Rhino poaching has now been evaluated to a priority crime in an indication of the seriousness with which government views the continued decimation of South Africa’s rhino population.
This was confirmed by Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa ahead of the 16th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Thailand. The top-level meeting of the world’s major environmental bodies started in Thailand today and runs until March 14.
With 128 rhino already killed by poachers this year, well up from the 80 for the corresponding period last year, the National Joint Operations Centre, co-ordinated by the Directorate of Priority Crime Investigations, has moved rhino poaching up on its priority rating list.
Molewa also said Cabinet had emphasised the need for more technology, specifically in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to be pushed the way of rhino anti-poaching forces. These are currently comprised mainly of SANParks rangers supported by elements of the SA National Defence Force as well as police, customs and excise inspectors from SA Revenue Services and any number of NGOs.
The SANParks honorary ranger corps has and is becomingly increasingly involved in fund-raising to acquire high-tech equipment such as night vision binoculars for use by rangers in anti-poaching operations. Honorary rangers also volunteer to take over certain ranger duties allowing more trained feet to be deployed on the ground in the poaching hotspot that is the Kruger National Park.
SANDF elements are first and foremost deployed for border protection in the park but where manpower allows, assist rangers in anti-poaching operations. The SA Air Force has also, again where resources allow, made assets available for anti-poaching operations. This has seen a pair of BK-117s of 15 Squadron C Flight in Kruger to assist with aerial surveillance.
Leading South African private sector defence industry conglomerate, the Paramount Group, has also committed itself to the rhino anti-poaching effort. It has made a Seabird Aviation Seeker light observation aircraft available to Kruger via the Ichikowitz Family Foundation. The additional eye in the sky is a boost to Kruger’s own fleet of helicopters, light observation and fixed wing aircraft.
The SANParks flagship late last year announced a more militaristic approach to stopping rhino poachers. This saw retired SA Army major general Johan Jooste join the national conservation organisation’s anti-poaching set-up as its head.
At the same time SANParks chief executive Dr David Mabunda said intelligence and its gathering, which has proven successful, as well as community involvement, would also be heightened. This would be done by bringing home to Kruger Park neighbouring communities the importance of rhino to their future well-being in an effort to deny poachers, couriers and others involved in the poaching chain safe haven in the immediate vicinity of Kruger.
Last year poachers killed 668 rhino in South Africa with Kruger losing 425. Between them KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and North West collectively lost 202 rhino last year, with both private and provincial game and nature reserves targeted by poachers.