Tell Me More: Can Rhinos Survive Mankind?

Matt Lindenberg, founder of the Global Conservation Corps, talks about what’s behind the growth of rhino poaching and what can be done about it
Matt Lindenberg with rhinos in the wild
“We’ve had a huge increase in rhino poaching since around 2008, where things have spiked up exponentially,” said Matt Lindenberg. “Experts believe that in the next five years, we could have more rhinos dying than rhinos being born.” Photo: Nick Smith
November 14, 2018

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

On average, we lose three rhinos every day to poaching. At this rate, rhinos in the wild may become extinct within a decade. In this episode, Matt Lindenberg, founder and executive director of the Global Conservation Corps, talks about what’s driving rhino poaching, the value of rangers—the unsung heroes of conservation—and the unique approach that Lindenberg’s organization is taking to curb the crisis.

Recommended links:

Global Conservation Corps website, Facebook, Instagram

Matt Lindenberg

Trailer for Rhino Man: The Movie

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a new podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who will share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

In this episode, Matt Lindenberg, founder and executive director of the Global Conservation Corps, visits with Tufts University’s Allen Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

On average, we lose three rhinos each day to poaching—a rate that has increased exponentially since 2008. At this rate, rhinos very well may be extinct within the wild during our lifetimes. During this conversation, Lindenberg offers the drivers behind rhino poaching, the value of rangers—the unsung heroes of conservation—and the unique approach that Lindenberg’s organization is taking to curb the crisis. Let’s listen in.

ALLEN RUTBERG:  Welcome to Tufts, Matt. So, to start off, globally what is the conservation picture for rhinos?

MATT LINDENBERG: First off, thank you so much for having me on this podcast. It’s fantastic to be here, Allen. So, back to your question, the global situation that rhinos find themselves in right now is extremely critical. We have five subspecies of rhinos left in the world. We’ve got the three Asian species and then we’ve got the two species that exist in Africa. Africa has got the black and the white rhino. That’s the two that we have there at the moment, and that’s where my sort of—or at least our organization’s—expertise, or our focus, really lies: with the rhinos in South Africa.

With white rhinos, which is the most numerous of the five rhino subspecies, we have about 19,000 white rhinos left in the world. And with the black rhino, we have around 4,800 black rhinos left in the world. So that’s a critically endangered species. As I’m sure you know, we’ve had a huge increase in rhino poaching since around 2008, where things have spiked up exponentially. And so experts believe that in the next five years, we could have more rhinos dying than rhinos being born. From that perspective, from what I’ve read and the people that I’ve talked to, it’s estimated that at this rate of poaching by 2026, we could see a complete extinction of African rhinos in the wild.

RUTBERG: That’s a dire situation. What are the drivers behind the poaching crisis?

LINDENBERG: Yeah—great question. So, the main drivers behind the African poaching crisis with regards to rhino: rhino horn traditionally has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It’s existed as a—let’s say—a belief that it can cure you of many different ailments and diseases, but around 2008, an official in Vietnam told his country that rhino horn cured one of his family members of cancer. So, with a booming Asian market, you can see exponential growth in Asian markets, more and more people have had access to money to find rhino horn.

And I’ve had my mom and my dad go through cancer, and if there was anything in this world that would help them get better or survive cancer, I honestly believe I would do that, because at the end of the day, I think our family will always mean more than an animal, especially if we don’t even see that animal or know how we got that horn.

So, from 2008, it’s really gone up as a cure for cancer. Traditionally, in Yemen, it’s a jambiya handle, so it’s given to a young male when he sort of reaches his manhood. It’s a rite of passage, so a dagger-handle status symbol is a really huge thing now as well. The same thing as we in the United States might have a Ferrari or a Jaguar—Aston Martin—parked in our garage. In the east, if we have a huge rhino horn on our mantlepiece, it shows we have massive political power, connections, and access to the black market.

And the final thing, which is quite frightening, is that it’s now being used as a hangover cure. It’s like cocaine, so people can drink more and so it’s really big in the nouveau-riche kind of culture of China and Vietnam. So, there’s a lot of different drivers, but I think it’s inextricably linked to a booming Asian market and that’s where the demand is really coming from.

RUTBERG: So you’re the executive director and the founder of the Global Conservation Corps. What is your organization’s approach to dealing with this wildlife trade?

LINDENBERG: That’s a question I’m really, really passionate about. Why is GCC or how is GCC addressing this decimation of Africa’s iconic wildlife? So a bit of background I suppose. I didn’t just wake up one day wanting to do this. I’m from South Africa as a kid. I grew up next to our iconic Kruger National Park and most weekends, I got to go there with my family and we got to do walks, and I got to meet rangers, and meet the people on the front lines of conservation.

When I was around nineteen, I had a huge change in career path. Got into conservation and spent six years at the Southern African Wildlife College, where I trained guides. I worked in the community department and I trained rangers for about six years, and I got to meet some incredible people.

The biggest influence in my life was a Zulu man called Martin Mthembu. Martin was born into an apartheid South Africa where he had no opportunities, no rights, no future, and he grew up in a rural area of South Africa. So, as he went on, he became a soldier, he went and enlisted—it’s one of the few things a black male could do in apartheid South Africa. He enlisted in the 111th Battalion, where he fought for a country that didn’t even really recognize him as a citizen.

So when Martin came out of the military, he took all of his skills and he started training rangers. He got involved with the people on the ground, because Martin really saw the future of Africa’s wildlife belonging to the people. It has to be ownership of the people with wildlife. Martin taught me so much about the value of involving communities, especially with the youth and why we need the youth of South Africa to get behind conservation as a whole. Not only did Martin save my life three times—twice from lions and once from a black mamba—he changed the way that I saw conservation.

If we want conservation to succeed, we will not get ahead unless there’s ownership by the local people living right next door to the wildlife and, in 2014, Martin tragically passed away. That was the impetus for starting up the Global Conservation Corps, where our mission statement is conserving wildlife through the upliftment, development, and training of people. Poaching is not a wildlife issue—it’s a human issue. It’s a symptom of a much bigger human condition that we find ourselves in.

So that’s a very, very longwinded way of saying that the Global Conservation Corps invests and trains people. We work with rangers, we work with communities, and, most importantly, we work with young children that live next to these wildlife areas, and I think that’s where we’re going. Three years ago, when we started, it was all about recognizing rangers. We started this documentary called Rhino Man: The Movie, highlighting the value of rangers on the ground. But as we transitioned, we started to see that if the youth have got no buy-in, if they have no understanding of the value of wildlife, the next generation of rangers will be very, very susceptible to corruption, because if your heart’s not in it, we will lose the wildlife. So it’s about rangers, it’s about runners, it’s especially about the youth.

RUTBERG: So, certainly a lot of attention goes to the rangers, but the question is: what do you say to the youth? What kind of messages do you deliver to the youth that conservation is important? How do you convince the local people that this should be their issue?

LINDENBERG: Historically, a lot of these communities—these rural communities—lived with wildlife in South Africa. And then, obviously, with the changing landscape, we put up a fence and forcefully removed these communities from their local tribal lands. So, for the last three, four decades, the only value that communities have really seen around wildlife is poaching, whether it’s subsistence poaching, to feed their families, or it’s commercial poaching, where there’s a lot more money involved.

How do we change that perspective? That’s huge. Well, the first thing, especially with the kids, they’ve got to see wildlife. The majority, and when I say majority, 99.9 percent of children in South Africa have never seen wildlife before, and I think here in the United States, especially, people lose their minds when they hear that statistic. I mean, how is that possible, right? Well, two things. It’s relatively expensive for people to go and see wildlife, and then the logistics of it, transport. How do these kids gain access to seeing these incredible animals?

So that’s the first step, is putting these children in front of their national heritage. We start with children as young as five years old, so, kindergarten, because those are some of the formative ages where you’re not influenced too much by money success, your heart’s still very much open. So, we get these kids in front of wildlife and, from there, we get these kids on a trajectory.

So, we have a project called the Future Rangers Program, and what that is, it’s every single week, we work with five different schools and every single week in these schools a facilitator comes to the school and engages the same children every single week on a conservation curriculum. But I would say the biggest overall message is that wildlife has value. If you think about it in South Africa, one out of twenty-two people are employed by tourism. So, we bring it back to these kids and say, “Without tourism, we wouldn’t have possibly this school or running water. We wouldn’t have these amenities. You wouldn’t be able to come and see it,” because it’s through tourism that we’re allowed to go and take these kids into the parks.

So, we really try and tie in the value on a very simple level for these children to understand that, without wildlife, their futures are a lot less bright. So, it’s about getting their buy-in, not just from their hearts but their minds as well.

RUTBERG: That sounds like the only way to go. OK, so I’m sitting here in North Grafton in Massachusetts and many of our listeners will never have been to South Africa. What can we do to help rhinos, both in terms of your work, but in terms of, again, more globally what the rhino conservation picture is?

LINDENBERG:  Yeah—that’s an incredible question. I get that question a fair bit when we do events, and I talk to people. How do we get people that haven’t seen rhinos before, that aren’t on the front lines of rhino poaching, that might live in the States or Europe, that just aren’t in front of this problem? People say, “Well, we’ve got homelessness. I live in Atlanta. We’ve got homelessness in Atlanta. That’s my community. Why should I care about an animal on the other side of the world that I’ve never seen?”

That’s a very big question and it’s one that I think I’ll always try and improve on answering, but what I try to tell people now is that rhinos are the first of many animals in line to go extinct. If the rhino go, then what goes next? We’ve got elephants, we’ve got lions, we’ve got pangolins now as the most trafficked animal in the world. After these animals have gone, what will be next? And I always try to bring it back to today. We’re at Tufts—could you imagine a world up here sort of in the greater Boston/New England area without deer, right?

When I was growing up in South Africa, I could never imagine a world without rhinos, without elephants, but in my lifetime they are projected to go extinct. So, if it’s that crazy for me to think that Africa’s wildlife will disappear, is it so implausible to think that our wildlife here in the States could disappear as well? Poaching is a disease, and it’s a human condition.

Talking about what you can do, we need to talk about these things. We need to share these messages. There’s a huge amount of publicity that just happened with Sudan. The last northern white rhino male—he was the last of his kind. There’s only two northern white rhinos remaining—two females—and I think we need to use these opportunities when we have iconic incidences happening in news to share these things. That’s the first thing we need to do, because a lot of people don’t know that this is a problem. It’s a huge problem.

If you think about it too, just when you think about the reasoning for “Why should I care?”—a rhino horn will be in the same container ship as an illegal AK-47, as drugs, and as people that are being trafficked from all around the world. So, when you bring it back, that rhino poaching doesn’t just affect communities in South Africa, but it’s tied into international terrorism and illegal activities. It’s a global issue that we all need to be a part of. So when you think about it from that perspective, we do need to be involved. So, talking about it, communicating, sharing—social media is a huge thing. We can use it to see what the Kardashians were wearing, right? We can do that. I mean that’s interesting to some people, but it’s like a weapon. We can use it for good or we can use it for bad, and social media, I believe, is a powerful tool if used in the right way. We need to share it.

There’s some organizations where you can go and volunteer on the ground, but I don’t expect everyone that hears this to go and become a field ranger. I really believe the first step is communicating this message and then, of course, donating to good organizations and charitable foundations that do do good. There’s a lot of organizations doing amazing things, but, unfortunately, their model has a lot of the proceeds going to operations and I think in the nonprofit world, especially these days, there’s a lot of skepticism about where’s my money going? So finding the right nonprofit, the right fit for you and ensuring that all of your money goes to the right place, I think is definitely a viable option as well to make a change.

RUTBERG: I know this is difficult work, that it can be very discouraging. What keeps you going?

LINDENBERG: What keeps me going? I couldn’t think of a life doing anything else, to be honest. I think a lot of people are searching for meaning in their lives and I’m just, I’m really, really blessed that I’ve found mine. That man that I alluded to before—Martin Mthembu—he put a fire in me and he made me hopeful. He made me believe that there’s a chance to turn this thing around. So yeah, when we’re in the field doing patrols and we come across a rhino carcass, or we come across communities that can’t eat and they’re getting really hostile against the parks, it’s hope and it’s people like Martin Mthembu—the original rhino man, an iconic ranger—that gives me hope.

I think one thing that keeps me going as well is a very famous saying that evil is only allowed to prevail when good men and women step aside and do nothing. I think as long as there are people in the fight willing to talk about it, put their lives on the line, there still is hope. Even though at times it does get very dark, and a career in finance might be a bit more stable, but it’s a lot more exciting to be on the front lines of a worthwhile conservation effort.

RUTBERG: Is there anything else that you would like the audience to know about you or about your organization?

LINDENBERG: So three years ago our nonprofit was formed—GCC—and our focus was to highlight these rangers, because at the time rangers still didn’t have a lot of publicity. No one really says thank you to the rangers. These are people, men and women that are on the front lines. They make sometimes as little as $500 a month. They risk life and limb, they don’t see their families for sometimes thirty or forty days. I think the difference is that these guys never expected someone to say thank you. They just did it because that was the right thing to do because they care about their national heritage.

So, three years ago we embarked on making a ten-minute brand film about the rangers, which we released on World Rhino Day, the 22nd of September 2015. National Geographic saw the trailer, picked it up, and said, “Let us know when it’s done.” So, over the last three years we took what should have been a ten-minute brand film now into a full-feature length documentary, which we are talking to guys like Netflix. At the moment, we’ve entered into Sundance Film Festival. We should find out in the next few weeks if we’re in, which I mean they have 16,000 submissions every year and only forty of them get in. So, it’s playing Russian roulette with 160 chambers and one bullet.

It’s a really tough prospect to get into Sundance, but beyond that Rhino Man: The Movie is going to be coming out to be done at the end of the year. Looking at something like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and I would encourage people to watch that documentary, because it really humanizes the rangers, but interestingly enough, it humanizes the poachers as well. I think it allows the viewer to get a greater perspective as to why we need to invest in communities, why we really need to invest in people and yeah. So, Rhino Man: The Movie, have a look. Hopefully, you get inspired and motivated to do something after you’ve seen the film. Rhino Man is hopefully going to put rangers on the map.

RUTBERG: Great, Matt. Thank you for coming to Tufts. We really appreciate it.

LINDENBERG:  All right. Thank you so much for having me on today. It’s a great opportunity and thank you all for your time.

HOST: Thanks for listening to Tell Me More. Be sure to subscribe to listen to more episodes of the podcast, and please take a minute to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s Tufts—T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, and Dave Nuscher. Web production and editing support provided by Momo Shinzawa and Taylor McNeil. Production support provided by 5 to 9 Media. Special thanks to the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Our songs are sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.