South African “extreme conservationist” Braam Malherbe is on a mission to save the world’s rhinoceroses from a catastrophic fate.
“At the moment, there is zero incentive for a poacher not to poach,” Malherbe said. “There is every incentive to poach.”
Malherbe sat down with The Jerusalem Post on Monday at the Ramat Gan Safari and Zoological Center, where he was visiting as part of a larger tour in Israel over the next week and a half, ending in a public lecture on May 31.
While not racing 768 km. through the frigid southern tip of the Earth or the entire length of the Great Wall of China, or engaged in a multitude of other conservation activities, Malherbe has been continuously campaigning to bring about sustainable solutions to rhino poaching, challenging the South African government in particular to take decisive action in Kruger National Park.
“I’ve challenged our government to change the rules of engagement between the rangers and the poachers,” he said.
Malherbe is the founder of the DOT – Do One Thing campaign, which aims to help individuals get involved in environmentally friendly acts, and he also serves as the director of the Institute of Accountability in Southern Africa (IFAISA). He is a member of the Game Rangers Association of Africa, the MyPlanet Rhino Fund, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa and a number of other organizations.
About 65 percent of the rhinos killed in the world meet their death in this two million-hectare park – “the size of Israel,” as Malherbe described it – which shares a lengthy border with Mozambique.
“Most of the poaching is coming from the Mozambican side, because there is a 350-km. border, largely unfenced,” he said.
More than 3,000 rhinos have been poached in Kruger National Park since 2008, and at any one time there are from 12 to 15 armed incursions into the national park – with the majority entering from Mozambique, Malherbe wrote in a November 2014 letter to South African Environmental Affairs Minister Bomo Edna Molewa, in his role as director of IFAISA. Meanwhile, the price of a rhino horn is about $90,000 per kilogram, he said.
Because Kruger National Park rules stipulate that rangers can fire only if the enemy fires first, many poachers are able to successfully elude capture, Malherbe wrote. The rangers therefore must be in very close range of the poachers in order to catch them without using weapons, he explained. Of the 108 sightings in 2013, only 10% of cases were apprehended, and of these, only 10% were prosecuted, he said.
Malherbe argued that the rules of engagement in the park must be changed, in order to give rangers and police officers more protection and enforcement powers. In addition, he proposed that the environment minister deliver to her Mozambican counterpart a message that rangers will in the future “resort to whatever methods are deemed necessary,” regardless of the border.
Malherbe said that, in response, the environment minister spoke with him in February and said that the next step required is to approach the South African ministers of justice, defense and police. All of these ministers now have copies of the letter and have acknowledged receipt, he added.
The inability to fire unless fired upon stems from a section of the South African constitution which mandates “soft rules of engagement,” Malherbe explained. But the constitution also has a clause that allows for amendments, if the sovereignty of a nation is under threat, he continued.
“If you walk into America or into Israel as an illegal from another country with an automatic weapon, your chances of getting shot are automatically high,” he said. “You’re a threat to Israel.”
In South Africa, however, this is not the case.
Because poachers face little risk by hunting the rhinos in the park, they simply “go back out and do it again,” according to Malherbe. Meanwhile, their payoffs are enormous, as the rhino horns are very prized commodities in Vietnamese and Laotian black markets, through which they typically make their way to China.
“A lot of the movement of the horn is across the Mekong River,” he said.
“It’s, in effect, in weight, the most valuable commodity in the planet.”
In addition to supporting increased enforcement powers, Malherbe said he is pushing for harsher sentences for convicted felons. He is also personally raising funds to support rangers through the MyPlanet Rhino Fund, which is currently accumulating about 200,000 Rand (NIS 65,000) monthly from its donors.
While at the Safari on Wednesday, in addition to speaking with the Post, Malherbe toured the site’s griffon vultures conservation project and an elephant program, and also visited with the 10 white rhinoceroses that live on the grounds. Particularly of interest to him was Tanda, a rhino that suffers from an eye infection and wears a special, custom-designed mask to help her cope with the illness. Malherbe also delivered a lecture to the campus’s staff members and visited the Wildlife Hospital, which is co-administered by the Safari and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
“He’s empowering people to take action,” Dr. Gilad Goldstein, head of the Safari’s avian department, told the Post.
Goldstein said that his goal in inviting Malherbe to the site was for his staff members to learn how to apply this attitude to the Safari’s visitors, as well as appreciate the vision of thinking globally and acting locally.
For Malherbe, one goal of coming to the Safari was “to look at the value of zoos.” Acknowledging that some zoos in Europe and across the world need to be shut down due to poor conditions, he stressed that “this place is not so” and that people are often too quick to criticize zoo environments.
Malherbe emphasized “the educational value that a zoo can bring” and the power of these facilities to demonstrate to visitors the endangerment of animals. The global white rhino population, for example, dwindled to about 457 animals in the late 1950s and has since grown, due to zoo breeding programs, he explained.
“You’re ensuring that there is a diversity of the gene pool all around the world – almost an insurance policy,” Malherbe said.
By becoming acquainted with the Safari, Malherbe said he hopes “to show how a facility like this is actually contributing to conservation.” The Wildlife Hospital, for example, continually saves wild birds from death, he added.
“I know children’s lives that have changed from wanting to be a doctor or a lawyer to wanting to be a conservationist or vet because of a zoo experience,” Malherbe said.
As far as his trip to Israel is concerned, Malherbe is officially in the country to give a talk called “Lead With Courage” at a conference organized by The Masters production company, held in Airport City on May 31. Over the next week and a half, however, he is visiting a variety of conservation, tourist and religious sites until then, and will be seeing Jerusalem, Masada and the Dead Sea.
This Friday, he is also leading the Jerusalem Nature Walk, organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality. He also has plans to go camping in the Negev Desert and diving in the Red Sea – all in his first visit to the country.
“I’m loving it,” Malherbe said.