Rollicking true-life adventure celebrates rhinos and people
Grant Fowlds, author of the new book Saving the Last Rhinos, is probably the only person ever to have smuggled rhino horn out of Vietnam into SA.
Having attended the 2015 Operation Game Change Festival in Hanoi, he discussed his idea with the Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Science in Pretoria and his veterinarian brother William, and they agreed.
The value of having samples from Vietnam to test and supply proof that horns were being sourced from Southern Africa was huge.
The risks were daunting but, galvanised by the potential benefits for the anti-poaching battle, and equipped with a buttonhole camera, he visited a village called Nhi Khe, thought to be the global epicentre of endangered species trade — and soon found what he was looking for.
Fowlds’ hair-raising escapade in conservation’s “heart of darkness” is one of a treasure trove of incidents, anecdotes and people — from hard-pressed rangers to British royal Prince Harry — described in his new book.
Using these features he traces his journey from the Eastern Cape farm where he grew up to the shape-shifting rhino poaching battlefields around the world.
Today these battlefields are still in the East and in the African game reserves where the last rhinos survive but just as importantly in schools, boardrooms and political offices, he said.
“To save the rhino we need to think about range expansion on the one hand, and demand reduction and environmental education, on the other.
“I’m a connector. I speak from the heart about the bush and our duty to save the rhino because that’s my passion.
“But in the end this is a people thing.”
Recently, Fowlds played a key role behind the scenes accessing permits to move the wildlife off Blaauwbosch Private Game Reserve near Kleinpoort related to long-standing findings of poor management by the authorities.
At the same time he was in Angola talking to the environment minister there about a major planned relocation of elephants from SA to that country.
Saving the Last Rhinos is co-written by Graham Spence, who co-wrote several conservation classics with Lawrence Anthony.
Fowlds said he had read these books while he was in the Democratic Republic of Congo busy with a project to restore the parks decimated by war and former president Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt regime.
“So this book was conceived in the Congo but born in the Eastern Cape.”
The author grew up farming goats on his 1820 settler family’s property Leeuwenbosch between Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth and speaking better Xhosa than English, and that grounding was probably where it all started for him.
Fluent in Xhosa and Zulu, his nickname is Inkuzi ayhlehli — the bull who does not back down — and it is probably apt, he admitted with a chuckle.
“I’m from the slow side of the family but I guess I’m pretty relentless. I’m quite happy to sit under the tree all day arguing. I’m happy to negotiate but I’ll never give in on the principle.”
Extract from chapter 33: When Harry Met Bill
As anyone who knows my father will attest, he enjoys whisky, tobacco and colourful language in equal proportions. Equally large, that is.
So he was bemused when William came up to him saying a special visitor was arriving the next day, and he would have to limit himself to two small whiskies, no pipe smoking and zero swearing.
My dad, whom everyone calls Uncle Bill or Tick Bird, was having none of that. No guest was “that bloody important” for him to have to resort to such drastic measures, he said. Most people would have called the “drastic measures” mere good behaviour.
“Just for two nights. Please, Dad,” said William.
The next evening Bill was sipping his first Scotch when a familiar figure walked in.
It was Prince Harry.
Bill, sitting at the bar counter, squinted in the gloom of the impressively atmospheric stone-wall room adorned with wildlife artefacts, which was once a cellar more than a century ago.
“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” he asked.
“What do I call you?” Ticks asked.
“I’m Bill. Welcome to my pub.”
In that instant, all airs and graces were not just thrown out of the window — they were hurled. Harry was in for a convivial ride on the wild side by probably one of the crazier people he has met in his life.
His visit was so secret that even William, his host for the next two nights, was only informed His Royal Highness would be coming to Amakhala forty-eight hours beforehand.
Even then, he couldn’t tell anyone else until Prince Harry actually set foot on the property. With some dread, he realised the key issue was getting Bill to behave. But he figured that as Harry had been to Africa on several occasions, he would know strange things happen on this continent.
Harry’s visit was primarily to experience work as a wildlife volunteer and witness first-hand the rampant rhino- and elephant-poaching crisis. The trip started in Namibia, and then he flew to the Eastern Cape with a group called Saving the Survivors to watch an operation on a rhino that had survived a particularly vicious poaching attack. From there he would visit KwaZulu-Natal, Botswana and Tanzania.
The mutilated rhino’s name was Hope. It had been darted and dehorned with machetes while still alive at Lombardini, a wildlife park near the world-famous surfing mecca of Jeffreys Bay. That the rhino had been felled by a highly potent drug only available to veterinarians was another growing concern, indicating a serious breach in the medical supply chain. Using a tranquilliser means no shot is heard by game guards, and the horn is hacked off while the animal is alive but paralysed.
Hope was first treated at Lombardini by William and Johan Joubert, and then moved for further intensive treatment to the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, where Johan is the resident veterinarian. That’s where Harry would watch my brother and Johan in action.
The day before the prince arrived, his personal security guards pitched up at Amakhala and outlined the protocol that must be strictly followed. All guests had to be cleared out of the premises and given alternative accommodation on the reserve, and all cellphones had to be confiscated. A big concern was that a candid photo of the prince would end up on Instagram or WhatsApp.
Above all, no-one was to be told of the visit. Sadly, that included me.
Both William and Johan do a lot of work for Saving the Survivors, treating rhinos with gunshot wounds, facial gouges and other poaching injuries. The charity has so far treated 10 horribly injured rhinos in the last few years, of which nine survived. It’s an incredible record. However, Hope’s wound, measuring 20 inches by 11, was among the worst that William and Johan had seen.
Harry travelled with William in the front of the Land Rover to the rehabilitation centre. There he took one look at Hope’s grotesquely mangled face and said the vets were wasting their time.
“Isn’t it better just to take a gun and shoot her?”
William shook his head. “What I want to show you later will hopefully change your mind.”
Harry was going to see Thandi, the first ever rhino-poaching survivor, and her new calf that afternoon.
“OK. I’ll reserve my opinion.”
Harry watched as William and Johan worked on Hope. Although the rhino had a face mask crafted from a skin graft, the nasal cavities and some other vital skull organs were visible.
That was the “before” scenario. That afternoon, he saw the “after” with Thandi at the Kariega reserve. The Prince was both astonished and visibly moved. Although Thandi’s scar was noticeable and she had no horn, she was just like any other healthy rhino.
Harry looked on, fascinated as the rhino that had defied certain death contentedly fed her new calf Colin, named after Colin Rushmere, the founder of the Kariega reserve. Colin’s son Mark Rushmere, a former South African Test cricketer, now runs Kariega with the Fuller family.
“It’s incredible,” Prince Harry said, retracting his earlier comment. “I now know what you mean. I see what you have achieved.”
His voice was quiet with respect. Watching Thandi and her calf grazing peacefully in the savannah said far more than words ever could.