Local rhino conservation group opens camp in S. Africa

Rhinos in South Africa are vulnerable to poachers. A local nonprofit is raising money for rhino conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Growing up in South Africa, Clint Weimann saw rhinos every day.

But when he visited South Africa with his family a few years ago, he was shocked to not see a single one in the wild. It was the first time he hadn’t seen a rhino while he was in South Africa. The poaching problem had gotten out of control, and he wanted to do something to help.

Weimann, 45, founded Project Rhino Charleston, a nonprofit that raises money for rhino conservation and anti-poaching efforts in South Africa, which is home to about 82 percent of the world’s rhino population.

Since its beginning in 2014, Project Rhino has raised more than $25,000, enough to establish Camp Charleston, an anti-poaching training camp in South Africa that helps catch and arrest local poachers.

South Africa’s poaching problem is relatively new, Weimann said. In just a few years, the country went from losing hundreds to now thousands of rhinos per year. In 2014, the birth rate of rhinos was surpassed by the rate of those being killed by poachers. In 2016 alone, South Africa is projected to lose more than 2,000 rhinos.

“It’s a dire situation,” Weimann said. “Nothing gets done about it. We could be looking at a decade to 15 years when they’ll be few to no rhino left.”

Poachers are mostly to blame for the dwindling population. They cross the border into South Africa from Mozambique at night as local South Africans send them GPS locations of rhinos on the ground. Poachers drop from the helicopters and use tranquilizers to put the animal to sleep. After the animal is tranquilized they use either machetes or chain saws to remove not just the horn, but many times the entire top half of the rhino’s head.

Once the animal wakes up from the anesthesia, they are left to bleed out for four to six hours.

“It’s not just the fact that poaching is going on, it’s also the methods that they’re using, which aren’t spoken about anywhere besides South Africa,” Weimann said. “It’s not in anyone’s face in America. Nobody’s dealing with it here.”

Poachers sell the horns mostly to markets in China and Vietnam, where they use them for medicinal purposes.

The effect of losing rhinos is detrimental to the South African ecosystem. The animals are selective grazers, which means they eat only certain grasses.

Eating these grasses allows new species of plants to grow and thrive, which in turn allows other animals to eat and live off the diverse vegetation.

Studies have shown that without rhinos, biodiversity is disrupted all over South Africa, Fundraising Director Kristi Martin, 44, said.

Martin worked with rhinos as an emergency veterinarian technician in Texas before moving to Charleston and getting involved with Project Rhino.

She organizes fundraisers for the group and said they are looking for volunteers and new members to help their efforts, which are going directly to Camp Charleston.

The camp works to train anti-poachers in firearm safety and technical operations, including the ability to protect and track rhinos using GPS.

This allows them to monitor and protect the rhinos 24 hours a day.

The group’s next fundraising event will be a live music and family event from 3-7 p.m. Aug. 7 at Low Tide Brewery. Portions of the beer sold will go directly to Project Rhino.

“I think people are starting to think outside of where they are and on a more global level,” Martin said. “I think it’s just the right thing to do. It needs to be addressed.”

Reach Alison Graham at (843) 745-5555.