouldn’t be where we are. However, understandably, they expect to see results even if the poaching is still difficult to fight.

Every now and again you have to show the gruesome side of poaching so we are not censoring how horrific it can be. The brutality and the suffering that some of these animals go through, the ones that live with half their faces cut off for a couple of hours, or the ones that have their tendons or spines cut to stop them running away because the poachers don’t want to use another bullet. Or the orphaned calves that will stay with their dead mothers and still try to suckle them for a few days. This is what happens daily and we can’t afford to shelter people too much from that.

The nature of the job can change you as a person. When I first started there were no cameras and gates but now you have to have cameras on all of your gates and watch people who are coming in and out. It changes your character in some ways because it makes you suspicious of everybody coming in. All of us who are in this studied conservation, none of us were born to be armed security guards. We have had to change our mindset and get used to the idea that protection is the number one priority.

I think you have to be realistic in what you can do. Optimism can be difficult but we have to remember that if we hadn’t been doing what we do, the figures – which are horrific – would be a lot worse. We can only motivate ourselves knowing that we are preventing further poaching from happening.

Cathy Dreyer won the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa at the annual Tusk Conservation Awards, held on 30 November 2016 at the V&A Museum, London

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