Fighting to save rhinos

Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, stands inside the organization's headquarters in Strasburg. The foundation protects threatened rhino populations in the wild and also supports research to improve their chances for long-term survival. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – The fight to save critically endangered rhinoceroses might be global, but Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, is engaging in that battle from this tiny Virginia town.

The International Rhino Foundation is a nonprofit organization that aids rhino conservation efforts in countries such as India and Indonesia that house the world’s remaining Sumatran rhinos.

In March, Ellis moved the foundation’s operations to 150 N. Holliday St. The move, she said, has resulted in a more focused effort for the foundation’s three-person staff.

“Everything’s in one place, which nice,” Ellis said. “We’re used to working remotely, so it’s nice to have everyone centralized.”

“We’ve hired more staff and … finally grown into an office,” she said, adding that it has allowed the foundation to “raise more money and to get more money to the field.”

The foundation works within a massive web of groups that includes Save the Rhinos, Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species and the World Wildlife Fund to accomplish its goals.

Because of its small size, Ellis said the foundation does not have to deal with as many of the bureaucratic hoops that larger organizations might have to jump through.

“We are really lean. Ninety-two percent of the funds that we raise go straight to the fields, so our overhead costs are really small,” Ellis said.

As a result, Ellis – with the approval of the organization’s executive committee – can send funding directly to rangers on the ground in Indonesia by way of a few phone calls.

“It allows you to have a world view and interact with people all over the world, but at the same time, you enjoy everything that comes with living in (a) small community,” Ellis said.

And that world view features a complicated battle to safeguard rhino populations against poachers in South Africa who are looking to cash in on rhino horns.

“It’s selling for more than platinum or gold, ounce for ounce,” Ellis said.

Ellis said the latest poaching problem is being driven by long-held beliefs of medicinal benefits from rhino horns as well as a growing middle class that has disposable income in Vietnam. In that nation, for example, some people use rhino horn as a remedy for hangovers and even as a cure for cancer.

“There’s no scientific evidence that rhino horn does anything in terms of having medicinal value,” Ellis said.

To battle these problems, Ellis and the foundation rely on government grants and donations from concerned citizens nationwide as well as from national zoos and nonprofit organizations.

In 2014, roughly 47 percent – or just over $1.5 million – of the foundation’s $2.9 million in funding came from donations from individuals and nonprofits.

“We have a small number of core donors from this area,” Ellis said. “We have probably less than 10, but they’ve been very generous to us.”

More than $2.4 million of the foundation’s total funds raised went toward conservation programs and research last year, and nearly half of that went toward programs for the Sumatran and Javan rhinos in India and Indonesia.

“If we lose them, we lose two species out of the five (remaining),” Ellis said. “So the challenge is very enormous.”

With the recently opened office space in Strasburg, Ellis said that she and the foundation are looking to “raise funds so that we can place funding where it’s needed most.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com