Kenyan brings rhino campaign to city zoo

September 02, 1991|By Joel McCord

Back home in Kenya, Michael Werikhe is a security supervisor for an automobile assembly plant, but he is better known as "The Rhino Man," a global crusader to save the endangered black rhinoceros.

For nearly a decade, Mr. Werikhe has hiked thousands of miles across Africa and Europe to alert people to the plight of the rhinoceros and to raise money for its conservation.

Now Mr. Werikhe is coming to the end of a 32-city, 1,500-mile trek across North America in an effort to raise $2 million for the project.

Yesterday he brought his crusade to the Baltimore Zoo, leading nearly 100 people, who paid $12 each, on a stroll through the zoo and surrounding Druid Hill Park.

The previous day, he and 20 others hiked the 19 miles of the Ashland Northern Central Railroad biking-hiking trail through northern Baltimore County.

Zoo officials said they weren't sure how much money they had raised but conceded they were disappointed with the turnout.

"We didn't get enough publicity," said Pat Malloy, marketing director. "It's a tough weekend. A lot of things are going on."

Baltimore is the next-to-last stop on his tour, which ends in Washington later this week. And Lois Kampinsky, spokeswoman for the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, one of the sponsors for Mr. Werikhe, said the group will fall short of its fund-raising goals.

"We had hoped to raise a couple million dollars," she said. "But the economy is hurting donations for us and everyone else."

Mr. Werikhe, meanwhile, was talking about the animal that he says is as much a symbol to Kenyans as the bald eagle is to Americans.

"There is nothing more powerful than to have a symbol," he explained. "And it is more powerful to have a living symbol than a dead one."

Over the last 20 years, nearly 96 percent of Africa's black rhino population has disappeared, mostly at the hands of poachers who kill the animal for its distinctive horn. The horn of a black rhino is treasured in North Yemen, where it is carved into dagger handles, and in eastern Asia, where it is powdered and used in folk remedies.

But over the past five years, Mr. Werikhe said, the Kenyan government has cracked down on poachers, increasing the rhino population by 5 percent.

"Last year alone, 28 calves were born, and that has given us hope," Mr. Werikhe said.

Still, he must keep on walking to raise money for new equipment for the rangers, to relocate rhinos in sanctuaries and to create environmental education programs, he said.

"The rhino exists not just as one animal, but with many other species of animals. And if the rhino disappears or becomes extinct, then it is only a matter of time before the others disappear," he warned.

Yesterday's walking group -- small in comparison to those in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, where as many as 1,000 participated -- stepped off from the main gate of the zoo about 9:30 a.m. and worked its way around Druid Park Lake and back into the zoo through a security gate to "Hippo Plaza," where an African festival was staged.

Back at Hippo Plaza, merchants sold African jewelry and art, the zoo staff served up a Kenyan chicken stew and fried bananas, the five-man William Goffigan Ensemble played jazz, and Alice McGill told African and African-American folk tales.

Folk-singer Richie Havens, who also had joined the walk, waited in the wings. Mr. Havens performed free in honor of Mr. Werikhe and zoo director Brian Rutledge, who helped him form a local chapter of The Natural Guard, a children's environmental group.

"Children need to know that the first environment that needs to be healthy is themselves. Then, their community, and then the rest of the world," Mr. Havens said. Mr. Werikhe's efforts on behalf of the black rhino are part of this global perspective, he noted.

Mr. Werikhe will be the special guest today at a picnic at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and will meet tomorrow with children from Federal Hill Elementary and Southern High schools. He begins the final leg of his journey Wednesday, walking from Baltimore to the National Zoo in Washington.

"Wildlife is our second mother," he said. "And we must work hard to protect it."

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