A Bristol vet was recognised last week with a special award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at the House of Lords, honouring her work to galvanise members of the public to support centres rescuing rhinos and other iconic but threatened African wildlife.
Elisa Best, of Rowe Veterinary Group, is the founding member of UK registered craft conservation charity Blankets for Baby Rhinos. In less than three years the group has amassed a global Facebook community of around 3,500 members, primarily knitters, crocheters and crafters, to make blankets and other items to supply to wildlife centres taking in orphaned and sick rhinos in Africa, as well as other wildlife threatened by poaching.
Originally from South Africa, Johannesburg-born Elisa had planned to work as a vet treating wildlife and despite working as a small animal vet in Cape Town after qualifying, her colleagues and friends often told her of the terrible injuries they saw inflicted on rhinos targeted for the illegal trade in their horns.
As the rhino poaching crisis has continued to decimate populations in the years since she moved to the UK, often leaving young rhinos orphaned and in need of care, Elisa and a friend decided to help when they saw the need for equipment for rescue centres, including basic but essential supplies such as blankets, to not only keep vulnerable animals warm but to comfort youngsters without a mother to lean on. From this she started her group with a website and Facebook members’ group with the initial aims of knitting blanket squares for rhinos while spreading awareness of the impacts of poaching.
After quickly building a following and supplying thousands of blankets for a growing number of wildlife orphanages in Africa, she wanted to harness the enthusiasm of members to help meet the other practical needs of the centres, as well as helping rangers and dogs working in anti-poaching units. Now a registered charity, members supply all kinds of equipment including animal feed, medicine and veterinary supplies to a wide list of centres, as well as food for anti-poaching dogs while continuing to run appeals which crafters can assist with. Currently they are asking knitters to knit hats, scarves and blankets in black or dark colours for rangers, so they can keep warm at night without being spotted by poachers.
James Sawyer, UK Director of IFAW, said: “Elisa’s pioneering approach to harnessing practical public support to help rhinos and other rescued African wildlife is really impressive and she is a great example of animal welfare in action. We hope her efforts will inspire the next generation of animal welfare and conservation campaigners. She is a very deserving winner of IFAW’s Vet of the Year Award.”
As well as donations of knitted and crocheted blankets made by members, a small online shop selling donations of crafts and other handmade items helps fund requests for other equipment from the many rescue centres in South Africa and the wider region that the charity supports. They now supply dozens of orphanages and rescue centres which primarily help the species most affected by poaching, including elephants and pangolins as well as rhinos. Where possible, they also provide an element of educational work in the local communities.
Elisa said: “The idea of blankets for rhinos came about by chance really when a friend and I were talking about it, and once we started it took off really quickly so we took on others to help. Soon I could see there were other items the orphanages needed and we wanted to supply what was needed most. Our philosophy has always been to stay volunteer-based so no-one takes a salary and we run on goodwill. We hope it shows that everyone can do a little to help and this can make a big difference.
“I also want to give credit with my award to my colleague Nita Smith who runs the South African side of our operation, as she works tirelessly to help us get so much done and get our supplies to where they are most needed. Our latest project to supply knitted items for rangers enables members to write a personal note with each donation showing their appreciation for the work they do. Some of the rangers have been reduced to tears to read the messages and know people, half way around the world, are thinking of them and have made something personal for them.”
One of the group’s biggest challenges is transporting supplies without needing to pay expensive transportation costs. As much as possible items are transported from country to country by friends and contacts but the group is always on the lookout for more assistance with this.
Elisa received her award at IFAW’s prestigious Animal Action Awards event, presented by TV wildlife presenter Bill Oddie at the House of Lords.
Elisa is based at the Bradley Stoke practice of Rowe Veterinary Group which is part of Independent Vetcare.