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DOUG PORTER: Chehaw Park helping the survival of black rhinos

GUEST COMMENTARY: Rhino populations are slowly recovering from decimation from deadly smugglers

Doug Porter

Doug Porter

The two male African black rhinos that live at Chehaw Park are like a couple of oversized (although potentially dangerous) puppy dogs.

They have different personalities, with Sam Houston being friendly and eager to investigate new things, but also more easily frightened. The other male, named Dubya (for the former President George W. Bush), is a bit slower to approach and maybe more moody, but definitely more intelligent.

Both rhinos love a tummy or leg rub, especially if you use a stiff scrub brush that they can feel on their rough skin. They know the voices of their keepers and will come when called; they squeak and snort to express pleasure or fright, and they will do just about anything for a piece of sweet potato. They are part of the family to those of us who care for them at Chehaw and that is why the article in the Dec. 20 Albany Herald titled “Chinese citizen pleads guilty to rhino horn smuggling” was so disturbing.

The 29 year old Chinese citizen, named Zhifei Li, said he had sold 30 raw rhino horns to Chinese factories that carve them into cups that are thought to improve health, according to federal prosecutors. That is 30 of these gentle-giants who were killed and had their horns hacked off for this primitive trade.

The article goes on to say that an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent arrested Li in a Miami hotel room, where the agent sold Li two government-supplied Black Rhino horns worth $59,000 each. Li pleaded guilty to 11 counts of smuggling, illegal wildlife trafficking and lying on customs documents. While he already forfeited $3.5 million to the Department of Justice, and he could face up to 10 years in prison for each charge.

According to the International Rhino Foundation, the black rhino has suffered the most drastic decline in total numbers of all rhino species. Between 1970 and 1992, the population of this species decreased by 96 percent. In 1970, it was estimated that there were approximately 65,000 black rhinos in Africa, but by 1993 there were only 2,300 surviving in the wild.

Intensive anti-poaching efforts have had encouraging results since 1996. Numbers have been recovering and still are increasing very slowly. There are currently just over 5,000 black rhinos surviving, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Though numbers have increased, poaching remains rampant. People might be surprised to know how much we are doing in our little corner of south Georgia to help support rhino conservation. By holding two male black rhinos, we are participating in a national breeding program that is carefully preserving the genetic diversity of all rhino species. Chehaw staff members hold an annual run called the “Thru the Zoo 5K,” which raises money for international conservation programs. We have been supporting the IRF for several years and donated $1,300 just this year.

But perhaps our most important mission is helping people care by offering our visitors a glimpse into the unique personalities of these rare animals — because, as Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum once said:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”

Doug Porter is executive director of Chehaw Park.