Ezemvelo wildlife vet Dave Cooper bemoans the fact that rhinos are worth more dead than alive.
Durban - Rhinos are worth more dead than alive. This is the painful reality Ezemvelo wildlife vet Dr Dave Cooper related this week, while delivering the Nolly Zaloumis Memorial Lecture at uShaka Marine World.

And, as expected in an address by an African wildlife buff, there has to be a story of climbing a tree to escape a charging rhino.

Cooper’s story of the need for such a tree involved an orphan, one of more and more that exist because of poaching.

Cooper said that, once treated, they were reintroduced into the wild, sometimes after having become “a little used to humans”.

“The first black rhino (orphan) we released in iSimangaliso had had far too much human contact,” Cooper recalled.

“It was not scared of vehicles, so it was a great tourist animal. But when I approached it on foot, I had to find a tree.”

While the incidence of rhino calves becoming orphaned has increased, the work of relocating rhinos - to stock reserves and to offer them safety - has decreased in the quarter of a century Cooper has been in the game. Now, he’s kept busy much of the time with dehorning, treating survivors of poaching and conducting post-mortems.

All because of poaching.

“It was 100 relocations a year, sometimes,” he recalled. “This year we captured eight and couldn’t sell four of them.”

The problem, he explained, was economics. “Rhinos are worth more dead than alive,” he said, stressing that it was vital that this be reversed.

Farmers with rhino stock can spend up to R5million feeding their herds and the same amount on security.

To reverse the situation, the option of legalising trade in rhino horn “needs to be looked at seriously”, he suggested.

While anyone entering a wildlife career in Africa may have expected to climb trees to escape charging rhinos, they may not have expected metal detectors to be everyday tools of their trade. It is for Cooper, as he attends to rhinos that have been struck by bullets.

“I couldn’t have believed that I would ever become an expert in using a metal detector, which is now as important as a dart gun.”

All this takes its toll on lovers of wildlife, like Cooper and his colleagues, who find that their work has a psychological impact on them.

“Day in, day out, doing this kind of work, no one is unaffected, so we deliberately take turns - two weeks, two weeks. Then, when there’s a serious number of cases, we all go and help each other.”

Help for the rhinos, in recent years, has also come from other countries in Africa, a significant number of them having become translocation destinations recently, Cooper said.

Last month, 17 black rhinos were taken to Malawi.

There have also been relocations to Tanzania.

Then, in Kenya, the overall rhino population was down to 200. Now it’s about 1000 and security has improved through advanced intelligence systems.

To date, 87 white rhino have been moved to Botswana, in an area where the grass is “ice cream to the rhinos”.

Sceptics feared for the safety of 28 black rhinos when they were translocated from iMfolozi to Zimbabwe in 1998.

“They were proved wrong over time,” said Cooper.

There are trees there, too, should rangers looking after them need an escape route.

Independent On Saturday