There is a good chance that right now, while you are reading this article, a rhino is being slaughtered, most probably in a brutal and excruciating manner, so that its horn can be severed and smuggled out of Africa. Often, the horn is severed while the rhino is still alive.
At the moment, there are 18 600 white rhinos and 5 500 black rhinos in Africa. This might not sound too bad, considering Asia’s three rhino species number 3 500, 100 and about 60 respectively. However, bear in mind that in the late 1960s, the black rhino population alone was about 70 000. In South Africa, which is home to about 80 percent of the world’s rhinos, three to five rhinos are killed by poachers every day. Over the past five years, about 5 500 rhinos have been killed in South Africa. Widespread corruption and a lack of coordination within crimefighting units exacerbate the problem. Earlier this year, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa celebrated the fact that 447 poachers had been arrested in or around the Kruger National Park, one of the biggest game reserves on the continent, during last year. However, she had to add that “there has been arrests made for poaching-related offences from amongst our own personnel. Regrettably, during 2017, 21 officials were arrested in this regard.”
Rhino horns are smuggled to Asia, where it is erroneously believed that they have medicinal value. Poachers and smugglers are extremely well-connected with international syndicates. There is even evidence that the money raised from rhino poaching is funding terrorist groups. Bear in mind that the illegal trafficking of wildlife is the fourth largest illegal industry in the world, after drug smuggling, human trafficking and counterfeiting. In recent years, poachers have become increasingly militant and ruthless in their operations. They are well-funded and often well-armed. It is not unusual for poachers to attack rangers and attempt shooting down conservation helicopters. At any given time, there are more than a dozen syndicates active in the Kruger National Park alone.
Nico Jacobs has served as a volunteer pilot in support of rhino conservation for more than fifteen years. In 2015, he met Fred Hees of Battle Born Munitions, based in Nevada, in the usa. Frustrated by the lack of progress made in the fight against rhino poaching, Hees wanted to use technology to empower those who combat poachers. To do so, he joined forces with Jacobs. The result of this collaboration is Rhino 911.
A major goal of the Rhino 911 initiative was to 'take back the night' from poachers, with the use of infrared cameras and night vision equipment. In support of the initiative, bbm brought a Bell 407GT to South Africa. The camouflaged helicopter had quiet rotor blades and was equipped with advanced sensors, including an L3 Wescam thermal imaging system. This allowed operators to locate and track animals or poachers from several kilometres away, long before the helicopter itself could be detected.
Rhino 911 was officially launched in 2016, at the biennial Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition, held near Pretoria. The Bell 407GT was on display during the event. For the Rhino 911 team, it was quite an eventful exhibition. On one of the trade days, Rhino 911 received a call regarding a wounded rhino at a game reserve. The team responded and, using the Bell 407GT, the rhino was quickly located and tranquilized. The helicopter landed and dropped off a veterinarian to conduct the necessary surgery, saving the rhino's life. Later during the exhibition, thieves broke into Rhino 911's show stand, stealing laptops, hard drives and anything that could contain information on its operations. Thankfully, police tracked down and apprehended the criminals. The incident was a clear illustration of how real the rhino war is and showed that poachers would go to great lengths to fight those who oppose their efforts. It is no secret that the volunteers who aim to protect and help rhinos are risking their lives to do so.
Sadly, due to its military origin, the Bell 407GT could only be used in South Africa under a temporary permit. After serving in game reserves, it was returned to the USA, where it was used to raise funds for anti-poaching operations in South Africa. Hees is working on returning the helicopter, which has proven to be vitally useful, especially at night, to South Africa.
Meanwhile, Rhino 911 continues to work with South African government authorities and collaborates with existing rhino and anti-poaching groups, private game reserves and other role-players in the industry, in an attempt to deal with the poaching problem in a holistic manner.
Above: A rhino calf seeks comfort from her mother, who has been killed by poachers. On the right, she can be seen playing at a rhino orphanage.
Nico Jacobs continues to fly about 40 hours per month, without any remuneration, in support of Rhino 911 missions. About 90 percent of his flying is done with a Robinson R44. For more specialized missions, such as airlifting orphaned or injured rhino calves, he uses an AS350. Last year, Rhino 911 helped treat 86 rhinos, of which four were orphans that were successfully airlifted and reared. Tragically, during flight operations last year, Jacobs reached about 120 rhinos that were already dead, or so badly mutilated by poachers, that they could not be saved.
When Jacobs is unable to reach a wounded rhino, he relies on help from friend and fellow conservation pilot, Tokkie Botes of Flying for Freedom, who flies about 400 hours per year with his Bell 206 in support of rhino conservation.
How can we help? Additional helicopters and volunteer pilots would obviously be useful, but the easiest and most effective way to help is to assist in exposing the problem. In the words of Fred Hees, “It is not just about money, but about understanding and educating. People need to see what
is going on.”
If, however, one were to help financially, it is comforting to know that donations are exclusively used to keep the helicopters airborne and to directly help the rhinos. No donations are used for pilot fees or administration, as examples. In return for helping, the donor receives a tax certificate, an audited account, as well as a letter from the relevant game reserve, indicating how the money was used.
For further information, please visit www.rhino911.com
www.fffsa.org.za and www.davidshepherd.org