TOURISM WITH A CONSCIENCE: AN UPDATE ON RHINO POACHING IN KZN
WORDS: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
There’s far more to eco-tourism than simply snapping beautiful wildlife photographs. When it comes to rhino poaching and other important conservation issues, visitors to game reserves need to keep up to date with developments on the ground and hold authorities accountable for both their actions and their failures. Here are some of the latest developments …
As the Covid pandemic becomes an unpleasant memory and international travel increases, so, too, does the scourge of rhino poaching. It seems a heart breaking irony that, as visitor numbers increase and promise some sort of relief for tourism businesses that were pushed to the brink of closure, a species that is about to be pushed to the brink of extinction is now forced to continue its downward spiral.
The big question is: will those much prized international tourists with their legendary deep pockets still visit South African Game Reserves once the rhino is all but gone? Sadly, the answer is probably yes with sightings of this rare beast likely to elicit the same sort of excitement as sightings of the critically endangered cheetah or wild dog did a very short while ago.
They have clawed their way back somewhat. But, the difference is that neither the cheetah nor the wild dog had become global commodities thanks to the greed of misguided medicine men from the East.
THE RAVAGES OF RHINO POACHING
According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, in 2022, 448 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in South Africa, a paltry decrease of just three animals when compared to 2021.
During 2022, 124 rhinos were killed in the Kruger National Park, a 40% decrease compared with 2021. Unfortunately, the poaching threat shifted to KwaZulu-Natal, which lost 244 rhinos to poaching last year. Of these, 228 were killed in provincial parks and 16 in privately owned reserves. The Hluhluwe iMfolozi (HiM) Park was specifically targeted, according to the Department.
However, as Save the Rhino has pointed out, even though the overall trajectory of rhino poaching in South Africa points downwards, with a rhino poached in the country every 20 hours, there’s no time for celebration.
These days, sightings of rhinos in the Kruger National Park have declined significantly despite the fact that there are more choppers in the air, more dogs and handlers conducting searches at the entrance gates and lower poaching statistics.
Less encouraging when one considers the 448 poached rhinos is that there were just 132 arrests during 2022 for rhino poaching – 23 in the Skukuza area in Mpumalanga, 49 in KwaZulu-Natal and the balance in Limpopo.
According to the Department, a recent focus on money laundering and international co-operation with other law enforcement authorities saw the arrest of 26 rhino horn traffickers and 13 people for money laundering and bribing of rangers.
RHINO CRISIS KZN
The reality is that the very criminal syndicates that were inadvertently quarantined during Covid are not about to go home. At the outset of the pandemic, anti-poaching forces within the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park told Out & About that when poaching declined in the Kruger National Park, rhino deaths in KZN always increased.
This is in line with a warning from Save the Rhino. Poaching gangs have now shifted their focus away from the large national parks into smaller provincial parks. The park that has most recently been in the midst of a poaching crisis is Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, they said.
Rhino conservation organisation, Project Rhino KZN, explains how, through the hard work of KZN’s rhino conservation pioneers, including the legendary Dr Ian Player and Magqubu Ntombela, the white rhino population had been resuscitated from 40 to 600 during the sixties. This sparked Operation Rhino and the return of Southern white rhino into habitats across Africa – including the Kruger National Park – and to wildlife parks in Britain, USA and Europe.
By 2010, according to Project Rhino KZN, southern white rhinos around the world numbered 22 000. In 2021, CITIES said that this had dropped to just over 15 000.
It seems that, what was once regarded as the greatest rhino conservation success story ever, is now dangerously close to being unravelled as more and more rhinos are falling victim to poachers’ guns, Project Rhino KZN warns.
The question is where is that tipping point between the number of rhino’s born and the number who are poached?
NO SIMPLE SOLUTIONS
What was once one of the guiding lights of conservation – Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – has been plagued by corruption and inertia with a new (and still largely untried) board only being appointed relatively recently. Ezemvelo staff have been repeatedly implicated in poaching.
Much celebrated strong relationships with communities surrounding reserves have disintegrated, leaving many who are caught up in political in-fighting and lack of service delivery on the peripheries of wildlife sanctuaries open to being recruited by poaching syndicates.
But there is always more than one side to a story and, in Africa, solutions are always multi-dimensional.
Over the past year, stories of damaged infrastructure, escaped wildlife and dead animals (sometimes shot by park rangers to appease locals) have been rife. Protests from communities are common with letters from the likes of former public protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela accusing the provincial wildlife authority of not compensating local communities for livestock lost to the park’s escaped predators.
At the same time, tourists are still charged community levies as they enter parks – and these are considerably higher for international visitors – without any clear indication of exactly how this money is spent. (Perhaps displaying photos of completed community projects, which include the building of dams and the repair of boreholes, would help).
As a result, many are refusing to visit the parks until the destruction of escaped animals stops.
But dig a little deeper and you realise that the HiP has been fighting ongoing destruction of fences by some nearby communities for some time. Often, the fence cutters are simply trying to get jobs to repair the fences that they have damaged. At other times, local farmers are the victims and have lost crops and animals to escaped predators all because poachers have cut fences to enter the park.
In an attempt to resolve the impasse, numerous meetings have been held between wildlife officials and local authorities and, even though there is some way to go to stem the human wildlife conflict that is building, both Ezemvelo and community leaders remain committed to finding long term solutions.
These solutions must include both the community and government. What is certain is that any chance of stemming rhino poaching, in particular, lies with gleaning information from within local communities with the assurance that government will act in the interests of both local residents and the tourists that visit the parks.
Recently, a sliver of hope came with a meeting between KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), Siboniso Duma, and National Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy.
On the agenda was the discussion of “an array of issues and solutions at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park (HiP).”
At the time of releasing the rhino poaching statistics (February 2023), Creecy urged KZN officials to follow the example set by the Kruger National Park. It is now time to follow rather than lead?
EDTEA has claimed this meeting as a demonstration of its commitment to protecting the rhino population through “concerted efforts and partnerships that have resulted in species conservation over the years.”
Duma noted that it was concerning that rhino poaching continues at the scale that it does.
“We must all appreciate the importance of conservation and its value to our tourism sector – a major job creator. As the government, we declare war on rhino poachers who are stealing our precious assets. It is, indeed, our collective responsibility to fight rhino poachers. We thank our personnel at Ezemvelo KZN
Wildlife who, together with law enforcement agencies and conservationists, work tirelessly under dangerous conditions to protect our wildlife. We also commend communities for working with us to protect our rhino population” he said.
report back from the meeting is that discussions outlined a multi-faceted approach that will curb rhino poaching. The implementation of technology and tracking devices was discussed as a key method to detect and monitor poachers through early detection, the use of trap cameras and deployment of Operations Control Centres (OCC).
A press release sent out via EDTEA said: “Law enforcement agencies will work tirelessly to prevent poaching by increasing patrols in high-risk areas, intercepting illegal shipments of rhino horn and arresting those who participate in poaching. To this effect, the SAPS Special Task Force and Tactical Operations Teams have been deployed at Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park.”
It also noted that Ezemvelo’s Technical Services unit, together with the HiP Park Management, had conducted a physical assessment of the perimeter fence on the South-Western boundary of the Park (an estimated 38.2 km) with a total of R9.5 million being needed to repair it.
This cost was based on an estimate of R247,000 per kilometre. All procurement processes have been completed. The contractor was appointed on 24 February 2023.
Although promises of R40-million in funding for a smart fence around the park have been said to have come from national government, it is not yet clear when this will materialise.
Meanwhile, EDTEA also noted that KZN was also exploring rhino dehorning as an effective anti-poaching measure. Rhino dehorning has been used historically as a tool to reduce the threat of poaching in parts of Southern Africa but, as it so succinctly pointed out, this needs to be carried out as part of a far broader plan to be effective.
The bigger picture requires fully functioning perimeter fencing, appropriate field ranger resourcing, a multipronged law enforcement effort which combines the SAPS, crime intelligence, secret service, NPA, investigation, better staff vetting and work within the surrounding communities, the release stated. That is no small task.
As government attempts to take on poaching, it is also now up to those visiting these parks and paying entrance fees and levies as well as privately funded conservation bodies to hold government – including the MEC and Minister Creecy – accountable for what has been done and what has not.
It will be interesting to see the poaching figures this time next year and to hear what particular challenges are faced by those running the reserves that we love to visit. Hopefully, they will not be the same.