We all know what’s happening to Africa's rhinos, right? Don’t we? 

It’s a valid question – because it is human misinformation that's largely to blame for the biggest threat to the rhinos' future survival.

05 03 2014 Rhino Poaching Horns
South Africa lost a staggering 1004 rhinos to poaching last year, most of them in the iconic Kruger National Park. Image: Paul Mills/Will Fowlds

One music group is throwing its star power behind efforts to change this situation. Using their growing international popularity and their platform for public promotion, South African afro-fusion band Freshlyground hopes to raise awareness of the rhinos' plight, as well as the reasons that are driving Africa's poaching pandemic.

"Having been on this planet for 50 million years, rhinos are facing extinction because we believe that [powdered rhino horn] cures cancer and provides prolonged sexual stimulation," says Simon Attwell, the band’s flutist, saxophonist, mbira and harmonica player. The efficacy of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac and a cure for a curiously wide range of ailments and diseases has been discredited, as confirmed by organizations like Save The Rhino and RhiNO Remedy.

“There are some good efforts to preserve these animals, and one of them is the Chipembere Rhino Foundation,” says Simon. Chipembere is a privately run, registered non-profit and public benefit organization based in South Africa, the country that is home to around 80% of the world’s remaining wild rhino population.

The foundation was established in November 2010 after Amakhala Game Reserve in the country's Eastern Cape province lost two white rhino bulls to poaching in one night, including their main breeding bull, Chippy, after whom the organization is named (Chipembere means rhinoceros in Shona, one of the major traditional languages of southern Africa).

Chipembere's founder Brent Cook says they are facing a real crisis with the high numbers of poachings occurring in the country – over 1000 rhinos were poached last year, up from only 83 in 2008. "We are close to a tipping point," he warns. "We are soon going to be losing rhinos faster than they can naturally reproduce." (Females calve for the first time at about 6.5 years. After a gestation period of 16 months, the cow keeps her calf close by for around two years before hopefully calving again.)

05 03 2014 Rhino Tracker Feb
Earth Touch's Rhino Tracker outlines poaching trends and the latest poaching figures.

Although precise numbers are difficult to pin down due to the natural (and unnatural) flux of life, as well as the constant movement of the animals and a fear-driven reluctance for rhino owners to provide information, it's clear that populations are severely reduced. There are currently only approximately 20,400 white rhinos and 4,800 black rhinos left on the planet, mostly in South Africa. (Asian rhino are also under threat, with fewer than 3,000 Indian rhinos, around 100 Sumatran rhinos and fewer than 50 Javan rhinos remaining.)

As an NGO run by volunteers, Chipembere continuously sources, tests and aims to fund the right technology for effective and meaningful monitoring of the rhinos, as well as providing anti-poaching teams with the necessary equipment to give them the support they need on the ground. "A multi-pronged approach is needed that includes protection, monitoring, gathering intelligence that feeds to a greater network that creates a safer and better protected environment for rhino, translocations to safer areas, and reducing the demand for rhino horn through global awareness and education," explains Brent.

This is not a mean feat – nor a cheap business. A GPS satellite rhino collar, for example, costs about US$2,100 per animal, and helicopter surveillance flights are around US$450 per hour. A handheld infrared thermal imaging camera (most poaching incidents take place at night) costs in the region of US$6,400. 

As patrons of the Chipembere Rhino Foundation, Freshlyground have helped to raise funds towards expensive and necessary anti-poaching gear. "We’ve been privy to the lengths required to protect the limited numbers of rhino left in the wild, including darting, de-horning, transmitter implants and collars, relocation, and surveillance," says Simon, who has accompanied Brent on monitoring and conservation missions. 

“It’s unfathomable that we as human beings can’t see that if we decimate the rhinos, there will be repercussions for us.”

The band performed at a fundraiser in Cape Town last June, which raised ZAR100,000 (over US$9,000) in aid of rhino conservation. "It’s distressing that these incredible creatures are being wiped out at such a rate," laments Zolani Mahola, lead vocalist for the band. "The lack of humanity is so galling. It’s unfathomable that we as human beings can’t see that if we decimate the rhinos, there will be repercussions for us." She concludes: "It’s so important to raise awareness of this cause. If I can lend my voice, then that’s my way of contributing."

African rhino are classified as critically endangered (black rhino) and near-threatened (white rhino) by the IUCN. Of course, like many wild animals, they suffer the effects of habitat reduction, climate changes and trophy hunting, but the biggest direct threat to the rhinos' survival is poaching for their horns. "It all boils down to human greed and human apathy," notes Brent.

Only through raising awareness and education can the carnage be stopped. "We hope that in helping in some small way to support the guys at Chipembere, we can contribute to the will to make a difference," says Simon. 

Simon sums it up: "We all have a choice – either get behind the preservation of these magnificent animals, or sit and watch from the sidelines as they disappear over the course of a human lifetime."

To donate to the Chipembere Rhino Foundation, click here.

Freshlyground will be opening for UB40 at Emmerentia Dam in the city of Johannesburg on 5 April. There’s also a European tour on the cards for the middle of the year, so keep your eye on their gig guide.