Today, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the black rhinoceros as “critically endangered.” In the early 20th century, nearly 1 million black rhinos roamed the planet, but their numbers dipped below 3,000 by the late 1990s. Rhino horns can fetch up to $30,000 a pound, and rampant poaching is largely to blame for black rhinos’ rapid decline.
In recent years, the International Rhino Foundation has worked to restore the black rhino population by tracking, monitoring, rehabilitating and sometimes even relocating the animals.
However, tracking and caring for rhinos is a dangerous task. The black rhino is a notoriously aggressive creature that charges at the slightest provocation, moving at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour while brandishing its impressive horn.
Ed Warner, a former geologist and natural gas executive, retired from his field in 2000 to begin a second career as a philanthropic conservationist. He sits on the board of the Sand County Foundation, which works in the American west, and established an endowment at Colorado State University. He credits a lifelong love of nature for his charitable work, as well as a constant yearning to be out in the field. It was this passion for tangible work that drew him to Africa and the International Rhino Foundation, where he has spent over a decade working on the ground with rhino conservationists.
It has yielded both promising results and a wealth of experiences for Warner, who details his adventures in a new book, Running With Rhinos, which is available now. As an amateur rhino conservationist, Warner helped to track rhinos through the brush, fight fires, smuggle equipment into the country and, on more than one occasion, flee from charging wildlife.
Warner’s tale is grounded in his philosophy of “radical conservation,” which draws from Aldo Leopold’s The Land Ethic, and promotes working alongside landowners to find conservation solutions that both protect wildlife and support communities. All of the proceeds from the book will be donated to furthering conservation efforts.
Discover spoke with Warner about his experiences, his theory of radical conservation and how we can apply the lessons he learned in Africa to American conservationism. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Discover: What was your primary goal in writing Running With Rhinos?
Warner: I wanted people to get what conservation is about from a personal experience. For me, it wasn’t good enough to be a philanthropist and buy vehicles for research scientists. I need to be a hands-on, sweat equity kind of guy. And I wanted to promote that idea, that nature requires input from all of us. We can do our own part — small parts, large parts, but we can do that. I also wanted to let people know that there is a different model out there for approaching environmental issues than the old, frankly, Sierra Club model, of alienating people and making enemies and suing people. Especially in the Third World, where people are really poor, creating sustainable livelihoods and working with people is really important for the protection of wildlife. A rhino has to be worth more alive than it is dead. And that is really difficult, because rhino horn is so ghastly expensive.
You share a quote from Aldo Leopold at the beginning of your book speaking to the principle of “radical conservation.” What do you mean by that?
W: Quite frankly, I see the first 50 years of the environmental movement as an utter failure. A failure of fact, not of intention. Good intentions leading to unfortunate negative consequences. And so, 15 or so years ago, I discovered Aldo Leopold. And I realized that The Land Ethic, and working with private landowners, collaborating with communities in the Third World, was a much better model than suing people, or forcing regulations upon them that are punitive. I don’t like punitive at all. I believe that most people want to do the right thing, including doing the right thing by nature.
Early on, even though I was managing drilling rigs for oil and gas, I would hike around the countryside with my Audubon flower book and my bird book and my tree book in my backpack. I love nature. I didn’t like being labeled the enemy of the environment. I honest-to-god believe that I came into this at a tipping point in history where the failures of the past were leading people to re-think how they did business. Eighty percent of all wildlife lives on private land around the world. What are we going to do, buy it all up and give it to government? That doesn’t work. Why don’t we support people and incentivize good practices? Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the positive.
How should we take the lessons you learned in Africa and apply them to the rest of the world?
W: We need to build on economic models. Unfortunately, some of our environmental laws do not allow us to consider economics when we make our environmental decisions. And I think this has to change. Consider my model of ecosystem services payments: Ranchers are actually grassland ecologists, because they don’t grow cattle, what they really grow is grass. And if the cattle eat the grass and are what people want to buy from them, and that sustains their livelihoods, then they put that back into sustainable grass management.
And this helps the greater sage grouse, which is a bird I love and which I worked on saving for over a decade. So, if the greater sage grouse is more important to people in the cities than cattle, why not pay the ranchers to grow sage grouse? I see this as a positive thing, not a negative thing. Keep them on the land. Would we rather have the Bureau of Land Management managing three hundred instead of two hundred million acres of land? Or would we rather have a hundred million acres of landowners doing a good stewardship job while they make a living in the land? I prefer the latter.
A crucial part of making radical conservation work seems to be getting many different parties to align their interests. How did you make that work in Africa?
W: Well in Africa, and especially in the old Rhodesian colonies and the South African colonies controlled by the Brits, they came up with a new legal model for managing wildlife, which allowed communities and private landowners to use the land economically as long as they could control the wildlife behind a fence. That means they could harvest it for meat, they could hunt it, they could buy and sell live animals, and they could have photo safari businesses. You can make more money hunting animals than eating their meat. And you can make more money out of a photo safari business than you can out of hunting them.
So, theres a progression toward a more and more conservation-minded effort. And what I saw in Africa was communal areas, national parks and private landowners working together under a very ethical and scientific system. So, on the big conservancies in Zimbabwe, if you had 1,000 elephants — you can’t shoot 1,000 elephants. So you could apply for a license to shoot two males and never disturb the breeding herds, never hunt a female. You could hunt, say, 3 percent of your cape buffalo. This model was so successful, biodiversity returned on its own, and it happened much faster than the wildlife biologists predicted. It’s a really amazing story.
How did the indigenous people you worked with respond to your suggestions? Were you met with hostility at all?
W: All of my work in Africa was totally collaborative with the private landowners, the communities and the national parks. They actually wanted our help. We gave them better science tools, we gave them better management tools, but we never told them what to do. We went to them and said, “What do you need?” I’m a big fan of not telling other cultures that we’re better than they are and that we know how to do it. I think that the old American model is a disaster. I went to Africa to learn from them. And so I think I got as much out of my experience in Africa as I gave back to them.
From your experiences in Africa, was there a defining moment, something that brought it all home for you?
W: Yes, there was. And it’s something that I’ve had objections to from some people, but it really struck a huge emotional chord with me. I met with two chiefs of the Shangaan nation, an offshoot of the Zulus who live in southeastern Zimbabwe. They had been marginalized by the creation of a national park, called Gonarezhou.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, commercial hunting had wiped out vast amounts of wildlife for meat and skin and ivory. The natives had lived in harmony for hundreds, if not thousands, of years with the wildlife, and we cocked it up. And so what did us white guys do? We created a national park and we marginalized the local people who had been living on those lands and removed them. We took them off of the best soils for growing maize, which is their livelihood, and put them in places where they half starved to death.
And the two chiefs said to me, Eddie, the government loves the animals more than they love us. So, if we kill all of the animals, they’ll let us go back on our land. And so instead of being an enraged white American, it resonated with me, it was brilliant. I looked at their culture from their experience instead of mine, and it changed my life.
What is the best way to raise awareness about conservation issues?
W: The biggest failure that I see is the America media, and it’s their business model, but most things the media write about are negative. And most of the stuff I work on is really positive, so they rarely pick up the stories. Lets face it, without a death and eight arrests in Oregon, Time would not have picked up my little article. I don’t have an answer for how we change the world of the media, but I know that the positive stories that are happening would really appeal to people, and I think it would engage them.
I don’t believe you need to demonize people to raise money for the environment. And I’m afraid that people like the Sierra Club and certain other environmental clubs that love to sue people still believe in that model. The Sand County Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, they’re changing the way they do things. The Environmental Defense Fund used to always sue people, and Fred Krupp [the president of the EFF] told me personally that that wasn’t working. So, I think the world is open to a change, but the word isn’t getting out.
Conservation can often seem like a task best left to scientists. What can “normal” people do to help protect the environment?
W: I’m a big fan of volunteerism. Years ago, I was really poor, struggling, and I couldn’t afford to write checks to charity. So, I gave blood, I ended up giving almost 150 units of blood. As soon as I found a place where my enthusiasm could be of value I started volunteering. I volunteered working with children, with the public schools, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. After the oil crash of 1986, I didn’t know if I was ever going to make a living ever again, but I was still volunteering half a day a day a week, so that I could work with young people and show them my enthusiasm and love of science and nature.
And I’m a geologist, so I was obviously drawn to rocks and minerals and fossils, but the biggest program I ended up working with was an ecology program. I’m not an ecologist, but there was something inside of me that said go and talk to kids about nature. You know something about it from an enthusiasts point of view, not a scientist’s point of view. I really believe that there is a vast amount of volunteerism in this country, not just the philanthropy of writing checks. I would love to see people in the urban environment volunteer half a day a year planting flowers in the green belt, just to have a contact with nature.
What do you hope people take way from Running With Rhinos?
W: I want them to believe that life is an adventure, that we need to be willing to take risks; financial risks, intellectual risks, professional risks and physical risks to change the world. Of all the things I live with, that’s the biggest takeaway. You know, none of us get out of this life alive. I’ve got an entire family back east that thinks I’m a lunatic and they don’t understand why I would risk my life doing these things. What a ridiculous attitude, we risk our lives every day!
People don’t understand the difference between the risks they perceive and the real risks they face in life. And the real risk for me is to live the rest of my life in a lazy fashion and not accomplish anything.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
W: All I would ask of my readers, is when they get to the back of the book, and they see that donations can be made to the Sand County Foundation which does work in America, or the International Rhino Foundation, doing work in Africa, that they consider actually making a donation. All of the proceeds of this book are going to conservation. All of these people who are risking their lives and their professions are really worth supporting.