Monday, April 11, 2011

Random News Generator- Zimbabwe

You're expecting Robert Mugabe's name to show up here, right?

Nope. Today, the focus goes to Raoul du Toit, one of six winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize is awarded annually to one person on each of the six inhabited continents (though 'continent' is defined somewhat loosely, with other winners this year coming from Germany, Russia, Indonesia, the United States and El Salvador); each winner gets $150,000 on top of it.

du Toit is director of the Lowveld Rhino Trust. In 1992, poaching along Zimbabwe's border with Zambia had driven Zimbabwe's black rhinocerous population below 600. The poachers seek the rhino's horn, believed in Asia to have medicinal properties but which in fact contains just about the same medicinal property as your fingernail; the horn and the fingernail are made out of the same stuff. du Toit's goal has been to get the surviving rhinos away from the border and into a protected area. He did this by working with cattle ranchers, setting up perimeter fencing so both the ranchers and rhinos had room to do their thing without having to worry about outside threats. This worked out well.

Until 2000, when Robert Mugabe engaged in "land reform", which basically entailed reforming the names on the deeds to a whole bunch of land. Okay, so his name did pop up. Sue me.

The ranches du Toit was working with suddenly had the legs taken out from under them, and by extension, so did du Toit. Subsistence farming encroached on the ranches, and the rhino habitats, and a breakdown in security meant the poachers were back. It was a major setback, but where other conservation efforts gave up, du Toit perservered. He began again, working with any local entity or community available. He envisions a sort of trust fund set up for communities that house a rhino. He would fund that trust with money from international development funds and wildlife tourism, with dividends paid to the communities whenever a rhino is born to them. The $150,000 prize awarded by Goldman is earmarked for that purpose. In this way, du Toit hopes to somehow make the rhino more valuable to the community than to the poachers; to, in effect, outbid the Asian medicinal market.

There's not an entirely happy ending here- poaching is still the major issue, with 71 rhinos falling victim in 2009, with a current surviving population of only 530 under du Toit's watch by the San Jose Mercury News' count ("over 400" by the BBC's count) and 4,800 across Africa- but there is progress; the number poached was down to 21 in 2010. A community watch, while nice, is still inferior in du Toit's mind to harsher measures against poaching. Currently, as he says, "The penalties and fines are still not as much as we would like to see and some of those caught go back and shoot more rhinos to pay legal fees and bribes. That's the blowback from efforts to deal with them." If the poaching can be stifled completely, the unthreatened rhinos would stand to increase their ranks by 10% per year.

The mere fact that this fight is still taking place, the fact that the black rhinos are still out there with a fighting chance, is according to many solely due to du Toit. One of those many is outdoor sporting goods company Orvis, which since 1994 has taken up a number of environmental goals. du Toit recieves some of their attention in 2011; they intend to match any customer donations up to $60,000. If you'd like to nudge the donation thermometer a bit, click that last link and they'll send you through to Paypal.

du Toit and the other winners are to be honored tonight at the San Francisco Opera House.

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