Learn how Zoos SA Director of Life Sciences Peter Clark developed his affinity with rhinos and why he believes engaging the next generation of conservationists is so important for the future of all wildlife.
What’s your story?
I am the Director of Life Sciences for Zoos South Australia, responsible for the care and development of the animal collections and the conservation initiatives (both Australian and overseas) at both Adelaide and Monarto Zoos in South Australia.
My involvement with rhinos really started when I became Curator of Monarto Zoo’s animal collection in early 2003 at the same time the zoo imported seven rhino from Kruger National Park. Although several of these animals went on to another institutions Satara (a ten year old male) and Mopani (a six year old female) stayed with us to join our single white female rhino — Uhuru, bred at Singapore Zoo. Like many others I felt an immediate attachment to the rhinos, so big but in many ways quite gentle and very friendly. But, it wasn’t until I started taking an annual tour to South Africa for the zoo that involved a stay in a camp run by the Honorary Rangers of Kruger that I began to learn about what was happening to them there.
That first tour was in 2008 and, of course, since then the situation regarding losses to poaching has escalated to a very frightening level where their very existence in the wild is now threatened. The camp profits go to equipping Kruger Rangers with the latest equipment desperately needed to counter the poaching invasion especially from Mozambique. The job those Rangers do is incredible, their lives at risk all the time. I don’t think there would be hardly any rhino left there without their continued anti-poaching work (and Kruger is home to the most White rhino in the world).
Since then we have also partnered with another organisation in Kenya where the Samburu owners have reintroduced black rhino back into their community owned wildlife conservancy. The balance between the livestock they own and care for and the wildlife is quite unique, and it seems to be working well. We sell the women’s beadwork at the zoos and help pay for ranger wages. They recently celebrated their second Black rhino birth, the first rhino births in community owned lands in Kenya in the last thirty years.
The hardest thing
Visiting poaching scenes in South Africa was difficult but has increased my resolve to keep working on the support of in situ conservation and protection of these animals. The debate on whether rhino horn should or should not be legally available is a difficult one, but I find it very hard to justify the promotion of the lie that rhino horn has magical medicinal properties when it clearly does not. I have always been an advocate of community involvement/ownership being key to the long term survival of wildlife but in this case the benefits to the communities (which don’t appear to be high) versus the risk of losing rhino altogether mean I would find it very hard to justify. The long term benefits from tourism would seem to outweigh the benefits of selling rhino horn.
Your most memorable experience
Finding a baby rhino just born at Monarto early one morning was amazing. Spending what seemed like an age by myself in a tiny car in Kruger National Park with a two tonne rhino bull not two metres away was pretty good — no talking, just curious looks whilst eating lunch together — there was a lot of trust involved.
What gives me hope is the total dedication of those trying to protect rhinos in the wild. And also the fact that public recognition of the wild rhino’s plight is quickly gathering momentum, hopefully leading to more support for measures to slow and eventually eliminate poaching.
The changes we must see if poaching is to decrease
It can be international governmental changes all the way down every day citizens around the globe.There will always be poaching where there is a market lucrative enough to support it, so we need to reduce the market, and besides government support in the main Asian country market destinations, education would seem the logical answer.
Adult minds can be difficult to change but children’s minds are another matter, and helping to connect them to nature is critical. When meeting for the first time children are in absolute awe of rhinos but, of course, this is not always possible. Increasing their connection to nature though is nearly always possible and whether this is at the nearest park or at the local zoo the opportunity comes to educate about preserving what wild areas and wild populations of animals we have left.