Better known for her iconic roles in the highly influential Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies, American actress Uma Thurman has joined the desperate fight to save our rhinos from extinction. Demand for their horn has escalated in recent years, especially in Asian countries, and particularly in Vietnam, where it is deemed more precious than gold and is seen as a status symbol. The heartbreaking truth is that unless something is done to protect these animals from poachers; they will vanish from our planet altogether in the next 10 years!
Thurman is on a mission to help stop the “rhinocide” as she calls it, and to use her famous face to attract attention and funds for the fight against rhino poaching. “The beauty of these animals and the absurdity of their plight is so painful,” she says.”I have lent myself to this. I’m here to help.”
South Africa is home to 88% of the world’s remaining rhino population, and so has been in the firing line since 2008. In the Kruger National Park alone, 10% of the rhinos were lost last year. Although rhino horn has been used in Chinese medicine for more than 2000 years to treat rheumatism, and other disorders, the rising wealth in Vietnam has pushed up demand even further. In Vietnam rhino horn is used as a hangover cure, treatment against terminal illnesses, and even ground up and snorted like cocaine as a party drug. Rhino horn consists mainly of keratin (the same protein that is found in our hair and nails) and is similar in structure to horse’s hooves.
Approximately 4.5 rhinos are killed every single day. This number has sharply risen from the 3 that were killed each day back in 2014. The poachers are backed by international criminal gangs (who are involved in child and sex slavery, human trafficking, drugs, and arms) and give them access to highly sophisticated tracking and killing equipment. The rhinos are often slaughtered in a most gruesome fashion by hacking of its horn when still alive, and leaving the animal to bleed to death.
The poachers themselves are from impoverished villages, and the money that can be made from poaching rhinos is a small fortune to them. Rhino horn is one of the world’s most valuable natural products and can sell for as much as $35,000 per pound. A well-shaped, intact horn can fetch anything between $750,000 and $1 million on the black market. There are approximately 20,000 white endangered rhinos (classed as ‘near threatened’) and a mere 4,500 black rhinos (classed as ‘critically endangered’) left in the wild in Africa today. At the current rate of poaching, both species will be extinct by 2024.
Thurman’s visit to South Africa is to help relocate as many animals as possible from South Africa to Botswana where these animals can be better protected. The rescue project is the brainchild of the respected safari company Wilderness Safaris who have been instrumental in rhino conservation, aided by Botswana’s conservation-minded president Ian Khama Seretse Khama, and his brother Tshekedi “T.K.” Khama, who is also Botswana’s minister of environment, tourism, and wildlife. In a radical move, President Khama declared in 2014 that protecting his country’s natural resources was the military’s primary objective.
“The manpower you are putting behind this is extraordinary,” Thurman notes to T.K. Khama. “How moving it was to actually see the joy of military men performing a labor of love. It’s something I have never seen. It is, sadly, not what they are asked to do most of the time elsewhere in the world.”
But military aircraft and manpower are not all that’s needed to save the rhinos. Each rhino costs around $50,000 to purchase and $20,000 to relocate. And that’s where private tourism companies such the Botswana-based Wilderness Safaris and indeed tourists can assist. They began repopulating parts of Botswana that were poached to extinction in the 70’s with black and white rhinos back in 2000.
Costly, with highly complex logistics and fraught with danger, translocating rhinos has three difficult stages and Thurman was part of all three in South Africa: Firstly, the rhinos have to be captured by immobilizing them with a dart (usually fired from a helicopter), loading them into specially designed steel containers and transporting them to a South African quarantine station where they spend about 30 days in a guarded boma. In the second stage, they need to be loaded back into their steel crates and flown from South Africa to the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, one of Africa’s largest and fenceless wilderness areas (mostly roadless too). The final stage of this process involves releasing the animals back into the wild and monitoring them for life.
“I keep circling back to this idea of being willing to make an effort,” contemplates Thurman on her experience. “I think so many of us feel that there is no point — Who are we? What can we do? There are so many dire situations, and it’s all out of our control. And there is a sort of truth to that. But what I learned in Africa is that one must make an effort anyway. Because you just don’t know. Until the story is concluded, there is always hope.”
In Kill Bill Uma Thurman was hell bent on revenge. Now she wants to help raise awareness around these incredible and gentle prehistoric creatures that have been around for some 14 million years. It is up to all of us to help prevent our rhinos from being eliminated from our planet and to ensure that future generations may still enjoy these magnificent creatures in the wild.
(Inspired by an article originally featured in Town and Country Magazine)