Friday, February 19, 2016

Helping vets and rhinos: interview with Dr Helen Jones

Dr Helen Jones on safari.
Dr Helen Jones is best known to Australian veterinarians for her research on occupational health and safety in veterinarians. She’s now on a mission to save rhinos.

I met Dr Jones through the Australian Veterinary Association’s wellness stand at the annual conference. I didn’t know then that she was the first woman to be elected president of the Australian Veterinary Association in 1982. Among other things she was Associate Professor in Public Health at Curtain University. In 2014 she was awarded the AVA's Presidents Award for her contributions to the profession. She's also an avid volunteer.

Dr Jones has a career history of service, so it’s not surprising she’s lending her support to a species in need. She talked to us about her interests in the wellbeing of veterinarians and why rhinos need our support.

Can you tell us a bit about your current work?

My PhD research was on injury, zoonotic diseases and stress that vets experience. I discovered that suicide was a major problem, certainly in Victoria and WA. I have continued to work with the team involved with suicide prevention mainly Brian McErlean here in Perth.  We run the Wellness Centre at the annual AVA Conference with an emphasis on mental wellbeing (and thus suicide prevention).  To encourage vets to come into the Wellness Centre, I have arranged for a fitness company to come in and do wellness checks on vets and exhibitors including blood glucose, cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure. [Ed: I’ve had it done. Note to self – eat the jelly beans AFTER the blood glucose test this year].

A few years prior to my retirement from Curtin University in 2010, I became involved with the SAVE Foundation (Save the Black Rhino Foundation). The Foundation works almost exclusively in Zimbabwe. We have expanded its title to SAVE the African Rhino (SARF) because we also help out in South Africa, Namibia etc.  I first went on safari in 2010 where I learnt a lot about the SAVE Foundation and its work.   

Why do you do all this?

Difficult to answer why I do it.  I guess I am just committed to volunteering for great causes.   Veterinarian well-being is the most important and then the rhinos.  I am also heavily involved in Rotary.   I ran a Rotary Club of Canning Bridge Arts and Craft Market once a month for two years.  I am now the Secretary of my local Rotary Club.

I have visited the Zimbabwe Veterinary School in Harare several times now. The first impression in 2009 was that it was poverty struck.  No journals from 1990 and no access to computers.  Their laboratory equipment was all broken.  I tried to help them with donations of books and to get a container of secondhand vet equipment over there. That wasn’t successful but we took over a few books and I worked to get them access to journals and on-line databases.  They have since gained a few computers that allow them to access the databases in the library.  Initially they were being banned from accessing these because of an international boycott.

Second-hand gear can mean the world of difference for vets working in areas of need.
I have helped some vets at the vet school get articles published in journals.

We support some of the vets there with their dehorning programs for rhinos and with helping procure Suprelorin from Peptech (now Virbac) for “sterilizing” lions to prevent them from breeding.

Dr Jones hands over the supreloren.
I have brought as luggage an anaesthetic machine and three microscopes and a couple of centrifuges (not all at once!).   Some vets have donated medicines.

I also lobbied DFAT and written letters of support to help veterinarians in Victoria Falls receive a $30,000 Australian Government grant to build wildlife and veterinary facilities just out of Victoria Falls.

To raise money for the SARF Activities, we hold an annual auction of sporting memorabilia that last year raised close to $200,000, plus SARF run safaris which raise about $100,000 per year. All told, SARF (previously SAVE) has donated over $6 million (up to $500,000 per year) to activities to primarily help save the rhinos from poaching.  This involves paying to train the rangers, providing them with uniforms, boots etc, camera traps, tracking devices and vehicles (we probably have about 30 vehicles in Zimbabwe.  We also contribute to cost of the dehorning operations (involves hiring planes, helicopters, ground crew for horn removal). It costs about $1500 per each dehorning.

How did you become interested in rhinoceros conservation?

The rhino numbers are declining. South Africa, especially Kruger National Park, has a high rate of poaching with over 1000 rhinos poached for their horn in 2014. The rate declined slightly last year (still above 1000) but the rate in other African countries has risen (including Zimbabwe).

Why do rhinos need our help?

Poaching is rife because of the demand from Vietnam and China for rhino horn.  The current black market price is $60,000- $70,000 per kilo. A big male probably has a horn around 4 to 5 kilos.  By the way the local wage paid in Zimbabwe is US$100-$200/month so getting involved in poaching is very tempting.

There is a campaign run by a Melbourne based company called Breaking the Brand and it is focussed on Vietnam to try to stop the demand [for rhino horn] from growing middle class there.  Rhino horn’s alleged purpose is no longer about curing cancer, but is given as an exclusive gift to the rich.  I would prefer our efforts to go into this campaign.  In the meantime, each safari raises several thousand dollars for SARF.

How can vets help rhinos?

Vets can come on safari to see the people we are supporting. It is not all hard work.  Vets and their friends see wonderful wildlife including many birds.   The cost of the safari is relatively high but all the money goes towards SARF. I pay my own way.

If you are interested in going on safari with Dr Jones from August 22 to September 5, you can check out the program here.