Saving Black Rhinos Through ‘Radical Conservation’

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 9, 2016 12:15 pm
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An endangered black rhinoceros on the African savannah. (Credit: PicturesWild/Shutterstock)

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.

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Ed Warner.

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.

Running with Rhinos jacket.jpgIt 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.

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Black Rhinoceros cow and calf walking away in Etosha desert. (Credit: Johan Swanepoel/Shutterstock)

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.

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Ed Warner assists with a tranquilized rhino. (Credit: Ed Warner)

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.

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A pair of black rhinos. (Credit: Maria Solovareva/Shutterstock)

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Top Posts
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  • Rhinose Ranger

    Ha! “New Conservationist” shill! Enjoy your Koch Brothers support while it lasts, but the world is moving against you, luckily.

  • Albert Abee

    First let me say that the successes noted for bringing back rhinoceros from the brink of extinction are both noteworthy and praiseworthy. I don’t want to take anything away from such success.

    I would argue that the people who enabled that along the way, did not have the same values as the natives who Warner incorrectly characterized as living in harmony with nature. It’s a myth. They’re living in harmony with nature was not a byproduct of policy or approach, it was a matter that populations were small and habitats were seemingly endless. The human species has been very successful on the globe and live to eat and basically displace everything that gets in their way. In this respect, sustainability is inherent in every living thing and who compete for scarce resources that are not uniformly distributed. Here is THE question: why should we care and on what basis do we care? Warner did not suggest or get to his underlying motive for saving such species. More should’ve been said.

    I disagree with some of his statements. While I agree with Warner’s statements about a negative press, and some environmental organizations that use negativity or threat to raise money, he shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. First that the environmental strategy of the United States is an abysmal failure. Wrong. One of the largest reasons the United States is not competitive with the rest of the world is because of our environmental regulations. If you travel the world, you will note that the United States has a robust body of environmental legislation designed to promote human health and public welfare. Much of this environmental legislation was a result of or emerged out of crises. Such is the nature of life. The Taylor grazing act of 1932 through the multiple pieces of environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s speak volumes about our view of the environment. Related to plants and animals, I believe that the Threatened and Endangered Species Act is the contemporary Noahs Ark. The notion that we need to save two of every kind. What we have seen hammered out in the courts and in the American landscape, is: do we save two of every kind in zoos scattered across the nation or do we maintain viable populations of every kind across our landscapes? I prefer the latter of course. And Warner addresses this idea. When you have a mosaic of ownership boundaries – that a sage grouse, Rinos, or spotted owl ignore, and all of which is required to maintain viable populations, is it fair for a small land owner to pay a disproportionate cost of saving a species for the good of the masses? And so Warner suggests an old idea, ecosystem services, where the masses pay into a fund to subsidize private landowners so that they will do the right thing by using their property to house or otherwise maintain habitat for resident, and/or, transient species. So economic benefit or value is thus placed on the critically needed habitats that otherwise might be used for other, conflicting with wildlife, purposes. Individual landowners would thus receive payment for creating or maintaining habitats in defined conditions. This is not a new or such a novel idea. But the outcome is some kind of globalism or international group that defines the critical habitat needs for transitory species or a local consortium that defines habitat needs of in situ species within a country. It would be federalism at its best I suppose.

    Will that strategy work? Of course I think it can be helpful. And in some places text incentives have been devised. But make no mistake, the core value for doing such is being masked, hidden or not well defined… From my perspective. Ie “we will pay you to do this thing because it’s only fair”. I mean really, again, on what basis should I care or give a darn about some snail darter that gets in the way of building a big dam? Why should I want to pay for that? In reality, over all of history, there is a natural extinction rate which has been and continues to be ongoing. And so Mr Warner, please tell me again why rhinoceros are important? Of course I’m being cynical here and perhaps baiting you a bit. Anyway, it’s not a bad idea be the reason for doing so not well defined.

    I agree that collaborative management is key to any endeavor which involves multiple interests. I’ve actually published and given papers on that process.

    In sum, I applaud Warner’s work. I believe that an economic argument / model is better than none. But for me saving two of every kind is a moral issue. It’s not self-centered as if I needed such to survive or have a “good life”. And this is why this issue is so complex. We compete in the arena of ideas and the reality is, that our perceptions are different with radically different outcomes. The essence of actions and attitudes are belief systems. When it comes to saving two of every kind on earth, it’s vitally important to understand that it’s more than just “us”. There is a bigger reality in play that we are accountable too. While I believe mankind can survive in a totally artificial environment devoid of other creatures, I don’t think God designed our system that way. I believe all of life, all species, have value in and of themselves. Yes they add value to my life but in the big scheme of things – while, if the Bible is true, mankind has been given a unique role, hunans are no more or less then the grass they trample. What motivates me to be willing to pay someone to maintain a habitat for a creature that I will never see? It’s a spiritual one. We have been given a sacred trust to manage this Garden and take care of it so that all the pieces remain. Lacking that, outcomes are determined by the highest bidder…. A long-term at risk place to be.

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