April 17

Talking Endangered Species Conservation with Wildlife ACT’s Jo Maree


By Melanie Du Toit on April 17, 2018

Wildlife ACT and Rhino Africa have a long-held friendship in no small part due to our shared love of Africa, her landscapes, her people, and (of course) her wildlife. We recently sat down with Jo Maree, one of Wildlife ACT‘s founders, to talk about his organisation and their fight to preserve endangered species on the African continent.

Wildlife ACT's Jo Maree in Zululand taking part in a de-horning project.
Image credit: Scott Christensen
Jo Maree (far right) in Zululand taking part in a de-horning project.

At a Glance:

Rhino Africa: Why don’t you tell us a bit about how Wildlife ACT started?

Johan Maree: Ten years ago, Chris Kelly, Dr Simon Morgan and myself decided we wanted to develop and implement sustainable models to support key species conservation efforts in Africa. We also realised that communities living in, or close to, conservation areas really needed to be a part of the conservation planning which needed to include long-term economic incentives.

Image Credit: Wildlife ACT

One of our first models, which has proved really sustainable, is using eco-tourism to fund our endangered and priority species monitoring programmes across the continent as well as our expert conservationist and reintroduction projects.

For example, more than 600 volunteer tourists join our expert conservationists in the field every year, giving them the opportunity to get directly involved in important work to conserve and protect endangered and priority species such as the African wild dog, black rhino, cheetah, leopard, elephant, and numerous vulture and turtle species.

Wildlife ACT works to protect the continent's endangered species from extinction
Wildlife ACT in action, protecting the continent’s endangered species from extinction.

RA: Tell us a bit more about you and your role in Wildlife ACT…

JM: So, I’m Wildlife ACT’s co-founder and chairperson. I started out my career with a degree in commerce and economics and a postgraduate degree in marketing and advertising. I tried the advertising world for five years but found I had a deeper calling. My main role in Wildlife ACT is to drive the sustainable development of our conservation footprint on the continent while also building strategic partnerships.

I’m currently in my final year of reaching an MA in Development Finance and I’m incredibly excited about the role Wildlife ACT is going to play in developing and implementing much-needed investment opportunities that will not only drive economic development, but be good for the people and wildlife who call our beautiful continent home.

RA: So, what are the most endangered species in Africa?

JM: Unfortunately, there are over 400 species in Africa on the endangered species list – that we know about! Aside from top-priority species such as lion, leopard, cheetah, and elephant; Wildlife ACT also focuses on African wild dog, black rhino, white-headed vulture, lappet-faced vulture, green sea turtle, and the hawksbill sea turtle.

Wildlife Act on the ground
Image credit: Wildlife ACT

Spotlight on Rhinos

Rhino Africa naturally shows a keen interest in its namesake, and so we couldn’t wait to sit down and talk to Jo about our favourite horned herbivore.

RA: First things first, what is the difference between a white and black rhino?

JM: White rhinos typically feed on grasses while black rhinos feed on the leaves of trees and shrubs. Correctly speaking, the former is a grazer and the latter is a browser. The white rhino is also a fair amount larger than the black, with larger skulls to boot. But, as they say, dynamite comes in small packages and the black rhino tend to be more aggressive than the white and are much easier to scare. Black rhino are also the species of rhino that is the most threatened and they are the ones listed as critically endangered.

Black rhinos can be identified by their hooked lip.

RA: How many black rhino are left in South Africa and on the continent today?

JM: Well, as recently as 1970 there were around 65 000 black rhinos in sub-Saharan Africa. By the end of the 1970s, 90% of them had been wiped out in eastern Africa. Today, there are less than 2 500 black rhino left and they are all found in isolated pockets of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania. South Africa is of particular importance because it is home to a large percentage of the world’s last remaining black rhinos.

RA: What drives the interest around rhino horn and poaching them?

JM: People poach rhinos for monetary gain and it is fueled by a growing demand for rhino horn, primarily in Asian countries such as China and Vietnam. The trade in rhino horn is driven by international criminal syndicates which means that rhinos the world over are under threat of extinction. Just five years ago, both the Western black rhino and Vietnamese population of Javan rhino were officially declared extinct.

Today, there are less than six northern white rhino left in Africa. South Africa is home to the largest populations of both black and white rhinos still roaming in the wild, which is one of the reasons why this country is bearing the brunt of what can be described as one of the worst global wildlife conservation crises of the last century.

Wildlife ACT taking part in a rhino de-horning project in Zululand.
Image Credit: Scott Christensen

RA: What headway, if any, has Wildlife ACT made with regards to black rhino conservation?

JM: There’s a lot to consider when looking at what it takes to save a species. Wildlife ACT is initiating, operating, and funding local and international rhino monitoring projects; developing and implementing anti-poaching measures and technology in the field; and purchasing and fitting rhino-monitoring equipment (such as transmitters, implants, and ankle collars). We also offer our time and expertise to help provide the adequate management, capture, transport, and reintroduction of rhino into protected areas.

To do this, we align ourselves with many other organisations. We assist the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with their Black Rhino Range Expansion Project by finding suitable release points for black rhino. We train new black rhino monitors, and we purchase and fit tracking equipment on the rhino being released while continuing with post-release monitoring work as the rhino settles into its new home.

Baby rhino orphan at a rhino sanctuary, wildlife ACT

We’re also heavily involved in demand reduction policies such as TRAFFIC (which involves de-horning rhino populations to reduce the risk of poaching) and campaigning to stop the exploitation of wildlife. It is heartbreaking how many rhino are orphaned because their mothers are poached, and so we support the safe capture and rehabilitation of young rhino in a safe, protected location until they are old enough to be reintroduced into the wild.

An orphaned rhino being cared for at a rhino orphanage.
An orphaned rhino being cared for at a rhino orphanage.

An integral part of the successful conservation of wildlife is helping rural communities living alongside protected wildlife areas. By helping foster a love and respect for rhinos, a reason to protect them as a species (such as employment opportunities created through conservation), and educating communities about the realities of poaching and the benefits of tourism, the rhino conservation model becomes more sustainable.

RA: And now onto the nitty gritty… are black rhino numbers increasing?

JM: Despite the massive pressure posed by poaching and very much due to the hard work of many stakeholders, black rhino numbers have increased over the past three years. Unfortunately, because there are so few left, one bad poaching episode can undo years of tireless and costly conservation work which is precisely why we cannot afford to drop our guard at this stage. We need to do all we can to get the black rhino off the endangered species list.

Close-up of a rhino's eye taken for Wildlife ACT.

Wildlife ACT Highlights of the Past Year

RA: What do you think Wildlife ACT’s biggest achievement is to date?

JM: We’ve achieved so many milestones in our fight to save endangered species on the continent in the last decade and there are many reasons to celebrate. That said, I think my favourite achievements over the past year are:

  • Placing 2nd in Africa at the African Responsible Tourism Awards 2017 for their Best for Habitat and Species Conservation category
  • Being the first wildlife program in Africa to become certified by Fair Trade Tourism
  • Our co-founder, Chris Kelly, was the first runner-up at the Rhino Conservation Awards 2017 for Endangered Species Conservation (It’s worth noting who beat him: Africa Parks!).

Wildlife ACT protecting endangered species from extinction in Africa

RA: If you could be one of the endangered animals you’re protecting, you would you pick and why?

JM: Definitely the African wild dog! I’ve come to understand and admire these animals tremendously. They are incredibly tough but very social animals who have close family bonds. The pack members share responsibility for protecting pups with both males, females, brothers, and sisters taking care of the young.

They are also one of the most successful hunters and they work incredible effectively as a team. Sadly, they are also the second-most endangered canid in Africa and are vulnerable to being caught in snares set by poachers.

RA: Describe Wildlife ACT in three words.

JM: Focused. Wildlife. Conservation.

African wild dog at Kwando in Botswana
African wild dog


Do you want to be part of Wildlife ACT’s legacy?

Wildlife ACT is always on the lookout for people who want to give of their time and/or their funds to make a valuable contribution in the fight to preserve Africa’s endangered wildlife. Everyone between the ages of 18 – 65+ is welcome to volunteer with Wildlife ACT.

Volunteers of Wildlife ACT working on a rhino
Image Credit: Scott Christensen
A group of volunteers and members of Wildlife ACT in action

Typical days on duty include helping a wildlife monitor keep track of wildlife, locating animals with tracking collars, updating their identity kits once found, and documenting behavioral notes.

You can also donate to Wildlife ACT and choose your cause such as sponsoring an anti-snare collar for African wild dogs or supporting rhino conservation.


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About the author 

Melanie Du Toit

Jozi-born, Knysna local, and recovering yachtie, Melanie decided that she missed being land-based after 18 months sailing the seas. Now that she lives in the most beautiful city in Africa (she is adamant about this fact), you will find her trying out new things around Cape Town, dreaming about her next holiday, and using Wikipedia to enhance her skills as an encyclopaedia of useless information.

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