Charity announces rhino rescue – but here’s what you should know about the non-profit in charge

White rhino in Africa.
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The uplifting tale of a rhino rescue and relocation might seem like an all-round win – but here’s what you should know about the non-profit spearheading the charge to save South Africa’s two-horned beast.

On Monday 4 August, non-profit African Parks announced it had purchased the largest rhino farm in the world. Located in South Africa, the farm is home to 2,000 animals. The non-profit will take over the 7,800 hectare ‘Platinum Rhino’ site in the north-west province. The charity says the farm is currently home to the equivalent of 15% of the world’s remaining wild population of southern white rhino.

The non-profit bought the rhino farm from multimillionaire conservationist John Hume. Hume said he had spent his life savings on the project. He also deployed miles of fences, cameras, heat detectors, and an army of rangers to patrol the site, which employs about 100 people. Hume kept the full extent of the security measures taken and the number of armed rangers on guard a secret.

African Parks manages 22 protected areas across the African continent. Billionaire Dutch business tycoon Paul Fentener van Vlissingen founded the organisation in 2,000. Notably, the non-profit said that it plans to phase out the breeding programme and relocate the 2,000 southern white rhino to the wild over the next 10 years.

Naturally, the corporate and mainstream media lapped up the news with perceivable fanfare. The Times led with the headline Prince Harry’s African conservation charity buys rhino breeding farm in a nauseating display of monarchist bootlicking. Meanwhile, the BBC spurned a royal mention in favour of churning an uncritical, tepid news piece on the story.

African Parks: steeped in colonialism

Unsurprisingly, the mainstream press were noticeably scant with information on the colonial ramifications of prince Harry’s presidential role. For one, the Canary has previously noted how the British royal family have a history in exploitative trophy hunting on the continent. This model of conservation has entrenched colonial land-grabbing across Africa.

What’s more, Harry’s involvement in African Parks perfectly epitomises its conservation approach. In particular, his stint in the British military is significant, given that it works hand in hand with African Parks and conservation rangers.

Read on...

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Nor did outlets deign it important to mention the roots of the non-profit’s illustrious billionaire founder. Paul Fentener van Vlissingen inherited a vast fortune and the family firm, SHV Holdings. A group of Dutch coal companies established SHV in 1896. The corporation went on to new fossil fuel frontiers in oil and gas exploration and production, among other commodity sales.

During van Vlissingen’s premiership over SHV Holdings, the company engaged in business with South Africa’s apartheid state. The World Rainforest Movement therefore suggested that:

For the billionaire, it (African Parks) was the perfect opportunity to restore his image, tainted by his activities during the apartheid regime

In other words, the conservation initiative was a ploy for Vlissingen to rehabilitate his legacy after his dealings with the racist regime.

Relocations for rhinos, evictions for communities

The coverage was, of course, also quiet on the non-profit’s chequered human rights record.

As the Republic has detailed:

African Parks currently encloses, militarizes, and privatizes over 20 million hectares of land in Africa from which states evicted native communities to ‘protect’ the biodiversity in those spaces.

For instance, the non-profit has threatened the subsistence activities and livelihoods of communities living in the Majete game reserve in Malawi. There, it limits fishing and the harvesting of honey, reeds and other resources.

This is also the case for communities in another protected area in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Odzala-Kokoua National Park, African Parks has also restricted the fishing, hunting, and harvesting of forest resources. In addition, locals have reported of the brutality that eco-guards have enacted on their communities in the name of the park’s so-called ‘protection’.

Furthermore, in 2004, African Parks forcibly evicted the Indigenous residents of Ethiopia’s Nechasar National Park. Similarly, the non-profit has threatened Mursi Indigenous villagers in the Mago and Omo National Parks.

Essentially, the deal is: relocate rhinos to a safe home, displace the Indigenous communities. It’s colonial ‘fortress’ conservation 101. As the Canary has previously explained, this is conservation that has:

evicted existing indigenous and local inhabitants from their traditional lands, or otherwise restricted their access to crucial resources like food, fuel, and medicinal plants.

CEO of African Parks Peter Fearnhead said that:

we fully recognise the moral imperative of finding a solution for these animals so that they can once again play their integral role in fully functioning ecosystems

Evidently, however, this ‘moral imperative’ doesn’t extend to the African communities the charity is displacing.

Rhinos above rights

Associate Professor of Geography at York University Elizabeth Lunstrum has explored the nexus between rhino tourism, conservation, and for-profit military corporations. She stated that the industry of rhino relocation has, in some instances, deepened militarised conservation.

Specifically, she has identified how rhino relocations from South Africa to Botswana have solicited funds from large private donors. As a result, the industry can entrench ‘fortress conservation’ through militarised force. Lunstrum found that the:

movement of rhinos, and hence the related outsourcing of shoot-on-sight policies, is ultimately enabled by private financial donations.

‘Shoot-on-sight’ policies refer to Botswana’s militarised approach to conservation. The country allows eco-guards to shoot poachers. For this reason, Lunstrum concluded that:

The outcome, however, is the further consolidation of a militarized conservation fortress built around relocated rhinos. This is because more rhinos give the BDF (Botswana Defence Force), backed by the state shoot-on-sight policy, more reason to engage in lethal force.

In a nutshell, African Parks can take the rhinos out of one multimillionaire’s militarised project, but so long as it’s in charge, billionaire-financed colonial militarisation will remain in rhino conservation. It may sound like a rare good news story, but in the hands of a historically colonial conservation entity, wariness is definitely merited.

Feature image via Derek Keats/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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