Dr William Fowlds is a wildlife vet in South Africa, and the founder of our Vets Go Wild courses. One of the privileges of Dr. William Fowld’s professional life is to work with rhinos around the Eastern Cape reserves and to get to know them as individuals.
Dr. Fowlds travels to the East and to the West sharing his personal testimony of the brutal reality of poaching from the coal face as well as efforts to bring back rhinos from the brink of death with his pioneering veterinary care.
This World Rhino Day, we caught up with Dr. Fowlds and asked him the following questions:
Rhinos are iconic animals, and we couldn’t imagine an African safari without them. For you, what makes rhinos such special animals? “I think if you are out on safari in the presence of a rhino, you cannot help but be impressed by the sheer presence of a magnificent animal, and part of that I believe has got something to do with their pre-historic look in the sense of the presence that they carry when they are out in their natural habitat. You know, science will tell you that dinosaurs are extinct on this planet, I do not share that view at all. I think that most of the dinosaurs are indeed extinct but I believe rhinos are one of the last remaining dinosaurs that we share this planet with, this makes them extra special. When you work with them, you have no doubt that you are in the presence of something that has been around for a lot longer than we have. Their horn is completely unique and they have this really thick pachyderm skin that feels the way, I would imagine, any of the great dinosaurs that we find in our fossil history like Triceratops and the like, to feel. Rhinos link us back to the past and remind us that we are newcomers on this planet – who are we to come along in the last millisecond and wipe them off the face of the earth? This just makes them extra special in my eyes. Apart from that, they are incredibly interesting creatures, with their differing personalities between black and white rhinos, and contrast in their aggression and behaviour. White Rhinos in particular have a very soft nature and it is very enduring to get to know them as individuals and to experience some of their natures.”
Could you walk us through your journey of becoming such an avid spokesperson for rhinos? “As I say to many people, my passion as a veterinary surgeon lies in the diversity of species that we are still blessed to have around us, and which we feel very responsible for. I love the fact that we live in such a biodiverse part of the world and that diversity for me, is what I am passionate about and what I would choose to do on a daily basis. Unfortunately, poaching and specifically the relatively large amount of poaching survivors that have come into my life, has resulted in me being sucked into the rhino crisis. It started off sharing what they go through at the hands of poachers and from there, a network of empathetic people grew, and it became more about channelling that energy, that passion and those finances into the right places. Ultimately I didn’t choose rhinos, I probably find them to be the most enduring species that I work with now, but that’s partially because of the pressure that they’re under. Rhinos found me and I feel that it is my duty to commit to as much, and as long as it takes as this species is right at the forefront of the extinction pressure. I know that whatever we do for rhinos, benefits the rest as well so that’s what keeps me going and what keeps me talking and hopefully what keeps us being able to channel assistance from around the world into their lives. Not only for their benefit but for the benefit of many hundreds, if not thousands of species that live in their world.”
We admire your efforts to collaborate as much as possible with various partners to further rhino conservation efforts. Could you elaborate on some of these partnerships? “Having spent 15 or more years in conservation and more specifically the last 9 years very rhino-focused, I believe the only way we are going to succeed in turning the plight of animals and even their whole environmental crisis around is through collaboration. These issues are far too big for any person or any single organization to tackle and unless we collaborate we are simply not going to succeed. It is really important to put away egos and neutralize any turf wars between non-profits or people that feel that they have done enough to claim a certain space in conservation. It’s about finding synergies and working together so that we can do the best we can for the collective good. It’s about finding our niche on the frontline where we are particularly good at and doing our best there. Collaboration is vital and collaboration is only possible when you have a plan. We have probably been very bad as a country in providing leadership around constructing a plan that works. We have a plan for the Eastern Cape and I think that is partially why we are beginning to succeed in showing vast improvement in our poaching statistics. This is because we have a plan and collaborations and it really makes a difference when you get those two things right.
In terms of partnerships, there are too many to mention. There are many passionate people and some of them are part of non-profits and non-governmental organizations doing their bit but there are also incredibly effective individuals out there who just do their thing. I don’t want to single out any particular partnerships but in my little life, I deal with at least 10 non-profits and about another 10 – 15 individual people. One month they will be channelling some sort of funding or introducing people through a particular non-profit that we think there is a good synergy and the next month we may be going through another non-profit, just because they have a particular set of experience, skills or network that we think makes the best fit. Many different organizations all playing their role is important and co-ordinating that is also important.”
Since 2007, you have grown the team that delivers practical wildlife veterinary courses for vet students from all over the world. How does sharing the story of your rhino journey impact these students? “For me, it’s been an amazing privilege to work with students of my profession. I know how important it was for me when I was a student to meet and be influenced by vets from a variety of different disciplines and by those who had done something with their lives, and who I could honestly see were making a difference and an impact – this is inspirational at that young age shapes where you want to go and what you want to do. One of the things we do on our Vets Go Wild courses is to share some of the conservation work we do with species (rhinos is one of those species) and I think if you are a vet student with a whole career ahead of you, particularly if you want to make a difference in life, knowing first of all that what we already do is important but also the realization as a vet student, of the challenges that lie ahead in our environment. The realization from their side is that they will be doing similar things to what we are telling them about, maybe not with rhinos, but with a different species or place on the planet. The realization hits them that this is going to be part of what they will be as vets. I think the initial dream that they could have had of being companion animal vets and doing medicine and surgery is not what every vet is going to end up doing in their lives, and as the challenge out there is enormous, they will need to respond to that and hopefully having thought about it at an early stage while they are still students, will prepare them for how they will respond to that call of nature and get stuck in and make a difference and turn this sinking ship around.”
What role does the ecotourism industry have to play in rhino conservation, and can more be done from this sector? “As we stand, ecotourism is probably the single biggest backbone to conservation, certainly in South Africa and I’m sure most African countries. So much so that what COVID has shown us is that a ban on international travel has led us to be in a very precarious situation without the direct contribution of ecotourism. It’s both a strength from the point of view that ecotourism makes the biggest contribution and is vitally important for conservation, but it has also highlighted the weakness in that tourism can be volatile. You only need terrorism, political instability or disease to come along to any country and it’s going to have a major impact on ecotourism, which will then have a major impact on conservation. I think the challenge for the next generation is to design conservation models that are not as dependent on ecotourism. I still believe the best way to make anyone passionate and committed to making a difference in conservation or for wildlife is to connect them to those animals and I have always said that the best thing you can do for rhinos is to go on a safari because you need to connect. Once that connection happens, everything else is a lot easier and it is lifelong. If pandemics and other issues stop people from making that connection, it becomes more and more difficult to engage people and make them feel the importance of looking after these animals and sparing them for the next generation. I think ecotourism, either on the ground or by finding ways to connect humanity to wildlife, is still the foundation stone of what we do to keep conservation alive.
We have seen over the last 50 years that the biggest problem we face is habitat destruction and if we don’t expand new areas for wildlife habitat, if we don’t win back the wild, we are going to be in even more serious trouble. I think this should be the single biggest priority for the ecotourism industry. To advance habitats and biodiversity. Sending people on a safari is important but choosing destinations that are actively going about expanding new wildlife habitats and securing/restoring biodiversity, must be a priority. The days of selling big five only is not a sustainable model, we need to sell an experience that is linked to something far bigger and that involves rescuing this planet and sparing enough biodiverse space so that we all are able to survive and live effectively and happy lives – wildlife and humans included.”
For people who are perhaps living overseas, and want to help make a difference for rhinos, what is your advice? “Living abroad and making a direct impact on rhinos under pandemics and travel restrictions is very difficult. As soon as travel is made available to you again, get yourself on a safari and come and experience these animals in their wild habitat – that will make the single biggest difference to you. If at all possible, try and do a behind-the-scenes experience of some shape or form, as this really gets you close and personal with our wildlife – an experience at a different level. Make sure to leave something behind, don’t select a safari that is good for you and you go home having enjoyed yourself and left more damage behind than good. You need to go on a safari knowing that you are going to make a bigger, positive impact over anything negative that safari delivers to the world. This is quite a challenge, both from a tourist and a product point of view.
For people who cannot travel yet, engage yourself in online courses, and seminars. Educate yourself, build a network from overseas and connect with people making a difference – support them in any shape or form that you can. If you cannot help financially, introduce them and their projects to people, corporations or government circles who may be able to help. Educate yourself and get active by connecting conservation projects to people who can help.”
If you’re a veterinary student and would like to join Dr William Fowlds and his team on a hands-on African wildlife veterinary course:
or sign up for our virtual Vets Go Wild Online component which launches later this month.
If you would like to get behind the scenes and work with rhinos on game reserves or wildlife conservation programmes, head over to