Here’s the whole Sunday Times article/interview about Poaching Wars with Tom Hardy. Many thanks to Ilona Delamere, who posted this on THAAC!
It’s not the end just yet, old girl
ublished: 18 August 2013
The heart-throb actor Tom Hardy is on a mission to save elephants and rhinos from poaching. They have never been in such danger
Tom Hardy makes a good living out of playing villains and hardmen in Hollywood movies. But, he says, “the thought of being eaten by a lion for dinner in the middle of the night while taking a piss has a certain anxiety”. Hardy recently toured four southern African countries and filmed a two-part documentary, to be shown this week, about the poaching crisis stalking the continent.
The trip had its dangers. “The week before I went out,” he says, “what was left of one lad [after a lion attack] was put in a cooler box and sent home to his mum.” In South African townships, if you are accompanied by a camera crew with expensive equipment, “the atmosphere changes when the sun goes down. The odd machete-wielding glue-sniffer tends to raise the blood level.”
But Hardy is serious about the problem. After successful efforts to limit poaching in the 1990s, a slaughter that began in 2008 has become an epidemic, feeding a surging Asian demand, especially from Vietnam and China. Many people in those countries believe powdered rhino horn can treat almost any ailment, including cancer and impotence. In reality it is simply keratin, with “the medicinal value of a bag of toenails”, as Hardy puts it. A kilogram of powdered horn was worth $4,700 in 1993. Today it costs $65,000.
I don’t criticise those beliefs or point the finger,” says Hardy. “In some of these Asian countries people dig 20ft just to find some root crop to survive. But we need to demystify these products and negate demand to ensure the survival of these species.”
Five million elephants roamed Africa in 1930, with what George Orwell called their “preoccupied grandmotherly air”. The ivory trade was banned in 1989 but the black market is now thriving; fewer than 500,000 elephants remain in the continent today. Every 15 minutes poachers shoot another one dead: 36,000 African elephants, nearly 8% of the population, were illegally slaughtered last year. Senegal is thought to have only one elephant left. The animals have existed for 50m years but, on some projections, they will be extinct in the wild by the time Prince George finishes primary school.
The rhino’s situation is even more desperate. One species went extinct in 2011; three of the remaining five are critically endangered. In 2004, 10 rhino were poached in South Africa. Last year 668 were killed, and 553 had been slaughtered by August 7 this year. The numbers will top 1,000 by Christmas.
So Hardy’s documentary could not be more timely. A hunky, laddish blend of David Attenborough and Ross Kemp, the actor is speaking to me from a film set in Prague. “The more I found out about poaching, the more I realised how little I knew,” he says. “It was like pulling the wool from a sweater. Poaching is not just a case of opportunistic hungry citizens trying to feed their families. It’s an insidious symptom of organised crime syndicates connected at the highest levels.”
Hardy meets conservationists, anti-poaching vigilantes, rhino breeders, tourism ministers and charity workers. Everyone agrees that the war is being lost. Sentimental concern for megafauna and donating money to conserve them are mainly white men’s concerns — and whites still own much of the land in southern Africa. Poachers pay the rent by harvesting a natural resource and are locally seen as Robin Hoods.
But Hardy shows that bloodthirsty militant groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab fund themselves through the illegal ivory trade, and that “untouchable kingpins” in Vietnam and Laos make millions by exploiting it.
“Most people are completely unaware that animal trafficking is now the third-largest illicit trade in the world,” he says. Systemic corruption, mouldering infrastructure and the chaotic nature of countries such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo render the fight against poaching exceptionally difficult, but “if you don’t try, you don’t get anywhere”.
The courts are no help in fighting poaching. Penalties can be laughably light and poachers are regularly acquitted at trial. Landowners now employ anti-poaching officers, who, armed with military assault rifles, guard giant estates against poachers. Twenty-three poachers are thought to have been killed by South African rangers since 2008; at one Indian national park guards receive a cash bonus for killing a poacher.
Hardy says the best ways to stop poaching are to impose “huge sentences on miscreants, have better security on estates, increase local education and pile massive pressure on Chinese and Vietnamese leadership to ban it outright”. I point out that the illegal drug trade suggests the opposite: that black markets invariably circumvent resources thrown at them and that costs rise towards expensive failure. “You have to cross the bridge as you find it,” he says. “Management from the top needs to start talking about it. It needs to be the top of an international conversation.”
Rhinos grow about 1kg of horn a year. Why not humanely harvest those horns and legalise and regulate the trade? “They need their horns,” says Hardy, “for lifting newborns; otherwise they would just club them to death. They use them to dig for water and feed their young.” In any case dehorning removes only 90-95% of the horn, and Hardy says poachers will still kill a dehorned rhino — six dehorned animals were shot in Zimbabwe two years ago. The process is also expensive and requires the rhino to be sedated, which is difficult in such large animals.
Perhaps the most controversial way to fight rhino poaching is to inject their horns with a purple dye that is toxic to humans. But this is fraught with ethical issues and probably impractical on a large scale.
Hardy is open about his intentions and clearly cares about the issue. “I’m not here to prove anything or to make people like me,” he says. His skill is his “hands-on desire to get into the gubbins of whatever subject I’m dealing with”. No matter that his main qualifications seem to be his good looks and a love of animals. “I’m a huge dog man!” he says. “I’m part dog, part raven.” When he stood with a herd of elephants, “there was something very spiritual about them. They deserve our respect and not to be reduced to bangles or pharmaceuticals for the wealthy or misinformed.”
This issue “happens to be on my table. Somebody has got to do something.” He admits two 60-minute TV programmes can only skim the surface of the problem and worries that “the situation seems bleak and hopeless. We probably won’t see these spectacular creatures in the next 10 or 20 years.”
Poaching Wars with Tom Hardy is on ITV at 9pm on Thursday August 22 and 29