2015 may have seen a small dip in the number of rhino poached in South Africa, but the level of killing is still double natural reproduction rates
The announcement that South African rhino poaching deaths fell slightly in 2015 adds a misleading gloss to another devastating year in which criminal gangs expanded their operations into new, even more delicate rhinoceros populations.
South Africa’s environment minister Edna Molewa said on Thursday that 1,175 dead rhinos were discovered during the country’s annual census of poaching activities – 40 less than the 2014 record of 1,215.
“I am today pleased to announce that for the first time in a decade – the poaching situation has stabilised,” said Molewa. Since 2007, when just 13 rhinos were taken for their horns, poaching has spiralled into a crisis that now threatens the last stronghold of southern white rhinos an has grown so bad that the government has enlisted the armed forces to assist park rangers.
The South African government was keen to tie the “stabilisation” to an increase in poaching-related arrests and firearms seizures, beefed-up security around Kruger National Park (where the majority of animals are killed) and the translocation of 124 rhinos to more secure areas.
Wildlife advocates, while praising South Africa’s renewed efforts to combat poachers, were quick to point out that stable numbers did not equate to a stable situation.
“It’s still catastrophic,” said Dan Stiles, an expert on the illegal wildlife trade. Heather Sohl, WWF-UK’s chief advisor on species, said the current level of poaching was “totally absurd”.
“In the 17 years preceding the sudden escalation in 2008, fewer than 36 rhinos used to be killed by poachers in South Africa each year,” she said.
Tom Milliken, a rhino expert from wildlife trade watchdog Traffic, warned about misinterpretation of the South African census numbers. He said the real number of deaths could be considerably higher given that not all poached rhino carcasses are found. With this uncertainty taken into account, he said, the results of the 2014 and 2015 censuses were “virtually the same”.
He said the loss of more than 800 animals from Kruger alone – roughly 10% of the park’s remaining animals in one year – was double the natural rate of reproduction.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if numbers [of rhino] were starting to go down,” he said, although the government said the population remained stable.
Milliken said the “stabilisation” may have more to do with the total number of rhinos that poachers are able to take on their smash and grab missions across the border from Mozambique.
“The low-hanging fruit are rhino populations that are pushed up against a border for one reason or another. They are possibly the easiest animals to get. If you have to walk in and penetrate the park deeper and deeper, that could be an impediment,” said Milliken.
The pyrrhic victory in South Africa was outweighed by a dramatic increase in poaching of the critically endangered black rhino in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“The overall situation for Africa has not changed at all, this year is really going to show record levels of rhino poaching,” said Milliken. The South African announcement brought the total number of rhinos poached in Africa to 1,305 – six more than 2014 and the worst year in decades.
In Namibia the number lost to poachers jumped from 24 in 2014 to 80 last year. At the same time, Zimbabwe reported an increase from 11 to more than 50. Together the three countries (including South Africa) house 95% of remaining African rhino.
The rapid explosion of South Africa’s poaching crisis shows how quickly criminal gangs are able to scale up operations once they set up in a country. Milliken called the rise of poaching in Namibia, which has the largest remnant population of black rhino, as “horrifyingly worrying”.
“What we are seeing is the conflagration is spreading to other rhino populations,” said Milliken. “What’s happening [in Namibia] is the same kind of poaching brand that South Africa has represented. There’s the presence of the Asian syndicates, there’s some degree of corruption in the private sector and there’s other evidence of government officials being corrupted and involved.”
Millken said many Chinese nationals, working as development officials with legitimate jobs, had been implicated in the growing trade. As China’s influence in the continent grew, he said, so too would the influence of the international gangs that drive the trade.
Shaw said the developments should prompt national governments and their international law enforcement partners to enrol local communities in the fight against poachers.
“The infiltration of these communities by sophisticated criminal gangs not only threatens rhinos, it also compromises the safety and sustainable development of the people living in these communities,” said Shaw.
“Local communities can help tackle wildlife crime, but only if they see themselves as active partners in conservation with a real stake in protecting wildlife, not just as pawns in a fight between law enforcement officers and international criminal syndicates.”
IN THE first four months of this year the rate at which rhinos were poached in the Kruger National Park escalated by 20% compared to last year. Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says 749 have been killed so far this year, 544 in the park.
Roughly three rhino a day are slaughtered by well-armed poachers who enter the park illegally, many from Mozambique, in small groups.
Horns are hacked off immobilised rhinos, living and dead, and are then, in the words of Gen Johan Jooste, exchanged for “Checkers bags full of money” in the chain of organised crime that leads to lucrative markets for horn in China, Vietnam and Laos via middlemen in Mozambique and SA.
Jooste is in charge of antipoaching operations in the Kruger National Park. His rangers are taking on a well-organised army of rhino poachers, which he estimates to be 6,000 strong, in a low-intensity war aimed at conserving an iconic but endangered species.
Rhinos are one of the “Big Five” which attract eco-tourism to SA. Tourism accounts for the livelihood of one in seven South Africans. The rangers, on average, engage in two fire fights a week and managed to “neutralise” (Jooste’s term) 386 poachers in the past year.
Since 2008, there have been 220 poachers killed in the war to save the rhino from extinction. Jooste sees lack of proper crime intelligence as the weakest point in the operations he leads. He might well add that his rangers are under-resourced, over-stretched and outnumbered. The investigation and prosecution services of the criminal justice administration in SA are thwarted by a lack of forensic follow-through and laws that are overly generous when it comes to granting bail, but somewhat parsimonious when sentences are imposed on convicted poachers.
There is no extradition agreement in place with Mozambique, no political will to mount hot pursuit operations and very little global co-ordination of law enforcement efforts. Middlemen live with impunity on the border of the Kruger National Park in Mozambique; warrants of arrest for them issued in SA cannot be served.
SPEAKING at the Wildlife in Crisis conference in Cape Town in May, experienced independent environmental consultant John Hanks proposed a legal trade in rhino horn as a possible option for the long-term security of rhinos in Africa. He considers that dehorning rhino and feeding the harvested horn into a regulated market internationally are realistic and sustainable ways of saving rhinos from extinction.
Hanks contends that community beneficiation of the currently alienated folk who live adjacent to protected areas in dire poverty is the key to the survival of rhinos. He does, however, concede that the legalisation of trade will not end poaching.
It is the escalation in poaching that is the problem. The black market value per kilogramme of rhino horn is greater than that of gold and platinum combined, so it is undeniable that a legal trade in horn would introduce a great deal of money into the economy by diverting some of the flow of funds from organised criminal syndicates.
Will Travers, of the Born Free Foundation, disagrees with Hanks. He points to the limitations of CITES, the 181-member international body to protect wildlife — two-thirds of which must be persuaded of the efficacy and appropriateness of legalising trade for the purpose of benefiting the endangered species, not the traders in products derived from it.
The thinking in CITES is very much against the legalisation of trade. This stance can be gleaned from the outcomes of the London and Kasane conferences recently held by the most active CITES members.
As the regulation of trade requires multi-lateral agreements to ensure that trade is legal and sustainable, and that produce traded is traceable, it is unrealistic to think that legalisation can be achieved without CITES buy-in any time soon.
Even if CITES were to change its stance, it would still take years to put in place the regulatory framework, the accountability mechanisms and enforcement resources to create a legalised trade.
Lamentably, the rhinos do not have the luxury of long lead-in times, given the escalating rate of poaching. China, the major market, has outlawed trade in rhino horn and is unlikely to change its domestic legislation any time soon. The attitude of CITES is, at least in part, informed by the answer to a simple question: “Does rhino horn work?” Is it the magical cure-all and general panacea for ailments and conditions — ranging from impotence to cancer — which Eastern buyers attribute so faithfully to it? The answer is manifestly “No”.
IN THESE circumstances it is arguably inappropriate, if not unethical, to sanction the trade in rhino horn because its sale into the Eastern medicine market is essentially a scam. The necessary imprimatur of CITES and regulatory bodies ought therefore not to be engaged in putting in place regulations, accountability mechanisms, traceability procedures and valuable resources, both human and logistical. Doing so would assist in perpetrating a fraud on buyers of scarce horn whose belief in its efficacy is so obviously misplaced, the placebo effect notwithstanding.
The Bill of Rights enshrines environmental rights.
Biodiversity must be conserved and promoted “while promoting justifiable economic and social development” according to section 24(b)(ii) and (iii) of the Constitution.
Selling rhino horn to gullible buyers in the East can hardly be described as justifiable economic development. Enabling such sales is not the function of CITES, and without CITES the idea of legalising trade in rhino horn will surely be stillborn.
Quite apart from the pragmatic and ethical aspects, there is an aesthetic dimension to the debate.
It is surely unimaginable that our ancient and iconic rhino species will enjoy the same cachet with discerning eco-tourists if they suddenly become as hornless as nanny goats. Without their magnificently adorned proboscises our rhinos look forlorn, mutilated and somewhat less than photogenic.
Many Africans (and others) regard the rich wildlife heritage of our continent as sacred. Sawing off the horns of drugged farmed rhinos violates this sacredness. Legalising trade simply will not end the devastating poaching that is threatening the survival of the species.
The way forward involves formulating a “Plan B” which advocates, among other things, properly resourced, intelligence driven, dedicated law enforcement by operatives who are sufficiently battle-hardened to take on the informal army of 6,000 poachers effectively. An extradition treaty with Mozambique is needed. Education on the evils of poaching is needed.
STIFFER punishment of offenders must be encouraged, whether by leading evidence in aggravation of sentence or via remedial legislation. Poaching must be made a schedule five offence to make it more onerous on suspects to obtain bail after they are apprehended. Too often arrested poachers simply jump bail and go back to their nefarious business. The chaos and fraud in the hunting permit system must be cleaned up and rationalised.
Corruption, endemic in the Kruger National Park, needs to be effectively combated by the creation of a new Chapter Nine institution, the Integrity Commission, to replace the Hawks.
In Kenya the introduction of life sentences for poachers cut the slaughter of elephants and rhino. A poster reading “The price of rhino horn is life imprisonment” could serve to deter those considering the easy pickings available to poachers.
SA is being violently robbed of its national treasure by an army of organised criminals. Decisive action is needed to address the cause of the slaughter of rhino, not its symptoms. Poaching needs to be made riskier and less attractive as a career option. The pro-and anti-legalisation lobbies need to put aside their differences and co-operate in an agreed Plan B.
The war on rhino poaching cannot be won without the participation of communities, Chief Executive of the South African National Parks (SANParks) Fundisile Mketeni said on Tuesday.
“While carrying out our work at national, regional and international level to address the scourge of rhino poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, work is also being done at community level by institutions such as SANParks to raise awareness of the plight of the rhino,” Mketeni said at a ceremony marking the World Wildlife Day in the Kruger National Parks (KNP), one of Africa’s biggest game reserves in northeastern South Africa.
The theme for this year’s World Wildlife Day is “Wildlife Crime is serious: let’s get serious about wildlife crime”.
The aim is to highlight the positive role that local communities can play in helping to curb illegal wildlife trade.
As the eyes and ears of the government, the communities must join forces in combating poaching by blowing the whistle on this heinous crime, Mketeni said.
South Africa has adopted a four pillar strategy towards addressing the rhino poaching scourge. A key pillar highlighted in the national strategy focusses on one of the critical game- changing interventions-namely creating opportunities for communities to make alternative economic choices.
South Africa bears the brunt of rhino poaching, losing 1,215 rhinos last year.
South Africa is the custodian of the world’s rhinos. In the country, the loss of rhinos could be equated to a loss of revenue for many communities resulting in a decline in living conditions, a loss of jobs through a decline in tourism and hunting through the country’s sustainable utilisation policy, and a sad loss to a part of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, Mketeni said.
South Africa is home to approximately 21,000 white and black rhinos, of which most are found in the KNP. This represents 93 percent of the world’s total rhino population, according to Mketeni. “The South African population is one of the last viable rhino populations in the world, which makes it vulnerable. South Africa is, therefore, the last remaining hope for the world, in terms of rhino conservation,” he said.
Rhino poaching, worth billions of dollars, deprives local communities of income that could be used to create jobs and improve livelihood in the long term instead of benefiting a small group of criminals in the short-term, Mketeni said.
Even internationally, through the sustainable development goals, there are calls to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade by increasing capacity of the local communities so as to create sustainable livelihood opportunities for future generations, he said.
In going forward, South Africa is embarking on a number of new initiatives around the KNP with a focus on projects that support the game-changing pillar of South Africa’s integrated rhino strategy, according to Mketeni.
This includes, for example, addressing basic human needs such as water provision to poor neighboring communities to be funded through rhino-related programmes, to economic opportunities associated with various benefits derived from live rhinos through community-managed rhino conservation initiatives.
In the short term, the SANParks seeks to focus on communities bordering the southern KNP Intensive Rhino Protection Zone (IPZ) with the broader vision expanding around the extent of the park’s border.
The focus has been on the community and the youth-not only the role they can play, or are playing, in combating rhino poaching, but in assisting to protect the country’s natural heritage and their economic future, Mketeni said.
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