/ 27 September 2023

Young people at the heart of conserving the rhino

1st Joint Winner Kgwebane Rhulani 2
Kgwebane Tloubatla was a winner of the Lapalala Wilderness School World Rhino Day competition.

Lapalala Wilderness School used the recent World Rhino Day to raise awareness for the iconic species. It created a platform for grade 10 learners from 60 schools within the Waterberg region in Limpopo to share knowledge about rhinos and innovative ways to protect them.

The learners gave speeches and presented posters, including where the species come from and how many are left in Africa. They also gave reasons why the numbers are so low and the impact their decline has on ecosystems. 

The winners received cash prizes with some taking home laptops and printers. 

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) were also there to hand over a bursary to Emelda Kgolofelo Raseebana of Lemetsa Secondary in Limpopo, a grade 12 learner, to study a qualification of their choice at an institution of their choice. Emelda, who wants to study veterinary science, also received a two-year internship at the department after graduating.  

Khorommbi Matibe, chief director of biodiversity, economy and sustainable use at the DFFE, said it is imperative that young people have a role to play in ensuring that future generations find biodiversity thriving.

“There is nothing better than getting young people at the heart of conservation, especially now that we find ourselves in a huge battle with rhino poaching. If we can get young people to understand the significance of conserving the rhino for current and future generations, we know that not only is half the battle won, but the whole battle is won”, says Matibe. 

Jean-Pierre Viljoen who is the head of anti-poaching at Lapalala Nature Reserve says that the history of the nature reserve is based on the Lapalala Wilderness school and people living in the surrounding areas. 

“It is the right thing to do for us to involve the community, especially young people because these are African animals and African people are the custodians of our wildlife, so we want them to take ownership of the wildlife because they are the future,” he says. 

Viljoen says some areas experienced poaching because certain reserves excluded surrounding communities in tourism ventures, business development and youth programmes. 

“People may then fall prey to poaching because it becomes the only opportunity,” he says. 

Viljoen urged the learners to report any suspicious activities to people they trust, including authorities and the reserve if they feel comfortable. The rhino has existed for millions of years and plays a crucial role in African ecosystems.

Their efficient grazing habits help shape the landscape, and their presence supports both wildlife and human communities. Additionally, they contribute to ecotourism, providing income for local communities and highlighting their significance in preserving these ecosystems.

The species faces serious risks because of poaching. This year, at least 231 rhinos have been killed illegally according to the DFFE. There was a slight decline in rhino poaching in 2022 with a total of 448 rhino being killed compared to 451 in 2021. 

KwaZulu-Natal was impacted the hardest with 244 poaching cases. Of these, 228 were killed in provincial parks and 16 in privately owned reserves. The Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park was specifically targeted.

A combination of effective protection and management has resulted in an overall tally of 6 487 black rhinos in Africa, up 4.2% from 2021. White rhinos now number around 16 803 animals, an increase of 5.6%. Notably, this is the first increase in white rhino numbers since 2012, according to a statement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

These numbers do not mean that the species are not in danger. There needs to be more stringent anti-poaching methods in place to prevent the rhinos from going extinct.

Michael Knight, chair of the African Rhino Specialist Group said in a statement: “With this good news, we can take a sigh of relief for the first time in a decade. However, it is imperative to further consolidate and build upon this positive development and not drop our guard”. 

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.