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South Africa Unveils Reaction Unit to Combat Rhino Poaching

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

Faced with mounting outrage at the rhino-killing spree that has hit South Africa this year, the country’s government has finally come up with plans aimed at tackling the scourge on a wider front and in a more coordinated way.

The two-pronged scheme includes the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit that includes specialists from various law-enforcement agencies and wildife-conservation sectors to ensure more arrests and convictions.

 
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The scheme’s other arm is a diplomatic offensive aimed at enlisting the assistance of governments of Asian countries where the rhino horn is marketed for spurious medicinal and decorative purposes.

The new combined reaction unit has been in the making for several months as reports kept coming in almost daily of yet more rhino slayings.

At a media conference in Pretoria yesterday where she announced the new measures, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, disclosed that the rhino toll for the year already stood at 227. At the rate it is going, she is reported as warning, the figure could exceed 300 by the end of the year.

The new unit will function on an interim basis, and, if successful, it will become permanent. It includes members of the South African Police and its crack unit known as the Hawks. It also has representatives of the National Prosecuting Authority, and members of South African National Parks (SANParks) as well as of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the environmental authority in the province of KwaZulu Natal where the renowned project to save the species from extinction was launched about six decades ago, and where the poachers have been particularly active.

There have even been suggestions that laws might be amended for courts to impose stiffer sentences and to refuse bail to suspects. The Star newspaper quotes Sonjica as telling the conference that tougher penalties did not appear to be having the desired effect of deterring poachers.

The diplomatic offensive includes the conclusion of a conservation agreement between South Africa and Vietnam. Sonjica will visit the country for the signing ceremony and intends using the occasion to raise the South African government’s concern at the number of Vietnamese citizens being arrested at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport for possession of rhino horn.

Beeld newspaper’s Elize Tempelhoff reports her as saying: “I am not going to confront the Vietnamese, but am going to put it very clearly and diplomatically to them that our rhinos are getting killed, that rhino horn is being smuggled out of South Africa, and that we are concerned about it.”

She also noted that officials of her department are engaged in talks with their counterparts in the International Relations and Cooperation Department (as South Africa’s foreign affairs department is known) about raising the issue of wildlife smuggling with China and Japan, which, too, are favorite markets for rhino horn.

Among the figures given at yesterday’s media conference were: there presently are 26 rhino-poaching cases involving at least 80 accused before South African courts; over the past three weeks, 21 more people were arrested in connection with poaching of the animals; the latter included the high-profile arrests in the country’s Limpopo province where two veterinarians and a prominent game farmer were among the suspects netted.

Beeld‘s Tempelhoff reports today that there could be more such arrests coming. She quotes Ken Maggs, head of SANParks’ poaching reaction unit, as saying: “I am sorry to have to tell you, but these are people who are involved with wildlife conservation. It is going to put the wildlife business on its head and shock many people. We have already issued summonses for their arrest.”

Maggs predicted that there would be a marked drop in poaching once the suspects had been arrested.

Reflecting the government’s welcome new sense of concern, Sonjica said the impression existed that to kill an animal was “nothing, really.”

“I am telling you today, animals are just as important as people,” the Environmental Affairs Minister added.

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Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>

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