Rhino poaching has increased at an alarming rate, with the Kruger National Parks (KNP) rhino numbers dropping by 70% over the past decade. 2020 saw poaching numbers decrease due to the Coronavirus lockdown, restricting movement in and around the park but as travel restrictions ease, the poaching numbers are on the rise.
The KNP is home to roughly 30% of the world’s rhino population, giving it a major responsibility in the conservation of the animal. Aside from syndicated criminal networks poaching rhino horn, internal corruption has been uncovered, breaking trust that KNP members had with one another in anti-poaching operations. This has been exacerbated by the KNP’s large stockpile of rhino horn from rhinos that died of natural causes.
In a virtual meeting held on 6 May, the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries heard various presentations by SA National Parks (SANParks), including on poaching and efforts to contain it. The first presentation by KNP ranger services said that their staff who should be focusing on conservation management are having to do law enforcement and subsequently placing their lives at risk.
The committee heard that poachers are predominantly young men from impoverished communities surrounding the park. With a lack of job opportunity and education, the young men, despite the risk and danger, turn to poaching. “Unless we address that poverty and unless we address the deprivation that exists on the outside of the park, our ability to be able to stop poaching and to be able to crack the syndicate that are at the top of this chain, is going to be very limited,” KNP ranger services said.
Geographically, the supply of rhino horn comes from South Africa (majority), Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe. The demand for rhino horn comes from China, Vietnam, Laos and Yemen. According to SA National Parks, about 30% of rhino horn is being used for the medicinal market, and the rest is being used in carving ornaments, jewellery and traditional trinkets, serving as status symbols.
The ‘Kruger Challenge’
SANParks said it is a major challenge to conserve wildlife in a 2-million-hectare park that includes a mountain range, sees 1.4 million tourists per year and shares two international borders. Currently, protective, reactive and proactive anti-poaching efforts are in place. In terms of protective measures, static obstacles such as fences and gates are in place while patrols via foot, scrambler, vehicle and bicycle take place regularly. Reactive measures include gaining actionable intelligence and utilising force multipliers such as special rangers, helicopters, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and canine units.
SANParks said while UAVs have their place in wildlife conservation, applying the technology and correctly interpreting the data is something still being figured out by KNP. As most poaching takes place at night, SANParks said they also want to “own the night”, using sensors, thermal imaging and radar systems. In terms of being proactive, SANParks sees the importance of having the surrounding community on the side of the KNP to create a buffer zone and protect the park from outside in.
SANP has created the Lowveld Lebombo Environmental Asset Protection Alliance (LLEAPA), aimed at protecting all species that are targeted by poaching. Also referred to as the Joint Operations Centre, formed in 2011, it serves to share information on potential poaching operations in the surrounding areas. This alliance includes the Mozambique Lebombo Concessions to the West, the Game Reserves United to the East, private farmers to the South (Nkomazi Interest Group) and an alliance being set up in the North, currently including the Limpopo National Park. Also part of the LLEAPA is the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), who provide some training, SA Police Service (SAPS) and SANParks units (field rangers, special rangers, an air wing and protection services).
SANParks believes it is building the best anti-poaching force in Africa through the creation of LLEAPA, establishing initiatives with the Mozambique police, increasing the number of intelligence driven operations, improving their reaction capability and consolidating a ranger support group.
SANParks outlined some of the biggest challenges it faces regarding poaching, the worst of which is a ranger being convicted for actions against a suspected poacher; second is a ranger being injured or killed in anti-poaching operations; third is corruption; fourth is tourist interaction with poachers (which SANParks believes will eventually happen); fifth is a mass Mozambique incursion; sixth is the large horn stockpile that KNP currently has; and seventh is the poisoning of animals. Regarding a mass Mozambican incursion, SANParks said “especially during the first two months of that hard lockdown, May and June , there were loads and loads of Mozambicans coming through but they were not successful.”
SANParks has seven strategic measures for fighting poaching operations. The first is force with a national anti-poaching force of 1 000 people with specialist support from outside the park. The second is enforcing the law, which SANParks said is problematic in Mozambique: “They can hunt here, go back in Mozambique and they are safe.” The third measure is an intensive protection zone at the southern part of the park where most of rhinos are located. In the month of April 2020 alone, there were well over 10 rhino poached in the southern part of the park. The fourth measure is to outclass the poachers with technology, which SANParks does but the equipment is not consolidated as the SANDF, SAPS and SANParks use their equipment for separate interests. The fifth measure is promoting cultural sensitivity to the issue of rhino poaching. To this effect there are many social media and advertising campaigns dedicated to saving rhino. The sixth measure is to mitigate the asset by removing the rhino horn and looking at ways of making rhino horn undesirable to poachers. The seventh measure is involving communities through education. The SANP does seek to do better with this measure.
The SANParks report showed that the KNP is finding rhino carcasses and evidence of poachers in the park essentially every day of the week, with spikes occurring during weekends.
In 2020, 394 rhinos were poached, 30% fewer than the year before and the lowest yearly tally since 2011. However, “Since November, December last year and into 2021, this landscape and particularly Kruger National Park has been experiencing serious numbers of rhino poaching incidents,” said Jo Shaw, the Africa Rhino Lead for WWF International Network at the beginning of May.
“There is a very real and realised threat as poaching pressure has increased since lockdown perhaps to meet the demand from the international markets,” she told Reuters.
Reserves, which have been battling tighter budgets amid a coronavirus-induced lull in tourism, have also been forced to cut back on anti-poaching patrols, compounding the threat to rhinos. Some reserves use dehorning as a way to prevent armed poachers from taking advantage of easier cross-border travel.
South Africa has about 16 000 rhinos located within its borders, Frances Craigie, chief director of enforcement at the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries told Reuters.
But relentless poaching and a drought in the North-East region has hit the rhino population hard. In the Kruger National Park, the number of rhinos has plummeted almost more than two thirds in the last decade to around 3 800 in 2019 from 11 800 rhinos in 2008, a South African National Parks report showed.