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Developing Story
Saving Rhino

From hunting to conservation and sustainable tourism

Author: Corinna Robertz

If you don’t understand the triumphant smile across a hunters face, holding up the lifeless head of a shot animal, body turned towards the camera to display victory in an uneven fight, where the one with the gun won, Carl van der Riet, former hunter himself, does.

To him, hunting is a chase, known to be one-sided, but creating a relation between hunter and animal by form of circumstance. The chase is excitement, the animal a trophy and—as van der Riet recalls—hunting was a very ethical and respected business, a sustainable and accepted practice, a form of conservation. The hunters were providing revenue to the government, the meat of the animals they shot went to local communities.

That has changed. Carl van der Riet first stopped hunting himself, then all related activities at the Chirundu Safari Lodge.

One of the big five animals was missing in the Lower Zambezi Valley after a wave of poaching hit the country. Now, the black rhino is supposed to return in controlled intensive protection zones. How does one transform from hunting to conservation?

Witnessing the transformation of the hunting business

Carl van der Riet grew up in a safari camp as the son of famous hunter Rupert van der Riet, who pioneered the hunting safari operation in the Kariba region and Zambezi valley. “Growing up, I was a natural hunter and I hunted for about ten years”, says van der Riet. He recalls the mid-nineties in Zimbabwe, when hunting was a big business, protected by “a lot of law and order. It was a long term viable operation.”

Van der Riet witnessed a transformation within his country that led him to stop hunting in 2005. He was still earning money from conducting hunting operations until two years ago, when he decided for his lodge to end hunting operations altogether.


Today, Carl van der Riet is the director of the Chirundu Safari Lodge on the Zambezi river, surrounded by the Nyakasanga Safari area, and as he speaks, points out a group of elephants by the riverbank: “It is a beautiful sight to see. And I would like my children and my grandchildren to see it. So we had to have support from the outside.”

A wave of poaching hit Zambia in the Eighties, with people from all over the continent attacking the African rhino, almost resulting in the extinction of the species. The department of the National Parks translocated the animals to what then were safer conservation sights deeper inside the country, away from the border, only to discover twenty years later that even these pockets of protected animals stayed critically endangered.

A rhino without a horn is like a king without a crown

“The demand for rhino horn is just too great”, resigns van der Riet. “You are always under threat, wherever you are. But the rhino without a horn is like a king without a crown. The rhino needs a horn, it is part of the whole social structure.” Uncertainty and problems in several countries, including Zimbabwe, changed hunting blocks at the turn of the millennium. The policing of the concession became difficult. “It was a lot of poverty, a lot of pressure on the land and the number of the animals started to dwindle. I started to see that the future of wildlife should be shifting away from hunting.”


Paying for the animal alive and well

Still, to stop the hunt, even on a private capacity, means losing income. Hunting as a sport is expensive, attracting people willing to pay large sums of money. Transformation of the financial structure is often the first change to witness, not uncommonly seen with sceptism. But national parks and communities begin to understand: Animals are being kept, even with their revenue of hunting, under the constant pressure of poachers. The protection of wildlife, on the other hand, bears a form of tourism that has people paying to see animals alive and well, providing financial gain for society.

Lake Kariba at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“Having the rhino back to the Lower Zambezi Valley is going to improve its attraction to the whole outside world”, explains van der Riet. “I see it being a key to helping the valley break away from hunting and having a large number of non-hunting tourists and visitors bringing in the revenue that both the country needs, the community needs and the wildlife and its protection needs.” Fellow lodge owners seem to agree, as Sapi, the block on the other side of Mana Pools, and Rifa also have stopped hunting operations, latter because Rhino Force got involved and obtained the lease. “I think the last block that is doing limited hunting, but that will be quite happy to transform, is the Nyakasanga block. We are almost there.”

Wildlife has no politics

Zimbabwe is a massive country, with one third of the land declared as national parks. Transformation to conservation needs joined forces, including the cooperation with outside parties. “We are looking forward to a future of bringing the rhino back into controlled intensive protection zones and allow them to build up, not in a zoo or a cage, but in a natural free-ranging environment”, envisions Carl van der Riet, who cooperates with Rhino Force to ensure the protection of the animals. “It is becoming more and more acceptable that third-party-NGOs are coming back to help wildlife”, he says “because wildlife has no politics, wildlife has to be protected.”

Tourists on photo instead of hunting safaris: How does the conservation process influence the atmosphere within the national park regarding tourism?

Van der Riet, who is convinced the transformation of hunting blocks will be a good thing for people, financially, socially and psychologically, tells that even his father, a professional hunter for most of his life, told him he would much prefer an animal alive than dead. “He actually really started to soften up, so to say”, remembers his son. “In his era, hunting was the norm, an acceptable practice. But in his late years he became much more of a conservationist. And I really believe, even if he spent his whole life as a professional hunter, a famous one, right now he is smiling upon us that we have done the right thing.”