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Rhinos Continue to Die, Even as South Africa Steps Up War on Poachers

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

The assault on South Africa’s rhino population has continued unabated into 2011. After last year’s massacre of 333 of the country’s rhino herd, the death toll since the beginning of 2011 already stands at a disheartening 71 of the seriously endangered species.

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This is higher than at the same time last year, which is a big worry to conservationists.

But while the poachers and the rhino-horn smuggling syndicates they work for are showing no signs of letting up on their gruesome business, the anti-poaching measures instituted towards the end of last year are beginning to show signs of paying off.

There indeed seems a greater preparedness and ability on the part of the law-enforcement agencies to take the fight to the poachers and smugglers.

The concern is that it remains mostly the foot soldiers who get recruited from poor communities to do the poaching who are getting hit. Not many of their handlers, who are suspected to be operating as international syndicates or smuggling rings, have yet been apprehended.

The national Minister of Water and Environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, directing herself at South African compatriots, has warned them not to believe the irresponsible stories being perpetuated that rhino poaching was lucrative when the only ones who got rich were the ruthless syndicate leaders.

David Mabunda, chief executive officer of South African National Parks (SANParks), has noted that the interim National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit (NWCRU) which the government set up last year, aimed to increase the intensity of investigations and arrests by getting to the higher echelons of these syndicates. “With the help of the international community we are confident we will be able to break these syndicates,” he said.

It is in their fight on the ground with the increasingly well-armed poachers that security operatives have been showing a notable tendency to fight fire with fire.

Already nine poachers have been killed this year in shoot-outs with park rangers. Five of them have been shot in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship reserve that is home to more than half of the country’s estimated 19,400 white rhinos and 1,700 black rhinos. It is in the same park that no fewer than 46 of this year’s 71 rhino killings so far have occurred.

In addition to the closer cooperation that was established towards the end of last year between the various law-enforcement agencies, parks rangers and wildlife-management and conservation bodies, the South African military is also lending a hand, such as by patrolling Kruger National Park and its border with Mozambique.

The formerly heavily fortified border has become more porous since the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park involving Kruger Park and Mozambique’s adjoining Limpopo Park. Its growing use by poachers as an entry and escape route has become a major concern.

Parks authorities expect the involvement of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), with its state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, to lend much-needed impetus to the fight against rhino poaching. The military will not be making arrests and will hand over suspects to the police.

SANParks’ Mabunda announced this week that 64 poachers have already been arrested so far this year. That is not too bad, considering that the whole of last year saw 162 arrests.

The 2010 swoop included the high-profile apprehension in the country’s heavily targeted Limpopo Province of veterinarians and several people involved in wildlife and conservation services. Their court cases will be coming up over the next few months and could cast an interesting light on how South African courts treat the poachers and smugglers.

One of the worries has been that the judicial system seems not to grasp the gravity of the situation, granting bail amounts and fines which the poachers have no trouble in paying from their ill-gotten proceeds.

A world-renowned expert in ivory and rhino-horn trade, Esmond Martin, has been quoted on the WildlifeDirect charitable organization’s blog as saying that the system of granting bail for rhino-related crimes was indeed a major concern. He pointed out that rhino poaching in Swaziland was a non-bailable offense, and that in Nepal, the forest department, not the court system, administered punishment to rhino poachers.

Morné du Plessis, chief executive officer of WWF South Africa, has said: “Many more successful convictions, backed up by appropriately daunting penalties will significantly demonstrate the South African government’s commitment to preventing the clouding of the country’s excellent rhino conservation track record that it has built up over the past several decades.”

Mabunda was quoted earlier this year as saying that there was a determination that the devastating loss of last year should not happen again this year. He added: “Anyone who is involved in poaching at whatever level will be a prime target for our investigations and we will leave no stone unturned in this respect, including going for the kingpins of these operations.”

Of the killing of poachers, he said SANParks’ rangers were also at risk as they were often “greeted with fire power” without being warned. “Luckily our rangers have been highly trained to handle such situations.”

He added: “As much as the death of the poachers is regrettable, it is also an indication of how serious SANParks and the entire conservation fraternity view the looting of the nation’s natural assets.”

 

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NGS stock photo of white rhino in imFolozi by Volkmar K. Wentzel

A major concern already aired last year was the sophisticated equipment the poachers were using, especially in their assaults on smaller and private reserves. These included helicopters, night-vision rifles, silencers, even crossbows, and veterinary tranquilisers. Now alarm is being expressed at the high-powered assault rifles the poachers are using on their sorties into Kruger National Park.

Military officials say some of the rifles date back to the Mozambican civil war. One of the guns recovered from the Kruger Park shooting scene was said to be a .458-calibre used in that war.

A military spokesman has been quoted as saying: “These guns were supposed to have been surrendered to the government after the war ended, but some people decided to keep them. Some former soldiers are believed to be selling the weapons to make a quick buck.”

He said many of the poachers were Mozambican. “Guns are circulated at a very fast pace as there is a huge demand for the weapons.”

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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 >>

Related reports from the rhino war zone:

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International park becomes frontier in Southern Africa’s rhino war

South Africa vows to fight rhino poachers to “last man standing”

Elle Macpherson a voice for rhino conservation?

“Conservationists” behind rhino poaching spree, newspaper reports

South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

South Africa, Zimbabwe epicenter of rhino poaching

 

NGS stock photo of South African poster by Steve Raymer

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