The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
“Hovering in the helicopter over the rhino poaching crime scene, I wasn’t sure what I should feel. Everything was mixed up. I felt shame, sadness and devastation welling up at the same time. Our species is supposed to protect animals, and what we are doing here is just not right”
– Hu Kai, Shanghai, China
Hu is one of a group of young people from the College of Design and Innovation at Tongji University, Shanghai where, for the past two years, students have been using innovative design to educate their communities on environmental and rhino protection matters. This initiative, that utilises the creative skills of Chinese youth to inspire change as a formal part of their university curriculum, is the outcome of a partnership between Peace Parks Foundation and Tongji University. Through the Rhino Protection Programme, Peace Parks Foundation places primary focus on activities that address rhino horn demand management in key consumer countries.
As part of the “Xi” – meaning both rhino and cherish – campaign, Peace Parks Foundation brings the top performing students to South Africa where they experience true wilderness and are immersed in nature and in the reality of the rhino poaching crisis. This year the group travelled to, Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal which is also known as the birthplace of the rhino as, a few decades ago, the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction here.
“This an opportunity for them to come to the South African bushveld and immerse themselves in the subject of rhino conservation. Their time here is spent gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of that which influences and informs some of the design activities that they are engaged in China,” says Brad Poole, Peace Parks’ Chief Operations Officer. Through workshops students engaged with experts who have been working in conservation for many years. They heard personal accounts of the costs involved in anti-poaching operations, the sacrifices it demands and the rewards when animals are saved. In turn, the students shared a bit of Chinese conservation history and provided an in-depth overview of the research involved in creating their designs.
Jabulani Ngubane, Ezemvelo’s park manager for iSimangaliso Wetland Park, commented, “I was very happy to see people from China take the initiative to change perseptions, especially those of the youth, because if you want to make a real investment, that is where you start.”
If there is one thing that all involved in solving the rhino crisis agree on is that there is no single solution. It requires multiple levels of intervention from boots on the ground, law enforcement strategies and demand management initiatives. For Edward Goosen, Cluster Conservation Manager for the Mkhuzi section of the Isimangoliso Wetland Park, the experience of engaging with the studends was memorable. He says, “At times you may feel that you are fighting this battle on your own. Coming out here and hearing other people’s perspectives and seeing how they are holistically addressing the problem is really encouraging. I am leaving here quite exhilarated after seeing that there is a bigger picture and really encouraged by the initiatives being taken on a global front.”
One morning, as the group was preparing for the day ahead, a call came in that a rhino carcass had been discovered. After spending the previous afternoon looking at healthy rhinos grazing peacefully, it was a shock to think that one of them might now be dead. Design student, Wang Wanqiao, said, “As we enjoyed the freshness of the early morning, drinking a hot cup of tea and listening to the birds singing, we were shocked to hear that a rhino was killed during the night. At first it was hard to believe, because we’ve never experienced something like that, only seen pictures of it online. We were nervous and excited to fly out to it in a helicopter, but as we hovered over the body of that rhino with its face cut and vultures feeding on it, tears just rolled down my face without me even noticing.”
Although visibly shaken by the experience, an even deeper sense of determination was noticed. They were able to learn from what they saw and, clearly moved to action, stated repeatedly that they commit to acting as rhino ambassadors back home – driven to educating their friends, family and communities on the true cost of the consumption of rhino products.
Without any doubt, these students will initiate change in their communities.
- Prof Jan Stael von Holstein
“It is immensely rewarding working with these students. They are very hardworking, committed, creative, inventive, daring, curious and they are not afraid of looking at it from a different perspective to find innovative ways to solve a problem”, confirmed Prof Jan Stael von Holstein, a professor in design who has been involved in the project since its inception.
The class of 2018 created an array of innovative design concepts to convey the message of rhino protection that included a range of merchandise, educational games and interactive e-books, with one group even writing and recording a beautiful song to underscore an animated story on the issue.
The winning team this year created a beautiful reimagination of a bookmark for the modern world. Design student Hao Siqi explains, “Our project looked at developing a range of bookmarks that people will find in bookstores. It has a pop-out panel which can be folded into a small rhino origami figurine. The figurine can then be scanned with a cell phone which will direct the user to a website containing rhino conservation information. The remaining part can be used as a beautiful bookmark and when placed correctly, it would seem as if a tiny rhino is peering from out of the book. People will also be able to donate towards the cause from the accompanying online social and interactive platform.”
Reading physical books bought from bookstores rarely happens in western countries as people tend to order books online, or use e-readers. In China, however, reading books in cosy stores offer a relaxing haven from buzzing and over-crowded streets and malls. It is still a large part of Chinese culture and with this modern rethink of the traditional bookmark design, it is hoped that a very wide audience will be reached and engaged.
After listening to the students present this idea, Jeff Cooke head of KZN Wildlife’s Game Capture Unit, said, “I think the way they are tackling the problem is very innovative. It is remarkable how they are trying to get into the psyche of the Chinese people and their culture, how they’ve managed to tap into digital media, and how they can manipulate those processes to get their message across. We as game rangers are not always able to think along those lines, so it was interesting to see how they perceive the problem and the different solutions that they’ve come up with. Awareness is what it’s all about, and the long-term strategy that we must aim for is to change perceptions and make it socially less acceptable to consume rhino horn.”
This project is quickly gaining momentum. Mix Lab, which is a Tongji University-enterprise exchange and practice platform, brings together technological innovation, creative design and cultural strengths. The Lab identifies viable designs to produce and take to market, thereby increasing the awareness impact and reach of the projects.
Reflecting on the road ahead, Dr Liu Jing, who heads up Mix Lab, said that she doesn’t know when this work will end. Her experiences during her visit here with the students has inspired her to work even harder to secure a future for wild animals and the spaces they live in. Commenting on a visit to a local school close to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, she says, “When the children looked at me with their pure and expectant eyes, I realised that we shouldn’t only protect the rhino, we should also protect the environment for human survival. I have a hunch that my mission will not stop on the road of supporting and protecting animal environments.”
Several universities from other large cities in China have approached the partners to launch similar projects in their institutions. Prof Cai Jun joined the group on their visit to South Africa and will be launching a similar project at Tsinghua University, Beijing later this month.
Doug Gillings, Manager of Peace Park Foundation’s Combating Wildlife Crime programme, shared, “We are excited! The programme has grown so much; it started off with one university and now we’re expanding to others who are looking at how to include this into their formal curriculum, which is really significant. I think there is huge potential to partner with even more organisations in China to share the benefits we have in Africa and thereby reconnect them with nature.”
The Rhino Protection Programme (RPP) is a multi-faceted programme that focuses on developing and implementing practical, well-considered methods through which to combat the poaching of rhino, as well as disrupt the supply, demand and illegal trafficking of rhino horn. The RPP is implemented under the auspices of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Peace Parks Foundation, and is made possible through funding from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries as well as other private donors.