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The Next Chapter

New HSI campaign aims to protect rhinos

All Animals magazine, January/February 2014

Dr. Will Fowlds helped save Thandi after her horn was hacked off by poachers in South Africa.  Photo courtesy of Dr. Will Fowlds

by Catherine Vincenti

Does a children’s book hold the key to saving rhinos from extinction?

Teresa Telecky hopes it’s a first step.

“By stopping demand for rhino horn, we will save rhinos,” explains Telecky, wildlife director for Humane Society International, which wrote, produced, and distributed 5,000 copies of I’m a Little Rhino to schoolchildren in Vietnam. The book is designed to educate children and in turn their families, asking them to pledge never to use or buy rhino horn.

The project is part of a three-year campaign recently launched by HSI and the government of Vietnam to reduce poaching of endangered rhinos, who are dying at the rate of two per day. Authorities there turned to HSI for help after being identified as the world’s largest consumer of rhino horn.

The horn has long been used as a traditional medicine in Asia based on the cultural belief that it improves overall health. In 2007, a rumor spread throughout Vietnam that rhino horn also cured cancer, significantly driving up demand. A recent public opinion survey suggests that only a small percent of the Vietnamese population buys or uses the illegal product, but even 2 percent of a population of 92 million means 1.8 million people.

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“If you added up all the living rhinos [from all five species] today, you would probably come up with a figure of about 25,000,” says Telecky. “Twenty-five thousand is never going to be enough to satisfy the demand from millions of people. So that’s why this work that we are doing in Vietnam is so important.”

The campaign will also look to key stakeholders—the 13 million members of the Vietnam Women’s Union, plus Vietnamese business leaders, university students, and medical practitioners—to help spread the message that there is no scientific evidence that consuming rhino horn benefits health. In fact, just the opposite may be true; some wildlife managers in South Africa are infusing the horns with chemicals that make people very ill if ingested.

In 2012, Dr. Will Fowlds treated two South African rhinos who were left to die after having their horns brutally hacked off. Themba drowned in a water hole 24 days later, too weak to climb out. But Thandi ultimately survived, and one evening Fowlds unexpectedly came face-to-face with the untranquillized rhino while out checking on her whereabouts.

With every reason to consider a human her enemy, Thandi merely snorted and huffed before walking off into the bush. “She touched my heart,” Fowlds says, “and caused me to wonder how much more we still have to learn from these animals.”

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