7-year-old Frankie teams up with conservation experts in Cambridge to save the white rhino
Frankie Benstead is on a mission: to save the last three northern white rhino from extinction.
Earlier this year the Cambridge Independent interviewed Frankie Benstead, the seven-year old from Cambridge who started his own campaign to save the northern white rhino, of which there are just three left in the world.
The danger to rhinos has spiked horribly: in the last 10 years 7,100 of them have been illegally killed, with more than 11,000 tusks – 32 tonnes worth – still unaccounted for. But conservation organisations are fighting back, with Cambridge playing a significant role in ensuring the rhino’s plight remains in the public eye.
In advance of World Rhino Day on Friday September 22, we accompanied Frankie and his mum, Shirlene, to the conservation cluster at the David Attenborough Building to meet some of the organisations whose work involves tracking and protecting this endangered creature.
There’s three subspecies of black rhino, say the team at Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring organisation, which moved into the David Attenborough Building when it opened last year. They are the black, the southern white and the northern white. The southern white and northern white are subspecies of white rhino and evolved separately from the black rhino. Black rhinos have a pointy lip adapted to browsing, and the southern white and northern white rhino are wide-lipped for grazing. All of them are grey in colour – the word “white” is a mispronunciation of the Afrikaans word for “wide”. The separation is estimated to have occurred a million years ago, with records of their ancestors living in Africa ten million years ago.
“There are around 20,000 southern white rhinos left – it’s one of the biggest conservation success stories over the years,” says Traffic’s global communications coordinator Richard Thomas. “However, poaching shot up in the late-2000s, when a lot of horns were going into illegal trade. We alerted world governments to this in 2007; at the time we had no idea where the horns were going, later we discovered it was Vietnam, where it’s new-fangled use is as a luxury item to show off with and as a very expensive hangover cure and tonic. Rhino horn also has a traditional medicinal use, especially in China, where it’s used to treat fever.”
And does it have any effect?
“Yes, it does have a very marginal effect, rather less than aspirin.”
And how did it get to be adopted as a supposed tonic in Vietnam?
“We traced it back to an urban myth where allegedly a senior Vietnamese politician – no name was given – cured himself of cancer using rhino horn. Even today in Vietnam we’ve heard of rhino horn being sold by salespeople going round hospitals.”
There has certainly been a massive spike in rhino deaths. In 2007, just 13 were poached in South Africa, by 2008 it was 83, followed by 122 the next year. By 2013, the number had hit 1,004 and reached a peak of 1,215 in 2014, since when it has fallen slightly.
“How do you catch the rhino horn poachers?” asks Frankie.
“Well we’ve got to be cleverer than the poachers, so we work out their methods and their transport routes, both for airlines and for shipping.”
“To China?” asks Frankie.
“Lots go to China and Vietnam,” says Richard.
“My friend lives in China,” says Frankie. “I hope he doesn’t buy it…. Maybe his parents buy it.”
“Well if they do tell them not to,” says Richard.
Traffic works closely with CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
“We’re a research organisation,” Richard says, “and most of our findings are aimed at decision-makers. CITES is based in Geneva: if a species is considered threatened the governments can allow it to be listed in the Appendix that the Convention lists on its website.”
With 181 countries including the US and China signed up to the Convention, there’s a lot of enthusiasm to get it right. If any nation, organisation or individual fails to adhere to these appendices – there are currently 17 such nations – the penalties under international law can include trade sanctions.
Traffic has just published its report into the rhino trade, which you can read at traffic.org.
Next up is Dan Challenger at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. Dan talks Frankie and Shirlene through the organisation’s work – listing endangered species.
“There are 85,000 assessed species in total,” says Dan, “of which 24,000 are categorised as ‘threatened’.”
These include tigers, African elephants and pangolins, as well as the northern white rhino which is close to the top of the critical list. Of the three left, there are two females and one bull, and the bull is too old to procreate, so a form of artificial insemination is being attempted.
“Red List is the world’s best way of categorising threats to species and their extinction risk,” says Dan.
Thirdly, Frankie meets Sam Owen, who works as the programme manager for the Tropical Biology Association (TBA). Sam joined the TBA, an NGO which supports conservation institutions and scientists in tropical regions, two years ago. Prior to that she was based in Tanzania as a photo-journalist, where she worked on campaigns by organisations including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Her portfolio includes pictures of rhinos along with other endangered species in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar.
“I trained as a conservation biologist, here in Cambridge and as a post-grad in Cape Town,” says Sam. “I went on some incredible expeditions and built up the communications side, then I picked up my camera instead of doing statistics.”
Sam delights Frankie with some pictures of African wildlife. Her extraordinary photo diary can be found at samowenphotography.com.
The RhinosUp campaign is due to be celebrated with a flower bed in the city, which the council is supporting, at a location to be announced soon. Frankie’s idea behind the flower bed is that it is a living sculpture in the shape of a northern white rhino, made out of bee-friendly plants to remind us that species extinction can happen anywhere in the world.
“It’s marvellous,” says Shirlene of the David Attenborough Building while Frankie is chatting to the Traffic’s communications officer Marcus Cornthwaite. “Every time Frankie comes here he connects with more people.”
“I love this building mama,” says Frankie as he leaves. “I want to work here one day.”
Find out more at rhinosup.com.