“We must be doing something right” – SANParks

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Ken Maggs, the South African National Parks’ (SANParks) Senior General Manager Environmental Crime Investigations and Air Services  says the current fall in rhinoceros poaching activity, along with stepped up arrests, show that “we’re clearly doing something right at the moment.”

Maggs says 127 poaching-related arrests have been made countrywide this year, with 64, a major slice, in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Fifteen poachers have also been killed in firefights with park rangers, police and soldiers, with another nine wounded. He also noted that some 218 incidents of illegality involving rhino around South Africa this year, with the number expected to climb to 408 if trends continue. For the KNP the figures are 140 and 262 respectively. He cautioned that the numbers involved all recorded illegal activities involving the horned mammal and was “not necessarily a body count.”

The environmental group, the WWF, earlier this month said South Africa lost 193 rhinos in the first six months of the year, with 126 of them killed in the KNP.

The veteran counter-poacher told journalists at KNP headquarters at Skukuza yesterday that from 2000 to 2007 poaching averaged at 15 incidents a year – 10 in the KNP – before spiking from 2008 when there were 83 incidents. This grew to 122 the next year and 330 in 2010. This year, incidents in the KNP peaked in March – the month before soldiers deployed into the park as part of Operation Corona, the military’s border safeguarding endeavour.

The 165 soldiers of B-Company, 21 South African Infantry Battalion, deployed to the Sandrivier base near Skukuza in April and quickly became involved in “Operation Rhino”, an inter-departmental, inter-agency joint operation to combat the illegal hunting and killing of the horned animal. Brigadier General “Koos” Liebenberg, director conventional operations at the Joint Operations Division of the SANDF said 40 rhino-related incidents were recorded in March. This fell to 30 in April, 15 in May and just two in June. By Wednesday, no incidents had been reported for July.

Maggs added the average poacher they encounter is a male from a poor rural background, who is a good bushman and marksman with “some” military or police experience. As such they can operate both day and night. An escalating trend, “of great concern to us” is the “khaki collar mafia” or the involvement of wildlife industry professionals ranging from veterinarians to game farm owners to hunters in various illegal activities such as permit violations, illegal hunting and rhino dehorning, horn possession, dealing and racketeering. He said the creation of a transfrontier park at the turn of the century did not have an influence on poaching as the border fence never stopped poachers and only short stretches have been removed to re-open old migration routes.

Looking into the future, Maggs noted “of great importance is political will. We have tremendous political will coming to bear on this issue.”

The surge in the number of rhinos killed follows an increase in the demand for rhino horn in Vietnamese and Chinese traditional medicine, despite the fact that the horn contains no medicinal properties as it consists of keratin, the same material human finger nails and hair is made up of. Researchers say that some people in Vietnam believe that rhino horn can cure cancer. As Asia’s rhino population has been pushed to the brink of extinction by hunting and deforestation, consumers have been looking to South Africa to meet their demands.

According to the WWF, South Africa has more than 80% of Africa’s total rhino population. Former Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, last year said South Africa had around 19 000 white and 1750 black rhinos.

Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu has warned poachers that the military will return fire in the KNP and other areas along the border. “The SANDF will do anything to protect our national asserts, we will not allow criminals to do as they wish in our parks, we also want to send a very strong message that poachers who shoot at soldiers must know that we will return fire with fire”, the minister said.



Pic: Members of Section 1, Platoon 3, Company B, 21 SAI Bn parade while on patrol. They are accompanied by a SANParks ranger (in green).