Dr Ian Player, conservation icon, opens Rhino Awareness Centre

In order to combat the poaching crisis, a powerful public awareness campaign needs to be run simultaneously with on-the-ground anti-poaching measures. Shamwari’s Dr Ian Player Rhino Awareness Centre, opened by Dr Ian Player himself on Thursday, June 07 aims to help raise awareness of the situation worldwide. The opening of the centre coincided with a rhino microchipping and DNA capturing exercise led by veterinarian Dr Johan Joubert.

Shamwari experienced one of the first rhino poaching incidents in the country in 2008 and since then has taken all measures possible to prevent it happening again. “That first rhino was named Junior, and I was working for the reserve when he was born. I watched him grow up into a very large, strong bull, and he was like one of my own kids,” says Joubert. “Getting the call to say that Junior was dead was devastating.”

During the microchipping and DNA capturing exercise, a five year old white male rhino was darted in order to collect information on his horn size, his estimated weight, various other measurements, and horn shavings. All of the information is then sent to Ondersterpoort to be documented on an international database. Shamwari Game Reserve is in the process of collecting DNA samples from all of its rhino.  Although the exercise does not necessarily prevent poaching, it has proven to be highly effective in securing convictions in poaching cases.

Together with its on-the-ground anti-poaching measures, Shamwari is enhancing its public awareness campaign through the Dr Ian Player Rhino Awareness Centre which aims to help educate the public on the poaching crisis, and encourage anti-poaching initiatives.

“I have always been an optimist, but a realistic one, and in the depth of my being I believe we shall succeed in saving the rhino. But do not let us be deluded, we are up against terrible dark forces that threaten to overwhelm us. In the world of wildlife conservation the white and black rhino have been spiritual beacons of hope.  All our children now look to us in our generation to ensure that the prehistoric remnants of the dinosaur age continue to exist on our Planet,” said Dr. Player during his keynote address at the opening of the centre.

Shamwari Assistant Field Guide Manager, Julius Mkhize conducts regular tours and information sessions with local schools, and is certain that that the centre will provide an interactive, visually inspiring experience for all visitors.

“We are hoping that the centre will encourage people to participate in finding alternative, innovative solutions to the rhino poaching crisis,” says Shamwari Game Reserve chief ecologist, John O’Brien. “Shamwari is part and parcel of the fight against poaching, not only is it something that we feel passionate about, but it is also our responsibility to the rhino.”

The overwhelming increase in poaching incidents over the last few years has Dr Player experiencing a sense of dejavu. “I have mixed feelings of disappointment and concern,” says Dr Player who led the first, highly effective anti-poaching campaign in 1961. Operation Rhino successfully saved the rhino from extinction fifty years ago, but increased wealth in the East, and mistaken beliefs about the medicinal properties of rhino horn have reignited the poaching war.

“The world is overpopulated – seven billion people and rising, and individual needs are so great that the ancient beliefs of tribal societies that loved and revered nature have now been surpassed. People are driven by their own needs, and nature has taken a back seat,” says Dr Player.

“This is where the Wilderness Foundation, and the Wilderness Leadership School have a key role to play. We need to take people back 2000 years to reconnect with nature, and restore a respect for nature which society has lost.”

The opening ceremony also included the handover of a R150,000 cheque to the Wilderness Foundation’s Forever Wild Rhino Protection Initiative by Shamwari. The funds were raised through Shamwari’s donation of a percentage of each accommodation booking. “We are extremely grateful for this generous donation,” says head of the Forever Wild Rhino Protection Initiative, Matthew Norval. “Fighting the poaching crisis requires a large amount of resources and support from business, the public and government. Every donation counts.”

Volkswagen Communications general manager, Matt Gennrich, reiterated the company’s commitment to rhino conservation at the launch of the Centre. Volkswagen donated 6 Amarok bakkies to the value of R2 million to the Forever Wild Rhino Protection Initiative in June 2011. “Our partnership with the Wilderness Foundation supports Volkswagen’s ‘Think Blue’ philosophy which promotes cooperation with organisations that are environmentally conscious and work towards the sustainability of endangered species.”

In the future, the Dr Ian Player Rhino Awareness Centre will include information about Shamwari’s animal rehabilitation centre (which has already had the task of rehabilitating two orphaned rhino calves as a result of poaching incidents), an early history display (Stone Age and Settler) and a “dinosaurs of the area” display (which will emphasise the issue of extinction).

Shamwari will offer guided tours, but visitors will be encouraged to spend time in the centre to reflect on the situation themselves. It will be open to guests of Shamwari as well as organised school and tour visits.