Saving the horn back home


By Brandon Kitchin

It’s a material that seems so commonplace. It’s literally at people’s fingertips. Yet for many, keratin is so valuable that they are willing to push a species in South Africa to the brink of extinction. One TCU professor is determined to stop that from happening.

Environmental science professor Michael Slattery has been at TCU for 20 years. He is also the director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, creating the TCU Rhino Initiative in 2013. This program allows students to work in his home country to help save the rhinos from being poached for their horns at a rate that could result in their extinction.

“We’re focused on the black and white rhino,” he said. “The white rhino now is around 18,000 and the black rhino is probably around about 4,000 left on the planet. You do the math, you’ve got 20 to 22,000 black and white rhinos more or less left on the planet – and we’re losing over 1,000 a year.”

Slattery’s story of his work efforts were featured by the College of Science & Engineering for the TCU ‘Lead On’ campaign.

Through the TCU Rhino Initiative, Slattery realized he was in a position where he could make a difference back home. He said the opportunity just happened to fall right into place. The same year the TCU Rhino Initiative was created, the TCU Global Innovators and Discovering Global Citizenship program was focusing on South Africa. That’s when he said “the lightbulb flashed.”

He contacted wildlife veterinarian Dr. William Fowlds and was able to get him to visit the university to speak about the rhinos and the poaching crisis. He said that’s where they started their relationship to begin work more than 9,200 miles away from Fort Worth.

“I’m not a wildlife expert, but I have a passion for wildlife,” he said. “If I can use my passion and leverage the resources of this university to make a difference on the ground in South Africa then that’s been a great thing.”

Dr. Slattery (left) with Dr. William Fowlds (right) post-surgery of a rhino. (Photo courtesy: TCU School of Geology, Energy and the Environment)

Following Fowlds’ campus visit and lecture, the initiative took off and became a summer study abroad program where TCU students go to South Africa to work in the Amakhala Game Reserve with Fowlds and his team. The first trip took place during the summer of 2014 and there has been a trip every year since.

Not only does the trip provide an “extraordinary and immersive” experience for students working directly with wildlife, Slattery said the trip is a very personal experience for him because of his time growing up in the region.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s during the height of apartheid, Slattery said it was difficult understanding how his life compared to others. 

“I grew up in a very middle class, white family with all the privilege– as warped as it was– with all the privilege of being a white person in a country where the vast majority of the population were black and catastrophically disenfranchised,” he said.

Slattery added that the power and color structure was evident, and it wasn’t until he left his parent’s home when he realized how wrong it was.

The first time he experienced going to school with blacks came when he made it to university in 1985, as his prior schooling was segregated. He said when he made friends that didn’t look like him, it was equally difficult for him and them because even though they didn’t see it as wrong, they couldn’t be together to study or hang out.

“I stopped and thought: Hang on a second, something’s drastically wrong with this situation,” he said. “I had 18 years of sort of oblivion of growing up in a very insular, privileged society, and so that has deeply impacted me.”

Slattery said this important part of history should never be forgotten and is actually built into the South African study abroad curriculum.

“The course in South Africa is a wildlife course. It’s a course on biodiversity, but it’s also a course that’s also very tied to human development,” he said. “In the South African context, you cannot really get to the complexity of wildlife management until you understand and appreciate what the legacy of apartheid in the country actually means.”

Before students spend their 10 days in the game reserve, they stay in Johannesburg, where they visit the Apartheid Museum and Nelson Mandela’s house to understand the history and geopolitics of the era for themselves. They also make their way southwest to Cape Town to soak more history in before they strap their boots up and meet the wildlife head on.

Once they get inside the game reserves, the work they do is very physically and emotionally draining, Slattery said.

He said one year, they dehorned five white rhinos in one morning and a few students bawled their way through the entire process. There was also the time in the summer of 2015 where they performed a painful fifth face surgery on a rhino named Hope.

“You start realizing: Why are we doing this? Why are we defacing this animal? Why are we putting this animal through this trauma?” Slattery said. “It’s something that you don’t take lightly.”

TCU Alumnus Brandon Parrish watches with emotion as a rhino works on his sawed-off horn (Photo courtesy: TCU School of Geology, Energy and the Environment)

He explained that the reason why they’re tasked with dehorning the rhinos themselves is not because they want to intentionally hurt them, but because if they don’t, the method illegal poachers use to get the horn themselves is brutal.

Slattery also said that the rhino crisis is driven by human greed. The rhino horn for many years has been seen as an extremely valuable object in Vietnam, which has led to them being hunted and defaced at such a high rate.

Vietnamese poachers make a fortune off of rhino horns on the black market because people for a long time believed the horn to be a cure for hangovers as well as an aphrodisiac, which Slattery dispelled as a myth. Rhino horns, by weight, cost as much as much as gold on the black market and some estimates say a 3 kilogram rhino horn can sell for as much as $300,000. Also, according to Slattery, entire rhino horns are a sign of respect and are exchanged by the wealthy to signify the closing of business deals.

Slattery said to combat this issue, he and his students are working to reduce the Vietnamese demand of horns by finding a way to protect the rhinos back on the ground in Africa. 

“We’re working with a group of game reserves and non-profits in the eastern Cape to build up a series of what we’re calling intensive protection zones – basically rhino sanctuaries,” he said.

In addition to the protection, security, rescue and rehabilitation, the group is also focused on community projects. The people who live in communities and villages around game reserves are often the first line of defense.

Poachers illegally sneak in by foot or by aircraft, saw into and essentially hack off the faces of the rhinos and smuggle the horns out to collect a profit.

Most of the poaching is taking place on the northeastern part of South Africa in a large game reserve called Kruger National Park about 14 hours away from Amakhala, where TCU focuses their efforts.

Slattery said the initiative in its four years has done a lot for both the people of his home and for his students.

“I don’t think I ever have to turn into an advocate again,” he said. “I will never have to try and inspire them because they come away transformed, and I’ve seen that in the continual involvement of those students through the years.”

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Slattery added that it’s an incredible experience and a lifelong story worth telling.

“The students have enormous credibility – more than anybody else.” he said. “They’ve literally had their hands on the animal, and so it speaks volumes.”

Even though the rhino population continues to decrease, Slattery remains optimistic. He said he believes they’ll find a way to preserve the lives of their four-legged friends with the big horns.

“I am hopeful,” he said. “What those numbers will look like and the kind of environments they survive in is another question. There are so many people doing wonderful things protecting this planet that I do think ultimately the rhino will survive.”