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Core benefactors in Rhino War unveiled

In an age of rapid news dissemination, sometimes we forget events and people who made – and are still making – a real difference. In this case a “colossal difference”, according to KZN Project Rhino member Yvette Taylor of the Lawrence Anthony Foundation.

Last week she held a small function to thank two major donors in their “quite phenomenal” fight against rhino poaching in KZN. In doing so, she unearthed information that highlighted the extraordinary contributions two individuals, Vincent Christoforos, owner of helicopter company King Shaka Aviation at Durban’s Virginia Airport and Pietermaritzburg businessman Duncan Paul, who together have contributed more than R1 million towards the cause.

“So many people have played a wonderful role in this war but filtering through all our records I couldn’t help but highlight these two individuals. On behalf of everyone involved in this war, may you understand the huge appreciation we hold for your efforts,” said Taylor.

Back in early 2011 the late Dr Ian Player urgently called on private companies and individuals to help subsidise an aerial presence, specifically helicopters, in policing those KZN’s protected areas holding Rhino. Christoforos was not only the first to respond but in doing so donated a helicopter and a pilot for seven months, basing them at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi (HiP) Game Reserve.

“It was a quite extraordinary gesture. When I look back now I understand not just your generosity, which I believe amounted to all of R500 000 out of your own pocket, but how critical this intervention was. It kick-started the entire helicopter venture and lent huge weight to our anti-poaching efforts over the past four years,” said Taylor.

Yvette Taylor of the Lawrence Anthony Foundation thanking Duncan Paul (centre holding one of the three R34 000 pilot helmets he donated) and Vincent Christoforous of King Shaka Aviation for what she considered were their "colossal" contributions towards combating rhino poaching in KZN

Such weight, she said, included the company’s formative contribution in helping establish the largest and most effective anti-poaching organisation in the province, Project Rhino KZN. This 15-member private and NGO partnership has effectively underwritten and supported all Rhino conservation and anti-poaching efforts in KZN ever since.

Such was the helicopter company’s passion to provide impetus to the Rhino poaching war that behind the scenes its Operational Manager Russell Ashley-Cooper had approached Pietermaritzburg businessman Duncan Paul. Unbeknown to most, Paul had “quietly but relentlessly” become a client of King Shaka Aviation and through the company sourced anti-poaching equipment and channelled funds amounting to more than R400 000 to date.

She noted, too, that Ashley-Cooper had also elicited other private donations amounting to a further R500 000 in donations.

Taylor said this had all been ring-fenced specifically to KZN Project Rhino’s aerial fleet ‘Zap Wing’ stationed in the town of Hluhluwe.

Paul’s specific donations reveal an extraordinary inventory of donated items, including thermal binoculars, radio communication items, Bluetooth headsets and helmets for helicopter pilots, sleeping bags, stoves, flares, the kitting out of Zap Wing’s ‘airport’ office at Hluhluwe and a multitude of combat supplies amongst other things.

“Perhaps what is most significant is that both these acts of extreme generosity have allowed our provincial government and Treasury to appreciate the value of the private sector and indeed the helicopter as well as the huge contribution that ‘Zap Wing’ has made in this rhino poaching war.”

This has been borne out with the recent publication of two new government tenders for the provision of a three anti-rhino poaching helicopters to operate for the next three years and another tender for a single helicopter service for one year prior to the above happening.

Both Christoforos and Paul agreed that their assistance was not simply born out of the cause itself but their knowledge that Project Rhino KZN was a highly organised and professional collection of NGO’s whose Zap Wing aerial operation was manned by a collection of fiercely dedicated and competent pilots.

“They are a phenomenal group of people who are fearless and utterly determined to make a difference. In short, our money has been well spent and that’s all you can ask for,” they said.

Underwriting everything, of course, is the relentless and ongoing battle to protect KZN’s rhinos and they both said that even though mortalities are rising their efforts amongst others simply had to continue.

Cedric Coetzee, head of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s rhino management unit, was effusive in his praise for donors such as Paul and King Shaka Aviation.

“Make no mistake they have provided a massive backbone to all our efforts. They have helped awaken the public to the scale, complexity and horror of this war. People like them help stimulate and drive our own state efforts to ensure their immense generosity is well invested,” he said.

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