KZN overtakes Kruger as rhino poaching destination of choice

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What is now KwaZulu-Natal, previously Natal where the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink of extinction some 70 years ago, recorded the largest provincial loss of rhino to poachers last year.

All told, according to Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, the South African rhino population dropped by 499 in 2023 with more than 60% – 307 – of the Big Five species kills in KwaZulu-Natal, specifically its flagship game reserve Hluhluwe-iMfolozi accounting for the “brunt of poaching cases”.

The reserve, then known as Hluhluwe, was in the early 1950s where renowned conservationist Ian Player started Operation Rhino to prevent extinction of the southern white rhino in South Africa. The successful operation saw rhino captured and moved to other sites, including the Kruger National Park. Player died in 2014 aged 87 with a string of conservation awards – nationally and internationally – to his name for his pioneering work which included the designation of iMfolozi and St Lucia as wilderness areas.

Creecy released the 2023 rhino poaching statistics in St Lucia yesterday (Tuesday, 27 February) saying poaching pressure was “felt” in KwaZulu-Natal where 307 of the total national rhino poaching loss was recorded.

The surge in poaching activity in Hluhluwe/iMfolozi is ascribed by two regular Daily Maverick contributors to “a provincial wildlife authority [Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife] that is a shambolic shell of its former self [the Natal Parks Board] – one of many tragic examples of state failure” (Ed Stoddard). Award-winning environmental reporter Tony Carnie writes “while poachers were plundering one of the country’s biggest state-owned rhino reserves, local ‘business forums’ were squabbling with conservation authorities, demanding a sizeable chunk of a government contract to repair dilapidated boundary fences of the flagship Hluhluwe/iMfolozi park”.

In the year under review, 499 rhino were poached across South Africa of which 406 were killed on state properties and 93 on privately owned parks/reserves/farms. This, according to the Minister, was an increase of 51 compared to the 448 rhino poached in 2022.

The Kruger National Park, stretching across eastern Limpopo and Mpumalanga, has long been a preferred location for rhino – and other species – poachers due mainly to its size and animal population numbers. It was the only one of the 19 national parks in the SANParks portfolio where rhino poachers were successful in 2023 with 78 rhino killed for their horn. This is a 37% decrease over 2022.

Creecy attributed this to, among others, government’s poverty relief programme and work done by the SA Police Service (SAPS) Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (DPCI – the Hawks).

Fence monitors from communities neighbouring Kruger patrol the park’s western boundary fence and report fence breakages, illegal tracks and people entering Kruger as well as animals “escaping,” she said.

Elaborating on the Hawks’ contribution, Creecy said the unit was part of regional and transnational engagements to enhance government’s integrated approach to combat wildlife trafficking.

“Responsible partnerships between the public and private sectors and the financial and transport sectors remains critical in combating international wildlife trafficking. The approach is not exclusive to South Africa but is followed within the region and transnationally,” she said pointing to end-user countries in South-East Asia, “especially the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Singapore, Qatar, Malaysia and Vietnam”.

Prosecution-wise a success rate just short of 100% was recorded with 35 guilty verdicts and one not guilty. The conviction rate was also high at 97% with 45 accused rhino poacher/rhino horn traffickers either behind bars or heavily fined.

One example she gave was that of a former Kruger field ranger, arrested after shooting a rhino with an issued R1 assault rifle. He failed to report the shooting, initially denying discharging the weapon and indicated replacing issued ammunition with “non-issued”. Ballistic evidence linked the weapon to the crime scene and a subsequent claim – in court – that he was charged by a rhino was not accepted. He was convicted of carrying out restricted activities with endangered or protected species and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

Creecy also offered some detail of a KwaZulu-Natal incident where five accused were convicted for the killing of a rhino; conspiracy to hunt rhino, possession of firearms and ammunition, possession of a firearm with the intent to commit an offence. They were found in a motor vehicle with hunting equipment and DNA on the equipment linked to DNA of the dead rhino. The firearms were ballistically linked to the crime scene with the court handing down an effective imprisonment term of 10 years her prepared address read.