The past year has not been a good one for South Africas rhino population: 663 have been killed so far.

For understandable reasons 2012 will be remembered as a dark, national hole into which some 663 plus rhino have tragically fallen. It’s difficult to shake off the despair. And yet?

My mind wandered back to my friend and colleague, Ian Player. What did he and his brave colleagues of the then Natal Parks Board feel when there were only 50-odd rhino left throughout the country in the late 1950s?

The situation was so dire that it was quite feasible that the rhino might become extinct. But as is so often the case, when humanity faces a crisis, dogged human spirit shows its face. Operation Rhino demonstrated this in the most dramatic, innovative and successful conservation rescue operation this country has witnessed.

This continues to inspire me. I know we are trying. After all, my call to allow us to trade rhino horn on the open market using a central selling mechanism reached many receptive ears. Even though the government reacted too slowly to present this to Cites for next year’s convention, I know the seed has been firmly planted, supported by my practical engagement with Mr Oppenheimer.

But sometimes we are blinded to the hard work and good that surrounds us. Catastrophes do that. So I give over this last column for 2012 to remind you of our endeavours and even sacrifices, not just on the rhino poaching front but more broadly too.

For the moment, though, I ask you to remember our two senior field rangers who paid the ultimate price for doing their job. They drowned on Nhlabane Lake in Nseleni trying to haul in illegal gill nets. Both of them were brave and hugely dedicated foot soldiers. Equally, do you recall the three anti-poaching staff who walked some 50kms in iSimangaliso Park and found a snared white rhino? How, late at night, they stayed with it while one of them walked another 50kms back to base to report it? How our wonderful vet returned to the site, immobilised the creature, tended its wounds and set it free?

And what of the passion shown by our Ndumo field staff. With so few human and other resources they have managed through sheer grit and ingenuity to bring the number of rhino poached down to a third.

Did you read how they are shifting their patrol times, even going out at 2am and all different times to combat the poachers? These are the valiant efforts I applaud. Yes, the 1960s was a very different era but some of this fire remains in our bellies. We must keep stoking the pride we hold in our conservation legacy.

And clearly we do. Did you also note that our Game Capture Unit was praised for being the finest in the world?

Last week I learnt we have now captured some 30-odd poachers this year, with four others killed and three injured. Some four months ago we were blessed with the reinstatement of the surveillance helicopter at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP). This is proving to be a major poaching deterrent. And our provincial government only last week announced that they are giving us a further R28 million to combat this poaching.

I look further afield. I take pride in the gradual evolution of my African conservation philosophy and the fact that so many CEOs from parks and protected areas throughout the world this year endorsed the primacy of people and their need to benefit from conservation. I doubt if conservation has ever before commanded the popularity it has among our rural communities. Nothing thrilled me more than to hear of the wholehearted support all 10 iNkosis at HiP gave to saving our rhinos. Then I was bowled over by the wonderful 100 young adults who put their hands up a few months back and declared that despite being unemployed they would serve conservation.

Today, proud in their new uniforms, these ambassadors stride the communities and towns surrounding Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, cajoling and informing random society of the beauty and importance of saving our rhino; of looking after and respecting protected areas such as HiP.

A similar spirit resides with many of our genuine Nyangas, traditional medical practitioners who in the face of the mounting destruction of trees and other flora have called for the protection of our indigenous landscape. So loud was their cry that Ezemvelo this year created the first ever muti farm at KwaNgwanase in Maputaland. The land has been secured and fenced off. People now wanting to acquire roots, bark and the like can do so in a sustainable way.

This protection of our environment is echoed in the monumental groundwork we have laid in the field of Eco-System Services, that decade-long study where we have identified the value of natural resources and the basic sustenance they provide us with. I need to reinforce how critical this study is. At its heart it shows Ezemvelo’s commitment to helping people change their land-use patterns. We are set on protecting valuable and life-giving natural resources such as wetlands, indigenous forests and rivers. And we are looking at ways in which local people can benefit financially from participating.

I have despaired at times. Yet there is so much good out there. As is pertinent for this time of the year, I am filled with hope. And I extend this hope to you and your families. May you have a wonderful festive season. - Daily News

* Dr Bandile Mkhize is the CEO of Ezemvelo.