Peter on right with Dr Ian Player.
Peter was born in the Kalahari, a desert wilderness area, in South Africa. His parents were both nature and animal lovers, and introduced a value system in him at a very young age which embraced a deep respect and love for fauna and flora. His formative years were hugely influenced by conservation issues. Peter and his family always lived far away from towns and cities throughout Southern Africa and over the years, nature and wildlife conservation became the cornerstone of his existence.
At the age of 19, Peter was drafted into the South African Army, an event which rudely interrupted his wildlife studies. His natural bush and survival skills stood him in good stead during the period of the Angolan conflict and others. The unit that he served with allowed him to once again, live very close to nature.
On leaving the army, Peter invested into various business efforts. He dabbled in the early years of information technology and did a lot of wildlife photography for various game reserves. His intention was to remain/become financially secure in order to commit himself fully to conservation efforts. Peter decided to form his own conservation company and Strategic Protection Of Threatened Species (SPOTS) was born. Peter now lives his life where each day allows him to make a difference to that which he holds so dear – nature and wildlife conservation.
To discover more about the work SPOTS SA undertakes, visit their website here - www.spots.org.za
1) What is your personal definition of wildlife conservation?
SPOTS is focused on wildlife conservation. In this context then, our focus is on the preservation, restoration and protection of species, with particular reference to those that are endangered or threatened, and their associated environments. By definition, this is a very broad field and SPOTS has found it necessary to focus most of our effort on a limited number of species.
2) What are the objectives of SPOTS, and how are they achieved?
The mission of SPOTS is to increase the effectiveness of conservation by identifying commercial and technical opportunities for companies and institutions to add value to conservation projects.
Our vision is placing conservation on an equal footing with business and commerce
3) How did you personally become involved in rhino conservation?
I was born in the Kalahari desert and essentially became involved in conservation through my upbringing. My early years were spent with parents who were deeply committed to wildlife and its preservation and we lived in many beautiful, wild and unspoiled places. My father was a tough task-master. After completing a number of years in the South African Army I, perhaps foolishly, chose a career in Information Technology…what a mismatch. Fortunately, my father had also instilled in me a passion for wildlife photography, which I also studied. After some 10 years of earning really good money, I realised finally that I was no city boy. I was fortunate enough get work with a number of lodges/reserves doing photographic work. Given that I was in the right areas for a lot of the time, the need for conservation and protection, even in those years, was apparent and I was able to make small contributions along the way. In later years, I became involved with conservation efforts which were primarily focused on predator cats and leopard in particular. I always felt though, that we needed to be less “species specific” and the dream of SPOTS took seed, culminating in its informal formation some 8 years ago and finally its registration some 5 years ago. I can honestly say, that I am now living my life-long dream.
The Octocopter, more hi tech aerial equipment in the SPOTS arsenal.
4) Why is so much attention paid to keystone species, such as the rhino, when there are other species which are equally endangered, if not moreso?
A difficult question. Given what I said earlier on about not wanting to be species specific, how come is it that SPOTS now spends probably 90% of its time and effort on rhino ?. Well, the rhino issue hit us all like a tsunami…the warning signs were there, but I think we all under estimated how big it was going to get. There are undoubtedly many species that are as threatened as the rhino…and many that are even more so. But given the iconic status of rhino, I believe that we have to win it…and in doing so, do the groundwork and set the precedents that will benefit all other species. We need a “market leader”, a “brand” that most people of the world will recognise and associate with. With the limited resources and finances that SPOTS has, we chose to focus maximum effort on the rhino crisis…to lead the way with it. Future years will undoubtedly see us working as hard with other species. We are in fact currently re-igniting the predator cat fire in SPOTS…with a particular emphasis on combating the lion-bone trade and canned lion hunting.
5) Wild rhino vs private rhino - which deserves more protection, and thus, how should action to protect them be prioritised?
I don’t think that we can separate them in terms of focus and resource deployment for their protection and preservation. I say so, because not only do we have to protect the numbers of rhino, but in so doing, we have to protect the gene pool. Remember that in the late 60’s, early 70’s, with white rhino down at around 500 or so (and black even lower) the gene pool evident in the drastically reduced national herd, had been compromised. We just cannot afford that again. So, I believe that government has to commit to work with organisations like SPOTS in ensuring the survival and proliferation of the species…regardless of whether it is in public or private sanctuary.
Anti Poaching Rapid Response vehicle.
6) Why is hunting linked to poaching in most discussions, and why are they not dealt with as separate issues?
We have worked hard on separating the two. But it has become very difficult to do so when a number of high profile cases have involved the professional hunting fraternity. There is no way that anybody could claim that all hunters wish to illegally deal in rhino horn and many probably wouldn't ever want to shoot a rhino for trophy, but the bad apples in the barrel have resulted in the hunting fraternity being viewed with suspicion by many. We at SPOTS have called for a moratorium on all rhino hunting…at least until government and conservation groups have had the time to put action the poaching problem, clear up the loop holes in the permit issue system and got Vietnam and China to commit to also investigate and prosecute offenders.
7) There is the argument that if it pays it stays: how can legalized hunting help protect the rhino?
Again, this is a very difficult and emotive question. Many would say that currently, a dead rhino is worth more than a live one – this given the fact that a rhino can be bought at auction but that, to the poachers and the syndicates behind them, its horn is worth easily 5 times the price paid. Many say, that this fact is driving poaching. But I ask this “what tourism value – eco, photographic, safari – do we place on each rhino ?”. The second issue is, that whether one is against hunting (which I am) or not, is not the question that needs answering – we as man have created boundaries we continue to do so and in so doing, we create pressure on wildlife systems. The carrying capacity of the remaining land is not unlimited and it becomes necessary for “off-take” to maintain the required balance. Hunting therefore, does unfortunately have a role to play in conservation. In addition, no matter how unsavoury one may find it, many people earn their living from the hunting industry, many jobs are created through it…and it does bring in significant foreign revenue. With rhino and many other species as threatened as they are, now is not the time to be hunting though.
8) Recent policy has been introduced for 1 horn per anum per foreign hunter. What is your opinion on this, could the system be abused and how will it reduce pressure on rhino numbers?
The CITES recommendations regarding rhino have now been, almost entirely, endorsed and implemented by the RSA government, including the 1 rhino per professional hunter per year requirement. It remains to be seen, that given the flagrant abuse of the permit issuing system by many government departments, whether this will be enforced. If governments recent commitment to resolving the rhino crisis is anything to go by, then I am hopeful. Again though, given the current pressure on rhino numbers and the gene pool through poaching, I feel that no hunting of either black or white rhino should be allowed at least until we have significantly reduced the poaching threat and stabilised the whole situation…including the permit issuing system. It is interesting to note in this regard, that since the implementation of the CITES recommendations and governments resolve to police accordingly, no further applications from Vietnamese nationals for hunting licences have been received. The worry of course is that given that the “pseudo hunt” channel has been shut to them, perhaps all they will do is redouble their poaching efforts.
9) A moratorium on rhino hunting has been put forward to help stabilise and increase numbers but how can this help, if those rhinos are in private hands? Surely it has no affect on the wild rhino's numbers?
Yes, that is correct. The proposed hunting moratorium would only have effect on private ownership. No hunting of rhino in public/government parks/reserves is allowed anyway. But my comments above still hold true.
10) Stockpile sale, yes or no, legalised trade, yes or no - please provide reasoning.
We are very worried by the prospect of the sale of the rhino stockpile. The intended benefit in so doing, is claimed to be the meeting of demand through controlled supply. To realise this, we have to know what the demand is for the product…now, if we do not know what the demand is for an illegal product, how can we possibly even guess at the demand for a “legalised” product ?. The rapid growth in the Chinese and Vietnamese middle income sector has fueled much of the demand…so by how much are these sectors going to grow over the coming years ?. In 2006, elephant poaching stood at 6% of the African herd size, in 2007 106 tonnes of ivory was released for sale into China (by RSA and Zimbabwe with the blessing of CITES) and in 2008 poaching had climbed to 8%. Of further concern, is that we are dealing with very sophisticated criminal networks…they aren’t simply going to turn their backs on the lucrative illegal rhino horn trade – they have already created a parallel market, ie, the “fresh wild product” versus the “stockpiled product”. Poachers are paid way more for “wet poached” horn than “dry”. So, in releasing dry stockpiled product all we will do is grow demand – and we will grow that demand for both the stockpiled product and the “superior” poached product. My third concern is a moral one…how can we simply attempt to make an illegal problem go away by legalising it?, and what message does this send to the rest of the world and our youth. And the same arguments and concerns apply to the legalization of trade.
11) Why is there so much disagreement and disharmony between all the various agencies involved with the rhino crisis?
I guess that there are many differing opinions regarding the legalising of trade, the moratorium, the sale of the stockpile etc. It seems to have taken quite a while for erstwhile efforts to become aligned. The second issue is that there are many facebook groups and NPO’s which have “sprung up”, all rattling collection cans and claiming to be using/donating the money to rhino conservation. Many of these are highly suspect and this has raised a significant amount of anger and discontent. Hopefully, they are being weeded out though.
Field testing Unmanned aircraft
12) Why has it taken authorities so long to act/speak out, after years of increasing trend in rhino poachings? Indeed, are they doing enough, or is it too little too late?
Wow…I think that this is an entirely separate topic on its own and perhaps we should consider it for discussion on Safaritalk? Suffice it to say, that we will be fighting a poaching problem for many years to come. Whether we legalise trade or not, whether we sell the stockpile or not, the demand for poached rhino horn is not going to go away. That is why SPOTS has expended the time and money that we have on technology enabled anti-poaching capability. Our GPS tracking systems, our Unmanned Aircraft Systems with which we can capture HD video and still during the day and thermal imaging at night, both for long range recon and pre-post event deployment are examples of the direction we are taking to combat poaching. And, it is rhino today….any other species tomorrow. The fight for our natural and wildlife heritage is going to be a very long one. I am confident, that diplomatic pressure can also achieve a significant result….as will education – but it is going to be a long fight.
13) What is your view on wildlife auctions, and the fact that wild rhinos which have been previously auctioned have ended up being hunted, or indeed, form the basis of farmed rhino in China?
Wildlife Auctions have been and will remain a part of the wildlife and game ranching industry. They generate income for wildlife/game farmers and, as such, do have a role to play in conservation, particularly in ensuring healthy genetic diversity amongst many different species. However, with regard to the rhino situation, it is my belief that rhino should not be allowed to be sold for export at all. Rhino are/have been exported to China for the establishment of breeding "farms", where rhino horn will be cultivated. My concern in this regard is two-fold - firstly, we have witnessed the inhumane way in which bears have been held in China whilst their bile has been tapped. It would be equally in humane to hold wild rhino in captivity in order to have their horns "shaved". Secondly, in the late 60's/early 70's, the white rhino gene pool took a big hammering when numbers dwindled as low as they did. Every attempt should be made to ensure that rhino stay in South Africa in order to not dilute the gene pool any further.
14) If we cannot hope to change the culture of TCM's reliance on rhino horn as having cooling properties, (please see the Safaritalk article here - www.safaritalk.net/topic/8258-rhino-horn-use-in-traditional-chinese-medicine), what is the longterm outlook for the wild rhino?
It is probably true to say that it is no simple matter to debunk thousands of years of TCM belief and/or to educate people to the fact that rhino horn holds no medicinal benefit.....but we have to start. There is no doubt that traditional beliefs do erode over time as younger, better educated generations emerge into the mainstream. If one considers the South African sangoma, it is true to say that most of the patients/customers are of the older, poorly educated generations. Education programs aimed at the Chinese/Vietnamese youth are therefore of significant importance.
Secondly, we are extremely concerned that the growth in demand for rhino horn is not only due to TCM. A new, very sinister market has been created by the syndicates.....in clubs, pubs etc in China and Vietnam, rhino horn is being sold and used as "the in thing to do"... a statement of wealth and affluence.
Against this backdrop, the outlook for the rhino is very bleak. There is no doubt that without significant public and political pressure on the governments of all countries known to be dealing in rhino horn and other animal parts, to actively and aggressively shut down these markets, the rhino and many other species will simply not survive.
The question is really, how long will the world simply sit by and watch as China, Vietnam and others, butcher and pillage the worlds wildlife resources ?.
15) I have helped draw attention to the rhino crisis with Fats Mncedese Maluleka, a rhino activist from Soweto using a multi language approach. He is hoping to inspire a greater South African black voice to speak out against the poaching. Why are we not seeing more unity on this issue from all sectors of South Africa's population, and how do we encourage more black voices to speak out?
I believe that, once again, education and awareness are the key issues to be tackled here. South Africans have to be made aware of the role that our wildlife resources play in generating tourist income, the role they play in job creation, the role they play in our national heritage. These resources do not belong to any particular racial group or geography, they belong to all the people of South Africa.....in fact, they belong to all the people of the world and we as South Africans are merely their custodians. We at SPOTS are very keen on working with corporates, the Department of Education and the Department of Tourism to establish awareness and education programs aimed at the realisation amongst all South Africans, that they have a role to play in the protection and conservation of our rich fauna and flora, that they have every right to play that role....and that they demand of government to play its role as well.
Again, I think that this is much needed. And probably offers scope for a completely separate interview/discussion on Safaritalk. The education of all South Africans, making them aware that our natural heritage is being butchered and stolen from us is of paramount importance. This rich heritage belongs to all South Africans…in fact, to the citizens of the world. The potential negative impact on tourism, the devastating effect that will have on revenue and jobs should also be highlighted to the broader public. Whilst it is difficult, if not impossible, to have this featuring high on the agenda of a mother battling to feed her children, or the man standing in the very long job line, I believe there are sufficient South Africans of all races who can stand together and fight for our heritage and we are in a position to do so on behalf of those who cant right now.
Peter in the driving seat.
16) The rhino issue aside, what is the greatest threat to South African wildlife and wilderness areas, and how are you working to negate such threats?
The assault on South Africa's wildlife resources, fauna and flora is extremely alarming. The assault on our marine resources and species continues unabated. At the moment, rhino is holding center stage, but the truth is that many other species are just as, if not more, endangered and threatened. We believe, that our work on rhino will establish the strategies, plans and actions which can and will be brought to bear for the conservation and protection of many other species.
The threat is certainly not limited to rhino, lion and elephant – our reptiles, our birdlife many insect species are all in the crosshairs. Our marine life is under assault – and this again is not limited to the perlemoen (abalone) issue but to many other marine and aquatic species. We recently established co-operation with Sea Shepherd which will go a long way to us helping them and then helping us with technology and human assets. They have helped us tremendously over the recent past and we have a team returning with them from an off-shore project of which we were proud to be a part. We are continuously working on establishing relationships with South African and off-shore conservation organisations….i believe there is truth in the phrase “team work makes the dream work” – we cannot do it all on our own, but together with others, we can achieve significant and critical success.
We have no doubt, that at the heart of the solution, must lie public and political will. We in SPOTS can hunt down, shoot and apprehend as many poachers as we can, other companies/operations like us can do the same....and we may still not win the fight.
The South African government, has to commit itself to addressing the problem at a diplomatic level....and if they don't, then the citizens of this country and of the world must be motivated to demand that they do so.
SPOTS therefore has focused itself (and will continue to do so)
1) on the ground/in the bush anti-poaching efforts.
2) the ongoing development of technology with which to gain greater anti-poaching success, such as UAV, GPS tracking etc,
3) interaction with any and all role players in determining how they can make a meaningful contribution to conservation effort. This includes the business world, international and local conservation bodies and the man in the street.
4) the creation of world-wide awareness campaigns which do not simply address the adults of the world, but the worlds children as well. These children have a right to request that they be listened to...it is after all their future.
5) we interact with government and its various departments on a regular basis. We have been invited to provide our input to government on many occasions, including making parliamentary submissions and taking part in government co-ordinated meetings, discussions and conferences.
17) What was your overview of the THE WILDLIFE WELFARE SUMMIT held in Cape Town on 4th April and hosted by the Premier of the Western Cape Province, Helen Zille, and, from it, what were the key points for protection of wildlife in SA?
I think that each and very summit, every workshop, conference or discussion realizes one thing and that is that without political will, without the South African government and other governments of the world, standing up and saying that we will no longer accept the plundering of Africa's wildlife, we are in for a long hard and very messy fight. Hopefully, Mrs Zille will be able to motivate her counterparts in government to urgent action.
18) Wildlife conservation vs animal welfare: how are both connected, and which is the most important issue of the two?
The two are linked....one cannot play a meaningful role without the other. As an example, in one of the questions above, the issue of wildlife auctions was discussed. Now, the auctioning of certain species may be encouraged through conservation principles and strategy, but the well-being of those animals, how they are treated and handled before, during and after the auction is more of an animal well-being issue. There have been many mischievous attempts to suggest that animal well-being lies at the heart of much of the current concern regarding the rhino problem....this simply isn't so. Whilst we as conservationists are appalled at the sheer brutality of many of the poaching incidents, it is not true to say that our work with the species is purely driven by our animal welfare conscience, but also by our justified concern regarding the preservation of the species. We work very closely with animal welfare people as well as activists.....we all need each other and the species which we fight to conserve and protect need us working together.
(Note a couple of the answers have been merged, hence 18 as opposed to 20 questions)
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
This post has been promoted to an article