SANParks is, understandably, tight-lipped about intelligence provided by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently being tested in the Kruger National Park but indications are their performance has been positive.
Reynold Thakhuli, general manager media, public and stakeholder relations for the national conservation agency, said data and performance of the UAVs being test flown in Kruger was analysed daily.
“Various UAVs and the data they produce are being analysed and it would compromise security if details of what is being received is made public.”
In March defenceWeb reported on UAV and Drone Solutions (UDS), a South African company, flying UAVs in Kruger to evaluate the use of unmanned technology. The company has been using at least ten different UAVs, fixed and rotary-winged and battery and fuel-powered, as platforms in the Kruger. It is attempting to come up with a solution that is effective in terms of providing intelligence and which does not disrupt animals. By the same token the lack of noise will assist in keeping the UAVs out of poachers’ sights.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Kruger personnel are working alongside UDS staff in the evaluation process.
A final announcement on future use of UAVs in anti- and counter-poaching operations will only be made early next year.
The continued evaluation of the unmanned aircraft comes after only the second release of rhino poaching statistics this year by the Department of Environment Affairs. Last week South Africans were informed that 393 rhino had been killed in the first four months of 2015 – 62 more than for the same period last year. Kruger as always is the preferred target of poachers and the world renowned game reserve has lost 290 rhinos to poachers since January 1 this year.
This brought strong response from Terri Stander, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party shadow deputy environment affairs minister, who said communities on the western border of the Kruger National Park were “a perfect depiction of the failing state South Africa has become”.
“The communities are suppressed by poor service delivery, stifled by a lack of quality education or meaningful employment and subjected to crime. They turn to crimes like poaching because they haven’t had the freedom, fairness or opportunity to better their lives,” she said.
She also singled out the Defence and Police Ministries for their failure to secure South Africa’s borders. Stander said the lack of a cross-border hot pursuit agreement failed to halt “daily armed insurgences on the sovereignty of our state and the butchering of our natural heritage”.
She also took Environment Affairs Minister Edna Molewa to task for “perpetuating debate” on possible future trade in rhino horn saying it was “dividing efforts and wasting crucial time to save this iconic species”.
Support from Stander’s view on trade in rhino horn has come from the chief executive of a Kenyan conservation organisation.
Dr Paula Kahumba of Wildlife Direct is reported as saying the South African proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn was irresponsible and the opposite to what the rest of the world is thinking. “It’s time the South African government listens to what the world is saying.” Kahumba speaks from personal experience having been closely involved in the Kenyan drive to stop the ivory trade in the East African country early in the first decade of the 21st century.
South Africa will decide whether to sell its rhino horn stockpile in April 2016 after a committee has completed its work and presented its findings on the matter. If sold, the 21 ton horn stockpile could be worth up to R15 billion.
Molewa has also advocated relocating rhinos to strongholds in an effort to protect them from poachers, and Kruger has implemented this strategy, transferring rhinos to more secure areas of the park.
Many poachers come from neighbouring Mozambique (where rhinos are extinct), where police on Thursday seized 340 tusks weighing 1.3 tons and 65 rhino horns weighing 124 kg in the country’s largest seizure. An estimated 200 animals were killed for those horns and tusks.
Despite concerted efforts by authorities to fight rhino poaching (the Kruger has special rangers, an air wing and canine unit, for example), losses have been increasing year on year. Allison Thomson, director of Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching (Oscap) last week said that an estimated 550 rhinos had been lost in South African by the end of April, 157 more than the official statistics revealed.
Police commissioner General Riah Phiyega said the number of arrests in connection with poaching has increased this year. “Between January and April this year, we arrested some 64 people inside the park and 66 outside. During the same four-month period, we recovered 16 firearms, 99 rounds of ammunition, nine vehicles, 13 rhino horns and 27 axes and knives. The increase in the number of arrests is due to not only the excellent work being done by field rangers, but also the cooperation between the police and SA National Defence Force. A total of 701 dockets have been opened,” she said.