$23 Million for Rhinos: Howard Buffett’s Mega Gift to Help Stop Poaching

Investor-philanthropist’s donation to South Africa National Parks will add high-tech monitoring and patrols at a critical moment for the endangered species.

$23 Million for Rhinos: Howard Buffett’s Mega Gift to Help Stop Poaching
(Photo: Manuel Romaris/Getty Images)
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

On Feb. 28 tourists visiting South Africa's Kruger National Park came across a gruesome scene: a wounded rhino stumbling through the brush, its horns chopped off by poachers.

It took park rangers six days to locate the rhino again. In addition to the wounds on the animal’s face they found a bullet lodged in its brain. Unable to save it, they had no choice but to put the animal down.

Rhino poaching is epidemic in South Africa, home to about 80 percent of Africa’s two rhino species. A record 1,004 rhinos were killed by poachers last year to feed the voracious appetite for illegal rhino horn in China and Vietnam, where it is used as a component of traditional Asian medicines, as a status symbol, or as a detoxifying party drug. (Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same component as human fingernails, and has no medicinal qualities.) 

With the survival of wild African rhinoceroses at stake, the animals now have a surprising new ally. Howard Buffett, the 59-year-old son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, has donated $23.7 million to the battle against rhino poachers. The money, donated to South Africa National Parks last week, will help to buy a helicopter, land vehicles, and high-tech equipment to be used in Kruger National Park, where about half of South Africa’s rhinos reside.

The focus of Buffett’s investment will be on the portion of the park that borders Mozambique. Many of the poachers rampaging through Kruger cross over from the poorer nation and escape ranger patrols by squirreling across the border in the other direction. Much of the 200-plus-mile border is between Kruger and Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park and can’t be fenced owing to the effect it would have on animals’ movement and migration. 

Buffett’s investment will help pay for sensors to be placed on border fences that do exist, to help detect people jumping over. The money will also buy aerostats: tethered balloons carrying infrared cameras that scan the ground for intruders. The U.S. uses related technology to monitor the Mexican border, but “we’re going to do it at a scale that hasn't been done before,” Buffett told the Associated Press. “This is very much like our drug war.”

The funds will also help to train additional rangers, create canine units to track poachers, and improve intelligence-gathering operations, according to a press release from South Africa National Parks, which runs Kruger. In a speech given at the donation ceremony, South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa blamed poaching on criminal syndicates that “lure members of poverty-stricken communities into the poaching net, recruiting particularly the vulnerable to secure horns.” Buffett added that this drives further violence throughout the region. “When you see what conflict does to people, you cannot turn away. That conflict is fuelled by rhino horns [and] elephant ivory.”

Conservation groups praised Buffett's action while calling for additional action. “This incredibly generous donation needs to be supported by other efforts on the political front,” said Cathy Dean, director of Save the Rhino International. “We still await the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the South African and Mozambican governments that would enable SANParks rangers to pursue Mozambican poachers across the international border, and Mozambique's wildlife crime laws must be urgently revised to make rhino and elephant poaching a major offence, punishable with jail sentences of at least 10 years.”

Buffett, a director of his father’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, is CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a nonprofit supporting humanitarian and conservation causes, as well as chair of the South Africa–based Nature Conservation Trust. The two organizations together made the donation. Buffett holds South African citizenship and owns a 9,200-acre conservation operation in the province of Limpopo that was once home to three rhinos. The organization was forced to sell the rhinos to another operation because “we couldn't afford to protect them,” he told the South African paper Business Day.

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