The number of rhinos killed for their horns in South Africa so far this year has shot up to 618. This is well past last year’s shock record of 448 and substantially more than the tally of 550 predicted at the beginning of 2012.
And still there is no sign of the onslaught letting up. This, despite tightened security and a range of strategies devised to counter the gruesome trend. Fears have even been expressed that the way it is going, the already endangered species could be extinct in a few decades’ time.
Worst hit by far has been Kruger National Park, South Africa’s flagship reserve that is home to about 12,000 rhinos. Its loss of 381 of the iconic animals so far this year is a serious worry.
Operations in the park have taken on the aspect of war, with poachers regularly getting killed in firefights with security staff. Tracker dogs fitted with GPS collars get delivered quickly by helicopter to the site of rhino killings to go after the poachers. Heavily armed reaction units follow by helicopter to take them on. Recently a small aircraft that is relatively quiet and can stay in the air for seven hours was donated to the park to carry out surveillance.
For their part, the poachers have become no less audacious. They have even started issuing death threats against park rangers. Operating mainly from Mozambique, which the park adjoins, they write messages in the sand near the border telling a specific ranger “we’re coming for you”, according to Kenn Maggs, head of the park’s criminal investigation unit.
The poachers are good bush operators, with most having military training and belonging to some kind of militia. “We have to adhere to the rule of the land. They don’t,” Maggs is quoted as saying.
Smaller provincial and private reserves have not been spared either. As has been happening around the country, poachers recently left behind the mutilated carcasses of another seven rhinos on a wildlife ranch not far from Johannesburg. Their horns were hacked out of their heads, the eyes of one gouged out and the ears and genitalia of others cut off.
That attack came in the face of a 40-year jail sentence handed down a few days earlier to Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai for using prostitutes to pose as hunters so that he could sell rhino horn obtained as trophies in powder form in the Far East.
Investigations are continuing into how he was able so easily to obtain permits for trophy hunting. There has been growing concern at either the laxity or complicity of conservation officials in aiding the poachers and smugglers.
But environmentalists have been encouraged by the heavy sentences. They see it as proof that judicial officers are beginning to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Earlier this year two Vietnamese citizens were given 18-year jail sentences for rhino-horn smuggling.
A rhino DNA bank being developed in a laboratory at the University of Pretoria’s faculty of veterinary science has been proving of growing help in linking suspects to the dead animals and so securing convictions.
Combined security operations are being carried out under the umbrella of the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit that was set up last year. It consists of the police’s organized crime unit, the environmental crime agencies of national and provincial park services, the prosecuting authorities, and the customs and excise and revenue services. It also involves the defence force, which provides technical assistance and has deployed soldier patrols in Kruger Park.
But from the relentless increase in killings, and from the international nature and scale of the smuggling networks, it is clear that it is going to require something very remarkable to turn round the situation. There is just too much money in it for the criminals to let up.
While China with its booming economy, new wealthy classes and people’s mistaken belief in the medicinal qualities of rhino horn used to be the main market, a study carried out by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, has shown just how alarmingly the use of rhino horn has grown in Vietnam.
At the report’s release in Johannesburg earlier this year, TRAFFIC spokesman Tom Milliken told how rhino horn has turned from medicinal use into a status symbol. It has become customary for the fast set to at parties to disappear into backrooms to partake of dosages of rhino horn in the belief that it prevents hangovers, instils feelings of wellbeing and even serves as an aphrodisiac. It has become a favourite gift among the elites.
It has been acknowledged that international diplomacy would need to be part of the turn-round strategy. In pursuance of this, South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, has now, after several delays, at last signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam’s Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Cao Duc Phat, on “co-operation in biodiversity, conservation and protection.”
Conservationists are now waiting to see how seriously the Vietnamese authorities take their part in combating the scourge, such as by lending their cooperation in criminal investigations and by engaging in public awareness and education campaigns.
Milliken said that for the bilateral initiative to be really effective, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma needed to talk to his Vietnamese counterpart. “It needs high power.”
There have been closer contacts with the government of Mozambique as well, but for the diplomatic offensive to be effective, South Africa’s neighbor will need to introduce tough anti-poaching legislation and drastically step up law-enforcement operations on its side of the border to stop the relentless incursions into Kruger National Park and other reserves.
“SANParks needs partners to help lift the fight to higher levels that will meet today’s sophisticated poachers who are armed with satellite cell phones, iPads, automatic weapons and GPS.”
Just what the anti-poaching operatives find themselves up against has been described to me by South African National Parks (SANParks) chief executive David Mabunda:
“SANParks needs partners to help lift the fight to higher levels that will meet today’s sophisticated poachers who are armed with satellite cell phones, iPads, automatic weapons and GPS. We also need to gain a deeper understanding of the value chain, part of which is international.
“All these pieces of the puzzle will take time to come together. There are no instant results. The reality is that we are fighting a complex and sophisticated war (against an enemy) capable of reinventing itself like the HIV virus, but once locked into our radar will be cut out like a cancer and replaced with a strong law enforcement regime that will be capable of anticipating threats at a distance.
“We did not see this one coming and it found us wanting because since 1985 we had stopped investing adequately in wildlife protection. There was no threat, and we are now waking up from self-designed slumberland. Budgets have not been growing to meet the challenge. We were happy to invest more in the tourism side of the business to compensate for the declining state subsidy but never imagined the ‘mighty’ South Africa – the gateway to Africa’s economic growth – one day experiencing massive poaching like the rest of Africa and Asia.
“I’m confident we have regrouped, reinforced and focused; it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing positive results.”
‘The Battle Lines Have Been Drawn’
SANParks CEO David Mabunda announced the day after this blog post was published the appointment of retired South African Army General Johan Jooste to direct anti-poaching operations in Kruger National Park. ”The battle lines have been drawn,” Jooste said in a SANParks news release. “South Africa … is under attack from armed foreign nationals … We are going to take the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it,” the general declared. SANParks is also offering substantial cash awards for information and is using two military aircraft to track poachers, including a drone for reconnaissance at night.
Much hope of getting the strings together to turn the tide against poaching is being pinned on a report by Mavuso Msimang, a former SANParks chief and director-general of the national Home Affairs department, appointed by Minister Molewa earlier this year to conduct public hearings on the problem and submit recommendations to her Environmental Affairs department. He handed his report to her a few weeks ago. Curiously she seems in no rush to make his recommendations public.
During an interview I had with Msimang, he shook his head ever so slightly when I mentioned the dismal new record of rhinos killed. He has a pensive manner, a propensity for listening intently to what others say and, it appears, an ability to quickly get to the crux of issues. Which could be why stakeholders from across the board came forward in unexpected numbers to share their ideas with him.
Anger and Despair
The scope of the onslaught, the sophistication of the weaponry and horn-smuggling systems used, the brutalities accompanying all this, and a growing sense of helplessness tend to stir deep emotions, much anger and even despair. But according to Msimang, the enthusiasm with which submissions were made and the quality of the debates were impressive. Even parties who normally do not sit easily together exchanged ideas in the most civilized manner. Flare-ups were few.
Acknowledging that it was the minister’s prerogative to make his report public, he said he was meanwhile only able to talk in broad terms about his impressions and conclusions about the best way forward.
It quickly became clear that the submissions and his recommendations covered the gamut of aspects related to rhino conservation. What Msimang was most insistent about was that there was no silver bullet. It had to be a total strategy involving a variety of approaches and initiatives.
The single most vital aspect, though, remained security. There have been considerable successes from combined security operations, but there need to be further improvements. And high up the priority list should be improved intelligence, which can only be achieved by winning over local communities and getting their help in stemming the relentless onslaught. Education, training and more employment in parks and in conservation and security for members of such communities, all had a role to play.
Another aspect Msimang considers of particular importance is range extension of the species. Neighbouring countries like Zambia, Malawi and Namibia could all be given a bigger role in helping preserve the species by translocating animals to sanctuaries there for new populations to grow. It would however be suicidal, he noted, to try this in countries and places where the animals’ safety could not be ensured.
Msimang chose to steer clear of what he proposed regarding the contentious issue of legalising trade in rhino horn as a way of pulling the carpet from under the criminals. He did say, however, that CITES (the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) needed to take a far more active role in the preservation of rhinos. Its present regulations were unfair to rhino owners. It needed to be more consultative.
The species was an international icon, which made it an international responsibility to, through CITES, assist South Africa with its protection. But first and foremost, it was the obligation of South Africans.
“We have done a marvellous job in rescuing this species and keeping it alive. We must now demonstrate our ability to withstand the onslaught. We have a historical and international obligation to save it. It would be a dereliction of our duty as a nation to allow this wonderful animal to disappear. History and humankind requires us to protect it,” Msimang said.