Crash is the collective noun for a group of rhinos, and sadly it also sums up the downward spiral of rhino numbers worldwide. In South Africa more than 1,000 rhinos were killed for their horns every year from 2013 to 2017, and a horrifying 1,215 dead rhinos were recorded in 2014 alone. The number of rhinos killed by poachers dropped to 769 in 2018 and 594 in 2019, but the consensus is that poaching continues at high levels, while the drastically reduced rhino population has just made rhinos harder for poachers to find. Rhinos in some reserves are protected by military style anti-poaching units, because well-armed poachers are often organized by the international cartels who run drugs and guns. Corrupt wildlife and government officials, police officers, judges and reserve owners have played their part on the killing fields, while many brave rangers have died across Africa protecting rhinos.
African black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) are both vulnerable to poaching, killed for their horns which are smuggled to Asia for use in traditional medicines. A growing Asian middle class with purchasing power has increased demand, and a Vietnamese Cabinet Minister who claimed rhino horn cured his cancer exacerbated the situation. Advertising in China and Vietnam has educated some consumers, explaining that rhinos are brutally killed to obtain their horns; that the horn is made of keratin, a protein found in hair and fingernails; and that the horn has no significant medicinal properties, however, some wealthy consumers now buy rhino horn purely as a social status symbol.
My painting, Crash, echoes the striking ancient rock art found across South Africa. It shows a black and a white rhino, and beneath them human figures stalking & shooting, hacking off a horn and selling it to a middleman. 2 rhino-head outlines are hidden on the left side of the painting, and the deep rock crevice is a reproduction of a graph showing rhino poaching statistics in South Africa between 2003 and 2019. There are small dots along the line, starting at bottom left, indicating annual figures. The baseline or horizontal axis is not shown, but lies just beneath the dot for 2004. Every 2 inches (5cms) in vertical height from the baseline represents 100 dead rhinos. The figures for individual years are as follows: 22 rhino deaths (in 2003), 10 (2004), 13 (2005), 24 (2006), 13 (2007), 52 (2008), 84 (2009), 333 (2010), 448 (2011), 668 (2012), 1004 (2013), 1215 (2014), 1175 (2015), 1054 (2016), 1028 (2017), 769 (2018), 594 (2019).
South Africa is currently home to approximately 39% of Africa’s remaining 5,500 black rhinos and 93% of Africa’s remaining 17,000-19,000 white rhinos. South Africa’s poaching crisis is particularly shocking, but rhinos are being killed for their horns in every African country in which they live. If the poaching continues unabated, future generations will see rhinos through the eyes of our ancestors, as paintings on cave walls, instead of watching them living wild in the African bush.
On my 2015 Africa Geographic Art Safari at Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa we saw Thandi, a white rhino and her young calf. Our guide told us the harrowing story of Thandi and how she survived being poached – left in agony with a large portion of her face destroyed after the poachers anaesthetized her and then hacked off her horn. No-one knew if she could survive but she was treated with skin grafts by the vet on the scene, Dr Will Fowlds, Project Co-ordinator for Wilderness Foundation Africa. Thandi’s recovery was astonishing and hopeful, especially as she is mother to a new generation of rhinos, but protecting rhinos is difficult, time consuming and very expensive. US$2000 from the sale of this painting was donated to Wilderness Foundation Africa to support some of the dedicated people working to protect Africa’s amazing rhinos.