For Ian Player, it seemed almost impossible that in the seventy-two thousand acres of the Umfolozi Game Reserve four hundred white rhino found their home. When he first visited the silent, red bush in 1952 he saw nothing but a few solitary animals and miles of grasslands. Yet, he quickly was overcome by the majesty of the white rhino’s presence and would spend years ensuring their existence.
The white rhino has not always been the most sought-after animal by poachers. In fact, for a short period of time they were one of the least killed.
Between the 1920s and the 1960s wide scale efforts to eradicate the dangerous tsetse fly became a main focus of the Department of Veterinary Services, who were widely in charge of the African grassland reserves during this time. The tsetse fly is a form of parasite that lives by feeding on the blood of animals. They play a major role in transmitting diseases to both animals and humans and can be responsible for major economic impacts as a result of lost cattle from trypanosomiasis and human fatality from sleeping sickness. Thus, major efforts to eradicate this fly were made.
Large extermination campaigns commenced in game reserve buffer zones. The hope was if all of the seemingly infected wildlife were killed off so would follow the harmful tsetse fly. In some cases the fly lessened. Yet, “in view of reduction of host animals, hunger was evident among the flies, resulting in their swarming…and feeding freely on man,” Player said.
While the animals were being killed, the fly’s presence was still felt. Thus, in December 1942 the small bufferzone initially set for tsetse extermination poaching was expanded to cover more fly infested Zululand. The Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Game Reserves were opened as shooting by permit zones which allowed permitted hunters to kill any and all animals in specific zones to help prevent tsetse spreading.
“Man can look after himself and keep away from biting insects but it is very difficult to look after animals,” Player said. Naturally, animals will have more insects.
These campaigns resulted in a devastating slaughter of 1.3 million African game animals and widespread bush landscape clearance. As a result of this, today the tsetse fly is known to have played one of the most important parts of Zululand Game Reserve history.
By the early 1970s, the use of insecticides replaced these slaughtering tactics and was successful.
Ian Player described how this time period “is one of the most disgraceful periods in South African history and the destruction of game did not eliminate the tsetse fly, as it was hoped it would. It took DDT and airplanes to do this,” he said.
Player firmly believed that there was no reason for these mass killings. “This was really blood lust and the story of it reveals the strange excuses that men will use to kill in the name of progress,” he said.
Years later it was revealed that there were only six potential hosts for the tsetse fly and only during very specific weather conditions. These include the warthog, kuda, bushpig, bushbuck, buffalo and giraffe.
Ironically, during this time period of mass slaughter, the southern white rhino went seemingly untouched. By a stroke of luck, the small sized population remain in a specific region of the Umfolozi Reserve which was continued as a restricted poaching area. For one of the last times, the white rhino was at a lesser risk.
“The white rhino were seen far more frequently. They, too, were much calmer. In the past they would have fled at the sight or sound of man or vehicle, whereas now they carrier on grazing peacefully,” Player said.
Just after a short time period of time where poaching decreased, the rhino’s temperament exhibited obvious shifts. There was a lack of fear for their main predator, man, was no longer seeking them out. Sadly, however, these period of reduction did not last long and the rhino was hunted once again.
The period of tsetse fly extermination displays how unstable the African wildlife reserves are. Despite the implementation of rules and regulations, they are inconsistent, not maintained, and not upheld by the constantly changing government.
Player described in his book The White Rhino Saga how at one point in time the maximum fine for killing a white rhino was 20,000 shillings. Yet, when a group of poachers were caught skinning a rhino they were fined just 20 shillings. Later on that same day the African magistrate sentenced an individual to a six months imprisonment for stealing just a bicycle pedal. The standard for felony is inconsistent and not upheld.
To make change there needs to be true consistency and accountability across all platforms. Today, this continues to be a main problem when addressing and preventing white rhino poaching.