Dr William Fowlds tends a wounded rhino
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 27 September

The rhino's best and last hope: You

TV's Safari Vet, Dr Will Fowlds, is fighting to save the rhino from extinction. And he needs your help

South Africa has been gripped by a massive surge in rhino poaching in recent years. In 2007, 13 rhinos were poached. In 2013 it is estimated that 900 rhinos will be poached with almost three rhinos being killed every day.

Dr William Fowlds, a South African veterinarian and star of ITV1’s Safari Vet School, has made it his mission in life to try and save them. He was in London recently to raise awareness of the horrors facing this endangered species and spoke to Peter Moore about what can – and must – be done to save them.

You’re best known through your TV show about being a wildlife vet. Did you start as a ‘normal’ vet and move across to wildlife or were you always involved with wildlife?

My passion for wildlife started when I was a student at university. But my wildlife professor advised me that the opportunities in medicine and surgery in that field are quite limited. On his advice, I went to the UK to work for five years, working on dogs and cats and hamsters.

How was that?

I was always desperate to get back to South Africa. But funnily enough, my stint in the UK helped to fund the conservation project that I live on. So I killed two birds with one stone there.

Where is the conservation project? 

It’s in Eastern Cape in South Africa. It’s a program that brought all our neighbours together to create a reserve called Amakhala Game Reserve. The catalyst we needed to bring those properties together was the piece of land we bought that was funded from the UK. So it turned out to be a significant five years.

What kind of wildlife is on the reserve?

All the Big 5. We started with very little. Having been there for five generations we had destroyed most of it. So we’ve been in the business of bringing wildlife back.

What does your average day on the reserve involve?

I work on that reserve and others. I’m obviously at the beck and call of people who have emergencies relating to wildlife. Quite a lot of my time is taken up by the management of wild animals because we are busy piecing these ecosystems back together and many of them are islands among a sea of humanity so there’s a lot of management required to try and get those ecosystems back on their feet.

What kind of emergencies are you usually called out to?

The most common are animal injuries. Human-related injuries. Animals that break out of the areas and end up in the wrong zones. We have to relocate them back into the protected areas. Outside of those areas they are very vulnerable and a lot of them get shot or are seen as a risk and treated as problem animals.

More recently, over the past three years, the escalation of poaching has led to an increase of call outs to the consequences.

You’re in the UK at the moment to raise awareness about saving the rhinos. From what I’ve read, that was triggered by being called out to a particular incident.

I’ve had the dubious distinction of being called to more survivors of poaching than most other vets in my country. There's one organised crime syndicate that have a specific modus operandi of darting and they are quite well established in our area. That technique is used in other parts of the country, but it’s not the main technique. Whereas in our area, it is the main technique.

And that’s unusual is it, the darting?

It is. I would say, on a national basis, less than 5% of the animals that are poached are darted. Most of the animals poached in Kruger are shot. It’s near Mozambique and they don’t have that level of expertise. They are using hunting rifles and automatic weapons to kill all those animals. So in the areas that are less remote and a bit more managed, the level of sophistication goes up.

What are the benefits to the poachers of using darting?

The main benefit is that it is a quiet method. They don’t really care if they die or they survive. They just do it to remove the horn. Most of the time, they are still alive after the horn is removed and they are just left to bleed to death. With darting that can take hours, if not days.

You went out to that case where three were taken down. One had died already. And you had to decide whether to euthanise the two survivors or try and save them.

Yes. It was terrible. The precursor to that event was an event I’d been called out to a year before where, based on advice and our level of expertise at the time, I ended up putting that animal to sleep. 

A year later we were a lot more prepared. We’d dedicated some thought and expertise as to what would happen if we were to face a similar situation. So I felt, at that stage, that even though our techniques are still crude, that we had a real chance to save those two animals. 

We gave it a bash but it was always something that was going to be pioneering work. At the risk of losing them, and in the case of Themba, the bull, we did lose him after 24 days, which was an incredibly low point.

The female survived?

Thandi, the female, is still alive, and she has become an amazing ambassador for the crisis that her species is in. With a live animal you can tell that story for decades. But with animals that die, they are forgotten very quickly and that life becomes a statistic and nothing more.

How bad is the situation on the ground?

We were used to an average between 12 and 15 a year. And this year we will lose definitely in the 900s, but we may even possibly go over 1,000 at the current rate.

And this is just in Africa. You’ve also been getting involved in the situation in Vietnam and Asia.

Yeah. Those statistics are just South Africa. I don’t count any of the other countries. Because South Africa is custodian of over three-quarters of the world’s rhinos, the crisis has hit us hardest. But it has been going on for decades. At least 40 to 50 years. Rhino in Africa – and Asia – have been in danger over a long period of time. And it’s all linked to the demand for this strange product, the horn.

What are the steps that can be taken to stop this happening. Obviously, you can ramp up security around the animals. But what about education? Or is this rhino horn myth too entrenched in Asian cultures to deal with?

We’ve spent three years looking for that silver bullet for this problem but, to our horror, we’ve discovered that the reason we’re not getting on top of it is because it is entrenched in the global issue of the illegally trafficking of wildlife. This is just another product in that whole organised crime network. And obviously the market that drives it. 

So what we’ve come to realise is that we cannot simply do one thing and expect to solve this problem. The anti-poaching units are vital. If it wasn’t for the work that is happening in South Africa at the moment, we’d be losing as many rhinos as they are losing elephants in Africa, which could wipe out the population in a year. But we have to improve our legal system – and that’s happening, but slowly. 

As an international community, we also have to improve our political lobbying and our international crime fighting scenarios through international policing, particularly against international crime syndicates. They operate at that level and it’s very difficult to pin them down within a country. 

For me, the most important thing is to tackle the fundamental reason, that people see value in consuming these products. We’ve got to look at the demand reduction side of it that will rely entirely on education and awareness, to try and change the minds of people who see these products as something they desire.

What things can your average wildlife-lover do to help?

What I'm hoping will come out of this UK visit is a means of sensitising the UK public and, in this case, we’ll be launching Voices of Conservation education program to UK schools. We want to get the UK public more aware of the problem. Get the children to realise how important these species and their ecosystems are for their futures. To research the crisis and all its complexities. 

And then also help us find ways of taking that message across to Asia because ultimately if we are not able to get the Asians to realise how valuable these species and their environment, which they protect, essentially, then we are going to lose them.

Voices of ConservationFor more information the plight of the rhino and how you can help save them, visit the official Voices of Conservation website.