The rhinoceros is one of the most iconic creatures of African wildlife. But for years, their numbers have been dwindling, killed at the hands of poachers looking to sell rhino horns on the black market.
While Texas may not immediately come to mind when thinking about rhinos, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth has emerged as a leader in the effort to save the animals from extinction. That’s thanks to Michael Slattery, who heads up the university’s Institute for Environmental Studies. A native of South Africa, he co-founded TCU’s Rhino Initiative as a way to help conservation efforts in his home country. What started as a study abroad program for students has expanded to include fundraising efforts and community education.
“(The initiative) has grown to a much broader vision where we are an academic partner on the ground in South Africa,” Slattery said. “And what we’re hoping to do is to really raise the funds and the awareness to relieve the pressure on these reserves that are now spending upwards of 50 percent of their operating budget just trying to protect these creatures.”
The modern decline in rhino populations is being driven by poaching. The animals are killed for their horns, which are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and, in some countries, as a status symbol for the ultra-wealthy.
Slattery said that while COVID travel restrictions put a damper on South Africa’s illicit rhino horn trade, the issue of poaching is ongoing.
“It’s still a very serious situation, especially for the black rhino,” Slattery said. “You know, those numbers globally are now something like 3,500 and they’ve been on the decline for the last 10 years plus. So it’s still a very serious situation. We’re nowhere near out of the woods yet”
And while the pandemic slowed down the illegal horn trade, it also complicated conservation efforts. Each year, the TCU Rhino Initiative holds its 5k Rhino Run in Fort Worth. Slattery said that this year’s event – scheduled for Sunday, September 19 – will be focused on raising money to help their partner organizations in South Africa get caught up on procedures used for tracking the movement of rhinos.
“A lot of the rhinos at these reserves have to have a collar on the matriarch or a couple of rhinos,” he said. “And so we can track them and we know where they are. And each one of those collars as a procedure costs about $1,500. And so we’ll raise enough money on the run to, hopefully, fund at least five of those procedures.”