Hope – 24th July 2015
On Wednesday lunchtime in London, I was invited by a prominent South African conservationist to attend an operation of a 4 year old white rhino – Hope – that had been butchered within an inch of its life by poachers in the Eastern Cape. It was an opportunity, he said , to photograph something quite extraordinary – albeit he also warned me that that the imagery would be shocking in that the poachers – when taking her horns – had also casually removed much of her face.
The following evening, I found myself at a remote lodge 60 minutes east of Port Elizabeth – ahead of the field operation at 7 am the following morning. At dinner, I was joined by some of the veterinary team and the local conservationists. One other photographer was there – Adrian Steirn – a world class and visionary artist who earned deserved praise for his portraits of Nelson Mandela in the final chapters of his life. His presence that evening hinted that we were indeed been offered access to something that would be relevant and important .
However, half her face was missing and she was understandably skittish. In the poaching attack, the 3 rhino nearby had all been killed. My first emotions were simply that it was remarkable that Hope was indeed alive.
It took sometime to come to terms with the surreal severity of her injuries and I watched from a distance in something of a daze as she was darted . The crux of the operation involved employing a power drill to secure a metal plate on the open wound where her horns once sat and Adrian and I were given access to within inches of Hope’s face. There have been times in my career, when cameras simply become conduits to supplement the privilege of access and this was certainly one. On reflection this was not a photographic assignment , rather I felt I was simply present as a human observing the effects of the inhumanity of my fellow species. The photographs I took yesterday are only special because of what was in front of the lens not the soul of who was behind the lens.
Dr William Fowlds – (Wilderness Foundation) and Dr Johan Marais ( Saving the Survivors) conducted the operation with a seemingly high level of emotional investment and we will discover with time, whether Hope can live up to her acquired name.
As I was driven back to the local airport, there were many many thoughts bouncing around in my tired head, but the overriding one focused on blame attribution. Can we blame poachers, when Hope’s horns are worth $300,000 in the end Vietnamese or Chinese market ? 1500 rhinos will be poached in South Africa this year and Hope will probably be unique in surviving. This scale of barbarism is a function of the rewards of being part of the food chain and can only surely be curtailed if the end market is curtailed.
Those that snort powdered rhino horn before an elite dinner in Hanoi should be named and shamed – there are apparently only 10,000 heavy users in the country and they have driven the price of rhino horn to double that of cocaine. Somehow they and their children should see these images and feel ashamed of their legacy on a planet that is ours to pass on, not selfishly consume.
I have seen some of Adrian’s images from yesterday and they are predictably strong and immersive. Hopefully between us all, we can make sure as many people see our work from yesterday as possible. I am saddened that the senior British newspapers thought that the images were too graphic to show their readership – a most unusual time to employ previously undetected sensitivities .