Once targeted for their ivory tusks, Asia’s already endangered elephants are facing a new threat to their survival: Poachers in Myanmar and elsewhere are selling their hides to be turned into purported cures for stomach ulcers and cancer as well as jewellery and prayer beads for sale in China. Elsewhere, the skins are being turned into luxury leather goods from golf bags and designer boots to wallets, belts and even motorcycle seats.
Trafficking in Asian elephant hides has grown over the past four years from small-scale sales of skins to a wholesale commercial trade. In Asia, this includes sales on open, online forums as well as by some Chinese pharmaceutical companies, according to the U.K.-based wildlife conservation group Elephant Family, which believes most of the Chinese products come from illegally traded Asian elephant hides. Legally licensed trade in hides from four African countries is strictly controlled and regulated.
Conservationists fear that elephant skin may even begin to replace ivory as a motive for poaching, and that any legal trade provides a loop-hole for illegal trade. For these reasons, they have urged countries to completely ban its importation.
Asian Elephants live across a vast range of 13 countries, from India to Indonesia, yet their global population of 30,000-50,000 is barely 10% of their African cousins. While all Elephants face the threats of habitat loss, conflict with people, and poaching for ivory, Asian Elephants are also threatened by illicit live trade for the entertainment industry and, most recently, by poaching for the illegal trade in their skins.
The first conservation organisation to investigate the Elephant skin trade chain, their research revealed that this trade continues to grow both in scope and in volume. Traders are diversifying and experimenting.
Initially, powdered Elephant skin was sold as a traditional medicine ingredient. Then a new trend emerged where dried Elephant skin was carved and polished into prayer beads and other Chinese collectibles, with traders extolling the qualities of the blood-red hue in the translucent subcutaneous layers.
There is now an increase in the online advertising of powdered Elephant skin for sale to, apparently exclusively, buyers in mainland China. Videos posted on marketing sites show images of backyards in Myanmar and Laos being used by traders to carve up chunks of Elephant skin, remove coarse hair with blow-torches and dry it in ovens before grinding it into a fine powder. It is then packaged for sale as Traditional Chinese Medicine for stomach ailments. Field investigations revealed that while some consumers are satisfied with these prepared products delivered to them by courier, more discerning buyers in China’s cities prefer to buy whole skin pieces complete with creases and hair to prove their authenticity, before grinding them into powder themselves.
The main source for Elephant skin is, at present, Myanmar, where officials have identified a poaching crisis that has developed rapidly since 2010. But traders have also mentioned other Asian Elephant range countries. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of known importers, online traders, physical salespeople and consumers are in China. The product labels are printed in Chinese, online traders communicate in Mandarin and prices are quoted in Chinese currency. In early 2018, the investigation found Elephant skin products on sale in Yunnan, Guangdong, and Fujian provinces of China.
Like many forms of illegal wildlife trade, traffickers are exploiting a traditional, usually medicinal use, to create new trends that drive demand, and allow them to profit from poaching. Of particular concern is the discovery that Chinese pharmaceutical companies are advertising the sale of medicine that contains Asian Elephant skin derivatives, and that China’s State Forestry Administration has apparently issued licenses for these products.
At a time when China has shown commitment to ending its domestic trade in Elephant ivory, it would be troubling and perverse to find that, at the same time, it is creating a new legal demand for Elephant skin products. Conservationists, law enforcement specialists and many governments agree that domestic wildlife markets facilitate the laundering of illicit commodities while simultaneously placing increased demand on law enforcement agencies as they attempt to address a growing and illegal wildlife trade with limited resources, inadequate criminal justice responses and institutional corruption.
The report outlines Elephant Family’s findings and provides evidence of a profoundly worrying trend in Elephant skin trade that severely threatens already fragile populations of Asian Elephants. Moreover, this new trend could easily spread to Africa as has been seen with other species. As one trader told Elephant Family investigators “it’s only skin – who cares if it comes from Asian Elephants or African Elephants”.
The report aims to provide greater insight into the illicit trade in Asian Elephant skin. We also raise critical questions that need answers, and make recommendations to guide urgent action by key stakeholders.
Key Findings Of The Report Found:
Since 2014, the trade in Asian Elephant skin has expanded from small-scale use to wholesale commercial trade as traffickers stimulate demand.
The first account of manufacturing Elephant skin beads was posted online in 2014. Elephant skin powder is now a dominant commodity sold as a medicine for stomach complaints.
Manufacture of Elephant skin products is taking place in Myanmar, Laos and China. The market in China is where skin products can reach several times the value at source. Elephant skin beads and powder are mainly traded through open online forums such as Baidu, and private personal messaging platforms such as WeChat. Traders use only Chinese language on forums and quote prices in Chinese currency.
The primary source of Asian Elephants used in the skin trade now appears to be Myanmar where poaching incidents have increased dramatically since 2010, with Elephant carcasses found with their skin removed entirely or in strips. Most traders also confirm that Elephant skin products use Asian Elephants, a species protected under Appendix I of CITES.
Elephant skin products have been found in physical markets in Mong La, Myanmar, and Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, China and in January 2018 were also found in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China.
Documentation shows that China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) issued licenses for the manufacture and sale of pharmaceutical products containing Elephant skin. These commercially produced products, claiming to contain African and Asian Elephant skin, were advertised for sale by several Chinese companies.
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The Rhino was heavily pregnant and roaming Pilanesberg National Park in Mogwase, north-west South Africa, with its calf when they were hunted down for their horns.
These heartbreaking images show an unborn Rhino calf who died after its mother and sibling were shot and killed by poachers.
Photos show the poachers began hacking off the mother’s prized horn, but they were interrupted by park rangers and fled before they had time to remove it.
When park staff tried to save the unborn calf, it was found to have died inside its mother’s womb.
Pilanesberg National Park wrote on its official Facebook page: ‘There are no words.
‘Mom and calf shot and killed by poachers. Horns are still on as the murderers fled the scene when they heard a game drive approach. Mom looks very pregnant as well. We are devastated.’
Pilanesberg National Park added in the post that a reward will be issued for any information leading to an arrest and prosecution of the poachers.
A spokesperson for the park told MailOnline that the mother Rhino was aged eight and the calf just two years old. The unborn foetus would have been due in February next year.
‘We have lost 16 Rhino and 3 unborn calves so far 2017 – that we are aware of,’ the spokesperson said.
‘This loss is not due to lack of interest or effort from Park management, as this is a large park with many valleys and hills, which is a difficult territory to operate in.’
Since 2007, more than 6,000 Rhinos have been shot and butchered for their horns in South Africa alone.
The majority of those have come in the last four years with around a thousand being killed every year since 2013.
Sometimes the Rhinos are shot dead, in other cases they are brought down with a tranquiliser gun before having their horn hacked off – leaving the Rhino to wake up and bleed to death painfully and slowly.
The province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has the greatest density of Rhino in South Africa, has seen 139 slaughtered already this year.
Despite countries such as China, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia and even India believing Rhino has medicinal values, repeated studies have not found any evidence to support the claims.
Rhino horns are made from a protein called keratin, the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of. The horn is essentially just a compacted mass of hairs that continues to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, just like human hair and nails.
It is similar in structure to horses’ hooves, turtle beaks, and cockatoo bills – however these animals are not hunted and slaughtered in the same way.
Tragically tradition and cultural beliefs in some Asian countries mean the demand for Rhino horn has not waned despite just some 20,000 white Rhino being left in the wild.
Poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill Rhinos. Based on the value of the Asian black market, Rhino horn price is estimated at $ 65,000 USD per kg*. In the near past, the Rhino horn price soared up around $65,000 per kilogram. This price hike turned the Rhino horn more valuable than gold and many other precious metals, also many times more worthy than Elephant ivory. (*2020 figures)
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An Elephant was found in Liwonde National Park, he was completely debilitated and had a wire snare trap digging into the flesh of his leg near his foot. The poor animal could not move, feed or even get water to alleviate his condition.
The Helpless Victim
It is said that hunters set snare traps to kill smaller wild animals and not Elephants. Unfortunately though, a helpless Elephant fell victim to it. This gained varied reactions in the social media where one Facebook user said, “Humans the only species to demonstrate such ‘inhumanity’, we should be ashamed.
This picture shows them inserting the needle, on which the IV lines are connected, into the Elephant’s ear on which arteries are accessible, and usually an endotracheal tube is inserted down the animal’s throat. The IV will allow the veterinarians to monitor blood-oxygen levels, while the tube ensures that the animal can continue breathing under anesthesia.
Injecting The Tranquilizer
Here we see Dr. Salb injecting the tranquilizer fluid into the iv line. They probably had to more or less guess the weight of this particular young Elephant in order to administer the correct dose. The others help to pull the uninjured leg up so that they are able to get to the injured one with the snare attached, that has dug very deeply into his flesh.
This adolescent must have really struggled and struggled to free himself, probably very confused and not sure what was holding him back. What an awful death he would have suffered. When the woozy pachyderm finally succumbs, not that he had any resistance left, they get to work on his wound.
Snare Trap Removed
Dr. Salb gets to work on removing the horrible wire snare. Derek MacPherson looks on resting his hand on the poor suffering Elephants trunk in a comforting gesture. Another helper looks on with some water with disinfectant, to clear the wound of debris etc., so that the snare can be seen properly to be able to remove it. The vet has to use really strong sharp side cutters and strength to unwind the strong wire that the poachers use.
Taking Off The Snare
And this is the offending bloody snare tightly wrapped around the young Elephant’s leg with a piece of flesh still embedded into it.
“It’s always devastating to see the dreadful damage these snares can do to such a big animal,” the Lilongwe Wildlife Center wrote on its Facebook page. Snares can cull animal populations at an alarming rate. Hunters/poachers set snare traps with aims to kill smaller wild animals than Elephants, which can decimate animal populations at an unsustainable rate, according to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT). Just 1,000 of these snares can capture 18,250 animals in a year — even Elephants, whose population is already plummeting because of the ivory trade.
The Infected Wound
To make things even more sad, the young Elephant’s wound appears to be infected. Here you can see that the wound is being cleaned out the blood and puss from the deeply cut leg of the Elephant which appears to be almost cut to the bone. Needless to say, this poor Elephant must have been in a lot of pain. Luckily while they work, he is safely in dreamland and not feeling the excruciating pain for the moment.
In this picture you can see that the Elephant’s wound has been washed clean and is ready for some topical treatment. It is also noticeable that the animal has lost a lot of weight and looks very weak. And from the position of the person’s hand you can see the depth that the snare cut into the leg.
The whole procedure went extremely well Dr. Salb said “Although the wound was really deep, we’re all so pleased that we were able to remove the snare entirely and give him the required treatment.”
The Young Elephant Still Sleeping
At this point, the whole procedure has been completed with topical ointments applied and antibiotics administered. Looking at the photo, a game park ranger watches over the young Elephant. The African Park scouts and the Rhino Protection Team also helped in monitoring the condition of the animal.
Here veterinarian Amanda Salb seems to be double checking on the Elephant. Probably taking some measurements and statistics for their records. Wildlife vet, Amanda Salb, is the heroine along with her team, in this important role of saving wildlife discovered alive in national parks.
Many similar incidents occur on a regular basis in this huge park and it is also because of its vastness that the difficulty of monitoring arises. Nevertheless, the world isn’t lacking with people who show immense compassion to animals.
A radio collar is fitted to the injured Elephant. The Elephant gets a radio collar so he can be found again for follow-up treatment. The Elephant will continue to be monitored by African Parks scouts and the Rhino Protection Team, and if he needs any further treatment, Wildlife vet, Amanda Salb and her team will be on call.
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust reported that despite his gory injury, the pain seemed to have subsided quickly because, two days after the rescue, the Elephant was spotted at the watering hole with his herd. “He was bathing normally and seemed bright,” Salb said.
This Elephant is one of the lucky few that got found in time and treated, and that the treatment was adequate and the little fellow was strong. As Elephants have long memories I am sure he will not forget his horrific ordeal in a hurry. Let us hope the same thing does not occur again. People voiced their reactions online to this particular Elephant’s brush with a snare trap. “Humans the only species to demonstrate such ‘inhumanity’, we should be ashamed.”
Operation Safe Haven
Nearly 50% of animals living in the park had been slaughtered before ‘Operation Safe Haven’ moved in in November 2014. They detected and removed 10,000 deadly poachers’ traps that covered the park, and arrested over 70 criminal poachers and 6 wildlife traffickers, securing hefty fines or prison sentences against the majority.
At the end of Operation Safe Haven the security of the national park was handed over to a team of long-term managers, African Parks. The future of the Elephants and Rhinos here is now assured and the breakthrough formula should be applied to other national parks. At least our young Elephant is a bit safer in his habitat now.
This photo alone tells just how rampant poaching is. The snares all look terrifying considering that they are used as instrument to trap and slowly kill their poor victims.
The Hunt For Ivory
Here for interest sake is a haul of poached ivory confiscated from people, that set traps, shoot and kill Elephants for their tusks. These were bound for Asia. We are thankful that there are still people around that care for the endangered species of animals in Africa, especially Elephant and Rhino.
Sunset Over Liwonde Game Reserve
Here is a beautiful picture of a sunset over the watering hole at the Liwonde Game Reserve in Malawi, where the young Elephant was found. Hopefully he is completely recovered and enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
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In Memory of Impi and Gugu who were killed in the raid.
Françoise Malby-Anthony, who founded the Thula Thula game reserve in 1998 with her late husband, the renowned conservationist and internationally bestselling author Lawrence Anthony recalls the awful night that poachers attacked her Rhino orphanage on the 27th of February 2017
THE NIGHT POACHERS ATTACKED A RHINO ORPHANAGE
“Living alone on a vast African game reserve is not for the faint-hearted. And that night, even after 17 years in the wilderness, I felt a strange sense of unease.
It was 2am . White flashes of lightning were lighting up my bedroom. Thunder cracked like gunshots. As I stroked my dog, Gypsy, trying to reassure her, I suddenly realised that the phone was ringing.
‘Hello?’ I mumbled.
‘The orphanage has been hit. They shot two rhinos and attacked the volunteers.’
I sat bolt upright. Hit? Shot? Attacked? I couldn’t process the words.
I’d created the animal orphanage just a year before in order to fill a desperate need. Increasingly, poachers had been targeting adult rhinos for their horns — to sell to the Far East for useless traditional potions.
Any defenceless babies, whose horns had yet to grow, were left to die in the bush. Or if they were found in time, they were brought to my orphanage.
On that very night, I knew that four animal-mad girl volunteers and a permanent carer were providing intensive nursing for six vulnerable baby rhinos and a young hippo.
Panic-stricken, I ran to my general manager’s cottage and banged on the door.
‘Lynda! It’s me! Open up!’ I yelled, shivering in the rain. ‘Poachers at the orphanage. I’ll never manage the roads in this weather. We need your 4×4.’
She saw the horror on my face and asked no questions. ‘Give me five minutes.’ The rain smacked our faces as we sprinted to her car.
We crept along the dirt track leading to the orphanage, struggling to see, not speaking, hearts hammering. What would we find?
The men who slash rhinos’ faces for their horns are utterly barbaric — far beyond the conception of my trusting young volunteers. One wrong move or word, and an agitated lunatic could well have killed the girls.
Slowly, painfully slowly, we struggled through the downpour. As we arrived at the orphanage, one of my anti-poaching guards ran out.
‘What were you thinking, driving here on your own?’ he burst out. ‘The attackers could still be in the reserve! Quick. Get under cover.’
I stared at him. ‘Is anyone hurt?’ I asked. He nodded, grim-faced, and took us inside . . .
Baby rhinos don’t run. They half-bounce, half-fly as they hurtle towards you with an inquisitive look on their soft faces.
Or so I discovered when I first met Thabo, who’d been a terrified newborn when he was found, his umbilical cord still dragging below him in the dust. His mother had almost certainly been killed by poachers, and it was a miracle he’d survived even a day on his own.
Now Thabo was two months old, and had just arrived from a reserve that could no longer keep him. He nestled his snout gently against my leg — and I melted.
I’d just agreed to give him a permanent home on the land that my husband and I had bought in South Africa, intending to turn it into a game reserve that would keep animals safe from poachers.
We called it Thula Thula — Zulu for ‘quiet’. Within a few years, we’d built a game lodge, started taking in paying guests and had adopted an entire herd of wild elephants — though no rhinos.
But that was about to change: as I stroked Thabo, I knew with absolute certainty what needed to happen next. I was going to create a haven where orphaned rhinos could heal after their trauma.
That was back in 2011. By the time I’d raised enough funds and rhino-proofed an existing building, my husband Lawrence had died tragically young of a heart attack.
For a long time after I lost him, I lurched from one crisis to the next, never feeling anything was under control. Even small decisions felt overwhelming at first, but creating the orphanage gave me a focus, a reason to get up every day.
There was so much at stake. If the heating fails in our game lodge, we might get a bad rating on TripAdvisor, but the guests won’t die. A heating failure in the orphanage’s high-care ward, on the other hand, will soon kill a baby rhino.
Our first call came in April 2015. An anti-poaching unit had just found the carcass of an adult female rhino, with her horn hacked off, but no sign of her calf. Would we take it in if they could track it down? By running away, the six-month old calf had at least avoided being butchered for the tiny horn beginning to grow on his head. With rhino horn fetching £68,000 per kilo on the Far Eastern market, the poachers would have killed him for every gram they could get.
By the time Ithuba was traced, it was a week since his mother had died. Heavily sedated when he arrived, he was covered in infected tick bites and close to death. That first night, he was put on a drip and slept peacefully — but the second night was hell.
It was as if he was going through all the trauma of the past week — his mother’s murder, being transported in a clanging trailer and then finding himself in a strange room with two-legged animals who looked just like the ones who’d killed his mother.
The mere sight of his carers sent him careering around his room in panic — and 200 kilos of agitated rhino can do a lot of damage to a pair of human legs. His high-pitched squeals of terror pierced every corner of the orphanage.
Eventually, we persuaded him to drink milk from a bottle. Then colic struck and nightmares. He’d shiver and jerk about in his sleep; on waking, he’d spin around his room in panic, flinging himself against the walls.
‘What Ithuba’s going through isn’t unusual,’ the vet assured us. ‘People think post-traumatic stress is only experienced by humans, but his emotional recovery is going to be far more complicated than his physical recovery.’
It’s heartbreakingly hard to comfort traumatised animals, but our carers did it with infinite patience and affection. Slowly, Ithuba began to understand they weren’t like the people who’d hurt his mother.
I’ll never forget the day when I saw him trotting happily next to Axel, an easygoing young French carer. Ithuba kept bumping into his leg, as if to reassure himself that he wasn’t alone any more.
Another huge step was the revival of his curiosity. Rejecting other toys, Ithuba homed in on anything made out of tyre, including his food bowl which was a home-made tyre contraption. He’d tip it over, throw out the food, fling the bowl about until it started rolling, then run after it. Finally, he’d balance it on his head, preening and strutting like a dressage horse.
BFFs: The two baby rhinos, Thabo and Ntombi, were soon inseparable
Yet for a long time, he also continued to have panic attacks. He’d be playing happily, then he’d suddenly squeal in fright, latch onto a corner of his carer’s sleeve and suckle it — rather like a baby sucks its thumb.
Slowly, however, his insecurity faded — and his appetite exploded. By the time he was nine months old, he’d doubled his weight and turned into a happy little rhino tank who’d soon be starting a new life in the wild.
The next rhino calf delivered to the orphanage had also lost his mother to poachers. He’d stood by his mother’s body for six days, desperately tugging at her decaying teats while vultures tore her flesh. How do you even start to console a little creature who’s been through that?
Megan, a fresh-faced young British girl, remained with Impi for his entire first night as he ran round and round in circles, crying non-stop, too terrified to sleep, desperate to find his mother.
‘I kept talking to him,’ she said. ‘I told him what had happened to him, that he was safe with us, that there was another baby rhino just like him called Ithuba, and that I was sure they would be friends.
‘He eventually came up to stand silently at my knees. He looked so lost. I longed to take him in my arms to comfort him but I didn’t dare move in case I frightened him. Then he collapsed at my feet and fell asleep.’
Within three days, however, little Impi was on the mend. Ravenously hungry, he’d indignantly head-butt his carers if his bottle wasn’t ready when he wanted it.
One morning, Megan was on her hands and knees giving the floor a good scrub when she felt two little eyes boring into her. Impi edged closer and nestled his chin on her shoulder. And there it stayed, as he shuffled along to keep pace with Megan’s movements.
Some calves are boisterous and belligerent, but not Impi. He was a tender little creature who was afraid of everything and hated being left alone.
Like Ithuba, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and unfamiliar sounds — even a bird’s squawk — would send him fleeing, squealing in panic.
Nights were a terrible struggle. No matter how exhausted he was, he didn’t feel safe enough to lie down until a volunteer had started reading him a book. Then he’d quietly nestle on the hay next to her, burrow his head into her legs and fall into the deepest sleep.
Ithuba, meanwhile, wasn’t happy about losing his pampered role as the only rhino at the orphanage — and particularly jealous when he realised that Impi was in his old room. Again and again, he charged the barrier to get in; only the sound of Axel rolling a tyre behind him managed to distract the cross little rhino.
The next orphan to arrive was Thando, who’d been discovered neck-deep in mud and unable to move. There was no sign of his mother.
It took five men to pull Thando out of the mud, and there were whoops of delight when they saw he was strong enough to stand.
The DIFFERENCE in Thando’s behaviour from that of the other two rhinos was startling. Rather than being petrified when he woke up in a strange room surrounded by humans, he was merely stroppy.
Happily, he hadn’t had to witness his mother being hacked to death, nor had he been on his own in the wilderness for nights on end. As a result, he very quickly became one of the orphanage’s most laid-back little rhinos.
Eventually we decided that Impi and Thando should meet, as they were similar ages. So, one overcast summer’s afternoon, we left the doors and barriers to their rooms open at feeding time. The carers hovered out of sight nearby.
Impi, usually such a timid little rhino, immediately charged at Thando, who didn’t so much as blink. Baffled by this non-reaction, Impi skidded to a halt and stared at him.
After a lot of posturing and strutting on both sides, they headed inside and flopped down on a mattress, their stumpy little legs entwined. From then on, they were best friends, constantly cuddling up or practising charging techniques on each other.
Another successful pairing was between Charlie, a baby hippo found alone in a river, terrified of water, and a newborn rhino called Makhosi, abandoned because he was too tiny to reach his mother’s teats. As both were under a week old, we put them in the same room.
Amazingly, Makhosi scampered straight up to the hippo. For his part, Charlie swayed his big head from side to side in greeting and reached his snout towards her.
First, they exchanged interested noisy snuffles. Then Makhosi lowered her head and Charlie gently chomped her ears. Finally, the tiny rhino clambered onto the hippo’s mattress, nuzzled up against him and fell fast asleep.
After that, they trotted everywhere together, demanded to be fed at the same time, and cuddled up whenever they needed warmth or reassurance.
When Charlie’s teeth started to cut through, his gums became sore and inflamed, and he lost his appetite. His rhino friend knew just what to do: she comforted him with gentle nudges, then fell asleep each night with her snout touching his.
Charlie, the baby hippo who was scared of water standing bravely in his paddling pool with pal Makhosi close by
More orphans were now flooding in. Nandi, our first black rhino, was another newborn whose mother had been killed. She was afraid of the dark and wouldn’t go to sleep without a blanket tucked tightly around her.
If it slid off, she squealed until her carer woke up and tucked her back in again. What a little princess!
Then there was Storm, who’d probably been rejected by his mother. He had so many parasites that we almost lost him.
And finally there was Gugu, a healthy rhino calf who wanted nothing to do with her carers. It was her choice to drink from a bucket rather than a bottle — anything to keep humans at bay.
When she first saw Impi and Thando, however, she broke out into high-pitched calls of delight. And as for Ithuba, our original rhino calf, he became the love of her life.
Poor Ithuba was so much older than the others that we had to keep him in a separate enclosure. Undeterred, Gugu would spend hours walking out with her strapping neighbour, each keeping pace with the other on either side of the fence.
By the start of 2016, our baby rhinos were all thriving and protected by round-the-clock security guards. It made no difference.
On the terrible rain-lashed night that poachers attacked the animal orphanage, I arrived to find our terrified girl volunteers huddled together in an office. One of them had only been with us for a few hours, her dream of working with orphaned animals now a savage nightmare.
Slowly, as they sobbed and cried, I started piecing together what had happened.
Just as the team had finished the first evening feed, five heavily armed men had breached the fence, disabling cameras and cutting cables as they crept towards our security guard. Two of them had attacked him from behind and tied him up.
Then they waited, patient predators, biding their time until the next feed. Axel, the only staff member there that night, had gone to bed while the two girls on feeding duty chatted and laughed as they prepared bottles for the hippo and the rhino calves.
Suddenly, they were ambushed by the poachers, and shoved into a locked office. At gunpoint, Axel was roused and forced to round up the rest of the volunteers.
‘Where are the rhino horns?’ the attackers kept asking. Needless to say, we didn’t have any, but Axel was beaten and one of the girls was severely assaulted.
The poachers must have known that Gugu and Impi — now our oldest rhinos at the orphanage — were due to leave soon. And that meant they’d already have stubby little horns.
While three men guarded the youngsters, two others, armed with guns and an axe, headed for the calves. They pumped bullets into Gugu and Impi for horns no bigger than a child’s fist.
Gugu died instantly, sweet Impi didn’t. The poachers didn’t give a damn. They held him down and hacked his face with the axe.
Were they disconcerted by his terrified expression? Superstitions run deep in rural Zululand, where it’s thought that eyes have memories. So the poachers did the unthinkable — they poked out Impi’s eyes.
Half an hour later, the men and their bounty were gone.
Meanwhile, the guard in the storeroom had escaped and was running barefoot through the reserve to raise the alarm. Petrified of being caught, he avoided roads and tore through the bush in the pitch dark, shredding his feet in the process.
To this day, I can’t bear to think about Impi and the anguish of his carers. They’d hand-raised him, and there was nothing they could do to ease his terror and pain.
Impi was euthanised as soon as our vet arrived. The tragedy was that both calves had been days away from becoming wild rhinos again.
The next 24 hours are a blur. I have flashes of memory: the ashen faces of the girls, the explosive racket of the storm, the atrocity of Impi’s injuries, the chaos in my heart.
For a while, I lost faith in mankind. I lost hope in saving rhinos.
Demand for their horns will never stop; they’ll always be in danger, as will the men and women who risk their lives guarding them.
What I do remember with profound gratitude is the phone call from Megan, the British girl who’d helped look after Impi and Gugu. Now back home, she offered to start a campaign to pay for improving the orphanage’s security.
Donations flooded in from all over the world. The outpouring of love and concern was incredible: more than £45,000 was raised.
The cash has paid for more round-the-clock armed guards and extra protection for staff during night feeds. We’ve also upgraded our entire security system.
Update 2/23: Two male suspects have now been arrested for the killing of two baby rhinos and the assault of the staff at Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage, according to SA people. The men are apparently part of a “notorious gang,” and they were heavily armed when police found them.