Image credit: andBeyond
For someone who has been instrumental in more than 40,000 relocations over two decades, Les Carlisle has not received a word of thanks from those he helped.
Not that he is complaining, of course. After all, the wildlife conservationist is not only based in one of the most mysterious and intriguing continents in the world, but his daily life is also endowed with up-close encounters with legendary creatures in the wild.
The 55-year-old has been instrumental in the world of eco-tourism and conservation, having progressed from full-time translocation to development and management of new game reserves. As Group Conservation Manager of luxury experiential travel company andBeyond, Carlisle facilitates conservation management for andBeyond’s properties and interacts with national and provincial parks, seeking opportunities for tourism to in turn support conservation and create more wildlife land.
His career highlights and accolades speak of his impressive expertise and unprecedented successes. In 2012, Carlisle was involved in the groundbreaking reversal of a local extinction of gaur (Indian bison) in the Bandhavgarh National Park in India, where he also trained Indian veterinaries and conservationists on the protocol of the mass translocation of animals. He holds the record for the most number of white rhinos moved in a single day — 21.
And this year, Carlisle was involved in the translocation of 10 white rhinos from South Africa to secure areas of Botswana. It was the inaugural operation of Rhinos Without Borders, an ambitious collaboration between andBeyond and Great Plains Conservation, two respected African tourism entities.
The jovial conservationist, however, prefers not to focus on the numbers. To him, every translocation was an “incredible experience” and one such moment was when he delivered a giraffe to a property where there had been no giraffes for 150 years — witnessing a farmer there shedding tears when the animal walked out of the truck was truly emotional.
Apart from his love for wildlife, Carlisle is also a keen naturalist and avid birdwatcher, and has a passion for flying. He and his wife live at Phinda, where his two sons also grew up. Both are drawn to conservation issues — his younger son, in particular, is studying zoology at university and wants to pursue conservation as a career.
In Singapore last week in support of Quotient’s RhinosCanFly initiative, which aims to raise US$50,000 to sponsor the translocation of one rhino from South Africa to Botswana, the dedicated conservationist shared his devotion to preserving wildlife and opened up about the desperate need to save Africa’s rhinos.
Quotient: Hi Les. What’s it like having your job? You’re surrounded by a lot of conflict yet you’re operating in one of the most amazing wildlife areas on the continent and the world. How do you cope with this contrast?
The biggest thing that’s getting me out of bed every morning is the ability to make a difference. In areas that are stable and organised it’s not easy to make a difference. It’s much easier to make a difference in areas where there are major issues. For me it’s important to be able to see what the end goal is and stay focused on it regardless of the hurdles that are thrown at you and I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. Conservation is not something that happens in a day; it is long term. We try to make this planet more sustainable and this takes time.
You are currently on a mission to move 100 rhinos from South Africa to Botswana in order to save them from poaching. How did the Rhinos Without Borders project come about?
We started operating in Botswana about 12 to 15 years ago, and back then there were very few rhinos in Okavango Delta. After about 6 years of operating, we started seeing a cow and calf on our concession but realised the the cow was not breeding. We decided we would take one bull and release it from our reserve in Phinda and donate it to Botswana; that would hopefully mean that this calf can start breeding. Eventually, in our negotiations, our directors decided that they would donate six rhinos to Botswana and move them onto our concession.
We were unbelievably surprised when we released the rhinos that even the president and the minister of tourism came to the release. That gave us confidence to take the project to the next level. Initially, we were thinking about maybe doing 30 rhinos, but at the same time, Dereck Joubert from Great Plains Conservation also decided to take it to scale. So we pulled our resources to work together to achieve the translocation of 100 rhinos. We translocated the first 10 rhinos in April 2015 and the project’s going really well.
What has been the easiest and most challenging aspect of the Rhinos Without Borders project?
Probably the easiest is understanding the desperate need to save Africa’s rhinos — understanding that we’re losing three rhinos every day. This has clearly been the motivation of doing Rhinos Without Borders.
There are so many people doing so many different things for rhinos, and even two organisations behave differently so the most difficult thing is trying to keep everyone focused on the end goal, which is to move as many rhinos as soon as possible. It’s also challenging to keep the conservation authorities supportive when there are so many other activities that need support.
What expertise from past rhino relocation is being taken on board with the current initiative?
My background is in wildlife translocation and I have 30 years of expertise. Because of the scale and size of the project, I engaged a private game capture operator, Grant Tracy, who has 30 years of full-time rhino translocations. Doctor Dave Cooper, the veterinarian we employed, has also been translocating between 200 and 300 rhinos every year in the last 30 years. We have the two most experienced people in the industry on the specialist team. We also work with Marcus Hoffman, the head of game capture for South Africa national parks. We have absolutely the most experienced professionals in the industry.
In the Rhinos Without Borders story, one of the reasons why Botswana seems like a rhino haven is its political resolve. The country has banned all commercial hunting and puts antipoaching in the hands of the Botswana Defence Force, which in turn employs a “shoot to kill policy”. Why can’t other African countries, South Africa in particular, follow suit? Wouldn’t that solve the problem?
The first difference is that South Africa has a first-world constitution and with this, human rights is absolutely top of the constitution, which means that you can’t “shoot to kill”. Since the democracy in 1994, this is just not possible. Secondly, it’s because South Africa’s national parks are so vast and in neighbouring Mozambique, which is one of the poorest countries in Africa, we have a massive pull of potential poachers as there is no alternative employment in Mozambique. About 70% of the poachers from South Africa are from Mozambique.
We’ve got a geopolitical reason why very high densities of very poor people living next to each other poach very high densities of rhinos. Botswana has the privilege of being able to “shoot to kill” while South Africa doesn’t legally. However, South Africa is using its resources immensely to protect the rhinos but the areas are vast and the densities of impoverished people are huge so it’s a very difficult task.
How have social and political views on rhino poaching evolved over the last few years in South Africa and Botswana respectively?
There is more and more support and more organisations protecting rhinos. On the South African side of Kruger National Park, some of the communities support conservation because they see benefits: they get jobs, there’s tourism. One of the roles of Rhinos Without Borders is to generate benefits to the communities. If we don’t, we won’t be able to protect the rhinos. Tourism is a key part of the whole equation. The reason why we have to protect rhinos is that we need tourism to survive. Without the Big Five, Africa wouldn’t be able to compete with the rest of the world. We compete based on our wildlife. If we lose the wildlife, we’re going to lose tourism.
What would our world be like without rhinos? What does it mean to you, as a conservation specialist?
Rhinos are currently an icon species and they’re an indicator of the health of the whole system. If we lose rhinos, what’s next? We’re going to lose something else. If we can’t protect rhinos, we won’t protect the other species. We’re saving rhinos as a call to action to protect the entire system.
How about the extreme of legalising the sale of rhino horns? Since the horns grow back, why not have experts cut the horns and make it commercially available?
That’s an option that’s being investigated by the government of South Africa as we speak. They’ve set up a task team to investigate the potential trade in rhino horn and the reason is that it’s the only wildlife product that is completely renewable because it grows back. You can’t do it with elephant ivory, you can’t do it with tiger bones or any other international wildlife products.
There is a congress of the parties meeting next year at which CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has to approve the sale of rhino horn. The government of South Africa has set up this committee to advise them what they need to say and who they need to lobby beforehand, because if you don’t have enough votes, you won’t be able to get it passed. South Africa has 80% of the world’s rhinos — it only seems logical that they should have a say in the future of rhinos.
There has been a lot of controversial debate on killing big game for conservation. Can killing for conservation be justified?
Absolutely! While hunting is a disaster in one country, in another country, hunting is essential for conservation. If you look at the South African context, currently 75% of all its wildlife is supported by hunting. If we remove hunting from the South African conservation landscape, we lose 75% of all our wildlife.
It may not be the case in Botswana because they banned hunting. It certainly wasn’t the case in Kenya, where hunting was the reason why they had massive decline in the wildlife. If there are high levels of corruption, hunting becomes a very negative force. If there’s little corruption, hunting can be a positive conservation force.
Sustainable utilisation of wildlife is the reason why we have 75% of our wildlife on private land because it is sustainably used. Hunting is done on a very controlled, very measured and scientific fashion. Only animals that are in excess to the ability of the property to sustain them are removed.
How often do you go on holiday and what is your favourite vacation place in the world outside of Africa?
I normally go on holiday outside South Africa once a year. Any destination that I go to with my family is the best destination! As far as destinations go, the place I would most like to take my family outside of Africa would be to a place I’ve never been myself, which is Patagonia in South America.
Which is your favourite andBeyond lodge or camp and why?
Obviously I’m slightly biased towards Phinda, because I built it and my kids were both born there and I love the property, but I think Mnemba Island has to be a contender. I love the Serengeti and I love Klein’s Camp in the Serengeti National Park.