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Update on Minnesota Zoo biologist's work to save rhinos in Namibia

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Sota the rhino
Sota, a rhino named after Minnesota, is seen in an undated photo from 2012. The animal is now three years old and doing well, according to Minnesota Zoo biologist Jeff Muntifering.
Photo by Jeff Muntifering, Minnesota Zoo

The number of rhinos being poached in Africa is increasing because of strong demand for rhino horn powder in Asia, according to Minnesota Zoo conservation biologist Jeff Muntifering, 

Muntifering, who works in Namibia, spoke with The Daily Circuit's Tom Weber about what he and and Save the Rhino Trust are doing to fight this problem.

Here is a transcript of their conversation:

Jeff Muntifering: We did have our first targeted, professional-looking poaching event take place just before Christmas this year. So it was not a very happy ending of the year for us in that matter. However, the good part of the experience is that it was reported very quickly, by a local farmer, and the culprit was found, arrested and pleaded guilty within a couple of days after the event.

Tom Weber: I have to wonder though if you're right next to South Africa, which has a major poaching problem - which we'll talk a little more about in a moment - but here you had such a good record in Namibia, to have that one, are you worried that more is on the way, that the flood gates are now open?

Muntifering: Well, I wouldn't say they're now open, I'd say the flood gates have been open and we've always had the perspective that it's not a matter of if this is going to happen. It's really a matter of when. Our situation is a little bit different. We have a lot fewer people, the terrain is a lot more remote and rugged, and we have a very long history of really pretty solid relationships working together with the local communities, as well as the government, which has also been very supportive in the past. Again, I think the results still speak for themselves. We're still very proud with our very low number of poaching events relative to the rest of Africa, but we are now definitely upping our attention a notch, and really trying to bolster a lot of our interventions and remaining as proactive as possible.

Weber: The incentives are that the local communities have reasons to not want the animals dead.

Muntifering: Yeah, and you know that's one of the great benefits of our area, too, is we don't have the massive numbers of people surrounding or even living with these rhinos like a lot of other places, and because of that we can actually reach for those benefits from rhinos, be it tourism or pride, local engagement.

Weber: So your neighbor to the east, South Africa, is pretty much the complete opposite picture, as I recall you saying last year. How have things panned out in South Africa?

Muntifering: Well, recent poaching statistics released just last week by South Africa indicated 665 rhinos poached in 2012. Again an astronomical increase from last year (Editor's note: nearly 450 were poached in 2011), which has also been coupled with a pretty significant increase in security measures, so-

Weber: So they're doing more security-

Muntifering: Doing more security and they're losing more rhinos.

Weber: Why?

Muntifering: Well, it's a good question. It's, I think, another factor of the complexity of the problem that they're facing. And the problem is actually half a world away, and all of the conventional law enforcement that does get implemented in Africa is really just sort of a band-aid on a wound that exists in another place. And that's trying to deal with the end-user demand.

Weber: In Asia. 

Muntifering: In Asia. And, you know, it's really a multifaceted, or the solutions - they have to be multifaceted. A lot of people just always are looking for the silver bullet, something that's going to just solve all these problems and the knee-jerk reaction is just to get more guys out there with more guns on the ground - voila! All these poachers are just going to stop poaching. And it just doesn't quite work that easy.

Weber: I remember you saying Vietnam is a real problem area because some politician or some guy on TV once said he was cured of cancer because of grounded rhino horn powder, which there's no proof that in any case that's the truth. But it still exists. So how do you, sitting in Namibia and me, sitting in Minnesota, possibly fix a problem that's really in Asia?

Muntifering: A great question. Right now, the biggest impact that we can probably have is ensuring that we're increasing the value for rhinos for Namibians that are living with them in our area. The core work of Save the Rhino Trust that we've been working with has always been to monitor and ensure the rhinos are safe. And we're going to continue doing that and making sure that is maintained -- and that the local support for the rhinos is also maintained and in many ways enhanced. The Minnesota Zoo has a long history in China as well, and we've been communicating with some other organizations that have also been doing work in China, in Asia, particularly around campaigning.

And with the amount of young Chinese especially who are now interested and involved in social media - there has been some very interesting successes on some other matters, particularly bear farming, and trying to use social media to bring a lot of those issues out of the basement, and allow a lot of these younger people to become exposed to them. And the outcry that has caused has been very interesting to follow. I mean, it's still in its infancy, but it gives us hope that reaching out could potentially lead to some longer-term solutions.

Weber: There was talk when we spoke last year about a debate being had about whether to make some trade of horns legal because some governments actually have stockpiles. Animals die naturally, they seize these horns, so they actually exist in piles. They can't trade them legally and maybe you help flood the market, so to say.

Muntifering: It's still on the table. People are definitely discussing it. It's a very high-level debate.

Weber: Do you support the idea?

Muntifering: You know, I waver towards the other side personally. No, we have not come out, from an organizational standpoint, to say whether or not we're on board. What's frustrating is people seem to be now binding people into either you're pro-trade or you're pro-end-user-demand and it's not a black-or-white issue really. The theory is to flood the market to reduce the price, to reduce the incentive for poachers to poach. If you reduce the price of the rhino horn, all it's going to do is make it more available to more of the masses in China. If there's no addressing of the middle class in China, there's no way you will ever even come close to flooding that market.

Weber: You seem like someone who's hopeful for what you're doing in Namibia where you've had some success but, maybe a little down in the dumps about the overall rhino picture across all of Africa.

Muntifering: Well, the interactions that I've had with other rhino scientists have been a bit more pessimistic, to say the least. I hope that there's something in the future we can also provide and already we're sharing ideas. We're all on the same page about it. It can't come from one single approach. We've got to use each other's knowledge.

Weber: How is Sota, the rhino named for Minnesota two-and-a-half years ago or something like that?

Muntifering: Yeah well even more, he's over three years old now-

Weber:  He's three years old-

Muntifering: -about three-and-a-half, he has been seen on his own now, so, this is pretty typical for rhinos, three to three-and-a-half. They are more-or-less weaned from their mother. He is very fat and happy, he's living in a great place, very secure, very wild, and we saw him - I want to say about six months ago or so. We're going to do our best to keep track of him. 

This is the tenuous time though when they sort of bounce around as some of the bigger boys kinda bully them a bit, and he'll be obviously trying to look for some ladies, and that will depend on whether or not the dominant bull in the area that he's looking for will allow him to sort of hang around. And if they don't, they'll keep pushing him, pushing him out. So, we hope he settles down, we hope he behaves himself, and we'll keep an eye on him.

Transcription by Ben Martin, MPR News

Listen to Weber's previous conversation with Muntifering: ">"Protecting rhinos from poachers," March 20, 2012