Environment Minister Edna Molewa’s acknowledgement that rhino poaching figures remain “worryingly high” looks set to re-occur again this year with no less than 49 kills recorded in the first 22 days of the year.
Last year’s rhino kill figure was 1 215, the highest since recordkeeping started and 211 higher than the 2013 figure, the first one to pass the thousand mark.
This continued carnage of rhinos in South Africa has prompted a call from David Mabunda, former chief executive of SANParks and currently caretaker chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial conservation agency, for rhino protection to become the responsibility of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). He is acting in place of Bandile Mkhize, who was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing last year.
“This is no longer a conservation war – it is a war on our sovereignty so we should look at it in terms of our national security. Poachers from neighbouring countries come heavily armed in the still of the night and kill our rhino.
“This is counter-insurgency and we should respond accordingly. The conservation agencies do not have the skills or resources to deal with this alone and that is why this responsibility should be handed over to the army.
“Today rhinos are being targeted, tomorrow it will be lions and we don’t know what will be next. These poachers must be made to feel South Africa is not their playground,” he said in an interview with Business Day.
Elements of the SA Army and SA Air Force are deployed in the Kruger National Park as part of the SANDF’s national border protection tasking, Operation Corona, with a secondary tasking of assisting the park’s ranger corps and other law enforcement agencies in the ongoing battle against rhino poaching.
Johan Jooste, the retired army general who heads up SANParks special projects with combatting rhino poaching his number one priority, last year said the Army’s current mission preparedness training is insufficient for soldiers to be competent in anti-poaching operations.
Addressing a conference in Pretoria last September on anti- and counter-poaching operations, he said there had to be a shift in focus of the landward force’s training doctrine for it to be able to contribute meaningfully.
An indication of the value attached to rhino horn comes from Dr Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager at WWF-SA (Worldwide Fund for Nature). According to her the value of wildlife products illegally trafficked is more than R284 billion a year globally.
She warned ominously that “corruption associated with illicit wildlife trafficking and the security threat posed may deter investment and hinder growth in all source, transit and demand countries.
“Ultimately the impacts of organised crime syndicates can reduce the effectiveness of governments, harm the reputation of and trust in the state and affect the growth of local communities,” she said.
One of the interventions the Minister has planned for the current year is the deployment of the so-called Green Scorpions (her department’s environmental law inspectors) at South Africa’s busiest international point of entry and departure, OR Tambo International Airport. They will ensure compliance with the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS), CITES regulations, bio-prospecting, access and benefit-sharing regulations as well as the Alien and Invasive Species Regulations.
Translocation of rhino to intensive protection zones (IPZs) in the Kruger National Park as well as to other safe locations to create rhino strongholds where animals can be effectively protected will continue, the Minister said.
South Africa is home to around 80% of the world rhino population and estimates are the local population number around 21 000 in total. Around 100 rhinos have been moved to unspecified neighbouring states so far. Molewa told a news briefing that for security reasons, the precise countries where the rhinos had been moved would not be named.
Molewa said that 56 of the animals had been moved within the Kruger itself to an “intensive protection zone.” In 2015, another 200 rhinos will be moved from Kruger to what Molewa said were “strongholds” where the animals will be safer from poaching. Kruger’s rhino population is around 9 000.
Twenty bids have been received to purchase the animals and are being evaluated. The money raised will be put back into conservation projects.
Private ranchers own around 5,000 of South Africa’s roughly 20,000 rhinos, part of a thriving game farming industry in Africa’s most advanced economy catering to eco-tourism and hunting.
The ministry revealed on Thursday that South Africa’s stockpile of rhino horn, government and private – collected over the decades from animals that died naturally or from legal hunts – was around 25 tonnes.
Rhino horn — the sale of which is strictly prohibited — is estimated by conservationists to be worth around $65 000 a kg, more than gold or platinum, and so 25 tonnes could fetch an estimated $1.6 billion.
The Kruger National Park was again last year the major focus point for poachers. The iconic game reserve lost 827 of this Big Five species to poachers’ high-powered hunting and assault rifles.