Conservationists pay the price as rhino poaching takes on hellish dimensions

The beauty of a full moon over Africa now shines despair over the continent.

Once, its call spurred one of mankind’s most astonishing accomplishments – setting men on the lunar surface.

Dave Cooper has performed hundreds of post-mortems on mutilated rhinos.

Now, men use its light to shed the blood of African giants. Rangers and anti-poaching units know that at the full moon there will be an onslaught.

With hundreds of thousands of hectares to cover and protect, they know they will not defend all the precious lives in their care.

Some will even lose their own lives in this war.

The killers stalk with assault rifles and machetes, driven by the greed of their masters and cohorts, slaking their thirst for dollars in blood.

Demand is sky-high, particularly in the Far East, where ivory is a symbol of status and rhino horn is a mystical toe-nail used in traditional medicine.

Some of these kingpins hide behind officialdom and powerful leaders. In comparison, the voices trying to halt the death run are small and at the mercy of those who are disinterested, vested or uninformed.

Many do not understand the cost of the loss of these beasts –they are, after all, just animals.

One of the prices in this conflict is the one paid by the men and women who give everything to defend them: the rangers, the vets, those whose voices are hoarse with shouting warnings.

One of these men is Dr Dave Cooper, a South African vet with 35 years’ experience, the last 20 of which have been in the specialised field of African wildlife, epidemiology and game capture and translocation. His “day job”, based at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, is conservation in provincial parks.

He is also required to care for black rhino which have been moved to “foster homes” for their own protection.

The wildlife vet must attend to the mutilated bodies of every poached rhino in his areas, and has performed hundreds of post-mortems on them.

His is one of the voices the Cites CoP17 delegates should hear, because this continent’s soul rests in its wildlife. Without it, few would venture out of the cities where economic potential smoulders. These are places without magic, without millennia of evolution and survival and beauty.

Without the wild, Africa will be just another continent of cement and asphalt, where the moon reflects off glass panes instead of grass plains.

Humans need the kind of resolve they showed to make the moon landing to save Africa’s beasts.

Cooper posted this on Facebook last weekend:

“This must be one of the most brutal fortnights yet in the history of the rhino poaching war, in our province. At least 14 deaths were discovered in various protected areas in as many days. (I can’t go into detail at this time but it’s getting even more savage, as if that’s possible.)

“Yesterday honestly rates as one of the lowest points in my life as a wildlife vet, pretty much an emotional breaking point – but it’s not the first time; it’s something that is happening far too often. I don’t think it is possible to explain to somebody who hasn’t experienced this nightmare, what even one death scene does to you. It’s traumatic and haunting, and cannot ever be erased from your mind. I’ve attended over 400!

“So, how was yesterday even worse than all the others? Well – at first light on Saturday I flew out to do a post-mortem on a dead rhino discovered the previous day. (I had been at other poaching scenes on Thursday and Friday already, so this had to wait until Saturday.)

"While flying, we discovered a second body. Then a third. And then a fourth. Can you even try and imagine what it’s like to experience so much death and destruction, all the time?

"Thank God for Rowan’s (Dr Rowan Leeming, a young vet doing his one-year community service at Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife) veterinary help because it’s practically impossible to keep up anymore, physically or mentally.

And then – just as I arrived at our friend’s home at midday, the phone rang again with news that there was a tiny orphaned calf, from one of those murdered rhino.

And so another mad race back to the game reserve to get to him in time, all the while thinking this was going to be number five!

"The poor little guy is only about three months old, small enough to load in the helicopter. It’s always touch and go.

"But thankfully, with the devoted attention of my colleague Dumi Zwane all night at our bomas (and with 9 orphans, that’s a full-time job too), the calf has started drinking and looks like he’ll be ok. If he hadn’t made it I’m not sure what I would have done.

"I just can’t describe how hellish yesterday was for all of us out there."