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South Africa organizes to strike back at rhino poachers

South Africa’s authorities and its conservation community are co-ordinating a comprehensive counter-offensive against the rhino poaching crisis scourging the country. Law enforcement agencies, South African National Parks, conservation and wildlife organizations, and the media gathered this week to develop a strategy to stop the surge in rhino slaughter, believed to be fueled by demand for rhino...

South Africa’s authorities and its conservation community are co-ordinating a comprehensive counter-offensive against the rhino poaching crisis scourging the country.

Law enforcement agencies, South African National Parks, conservation and wildlife organizations, and the media gathered this week to develop a strategy to stop the surge in rhino slaughter, believed to be fueled by demand for rhino horn as traditional medicines in Asia. There was even talk of the issue being taken up at presidential level between South Africa and China.

By Leon Marshall

Johannesburg–The coincidence was telling. As concerned groups met in Johannesburg on Monday this week to thrash out a strategy against rampant rhino poaching in southern Africa, a report came in of yet another callous slaying. (Two rhinos slaughtered in armed daylight robbery in South Africa.)


Ten poachers bearing automatic rifles struck on a farm barely 150 miles (240 kilometres) north of Johannesburg, where the anti-poaching meeting was in progress. They tied up the farmer and his workers at gunpoint and shot and chopped off the horns of two rhinos held in a pen.

Apparently the poachers were going to shoot a third rhino, but something happened that caused them to take flight. Investigators were reported today to have found clues that they hoped would result in arrests. The poachers left the scene of the crime on foot, but are believed to have had a get-away vehicle waiting for them some distance away on a public road.

One of the major achievements of this week’s meeting was in fact to consolidate efforts towards getting better intelligence and reaction systems going.

The meeting was held under the auspices of LeadSA, an initiative by South Africa’s Independent Newspapers company and Radio 702 aimed at inspiring positive actions and so keeping alive the constructive spirit created by hosting this year’s Soccer World Cup.

It was attended by South African National Parks (SANParks), the SA Police Service, including its specialist crime-fighting unit called The Hawks, and a number of wildlife organizations.

Some impassioned suggestions are said to have been made, reflecting the anger and desperation felt about the killings. One was that the horns of rhino be injected with poison–a proposal already made earlier by the owner of a park outside Johannesburg who had lost several animals to poachers.

Another suggestion was that rewards be offered for information, but the fear was that this could lead to exploitation that could aggravate the problem.

In the end a committee was established to take forward the initiative, such as by maintaining communication between the interest groups, co-ordinating intelligence and running fund-raising and information campaigns.

“Rhino poaching is a global problem and needs all the intervention it can get.”

Faan Coetzee, project manager of the Rhino Security Project launched recently by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), says rhino poaching is a global problem and needs all the intervention it can get, not least from governments.

South African President Jacob Zuma was on a state visit to China this week, but it was not certain he would be raising the problem with his counterpart in a country that was one of the major markets for smuggled rhino horn. Hopefully with the help of the committee established at this week’s meeting it could be ensured in future that governments take up the issue.

Meanwhile, says Coetzee, plans are still going ahead for the establishment of a combined Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit. He expected it to happen within the next few weeks. The unit would include the SANParks’ environmental protection services, the police, state intelligence services, SA Revenue Services, customs and rhino owners and wildlife organizations.

As part of the leading role it has been taking in the anti-poaching campaign, EWT recently set up a hotline for people to call when they became aware of suspicious activities concerning rhino poaching or the sale, movement and or trade in their horns. The information would then be passed on to the relevant authorities for investigation.

People were also urged to call when they had information about pilots or veterinarians involved in poaching through the use of aircraft and scheduled drugs, and the unethical conduct of any professional hunters or outfitters to obtain rhino horn for the trade.

Coetzee said that out of a large number of calls received, some more useful than others, at least three could lead to major breakthroughs in the attempts to get at the poaching organizations.

His organization has taken another pro-active role by setting up anti-poaching networks at a local level to gather and co-ordinate information and facilitate faster reaction. It is working closely with the Private Rhino Owners Association.

With already more that 180 rhinos killed so far this year, most in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park, the reserve suffered another loss recently when three rhinos were killed in the northern region of the park where a few years ago a number of the animals where translocated by truck from the better-stocked southern parts of the park.


South African National Parks rangers fit a tracking device in a rhino’s horn before translocating it from Kruger National Park’s well-stocked southern regions to the north where rhino populations never recovered after hunted to extinction during the early part of the previous century.

Photo courtesy of Leon Marshall

rhino in kriger park photo 2.jpg

Spectators look on as a drugged and blindfolded rhino gets pushed towards the truck that some years ago translocated a number of the animals from the south to the depleted northern regions of Kruger National Park. It is in the north that poaching is now once again taking its toll on the animals.

Photo courtesy of Leon Marshall

But there has been some success, with the arrest of the poachers and the subsequent cornering of their handler near Johannesburg, about 300 miles (480 kilometres) away. The suspects were apparently Zimbabweans, which underscores the problem South Africa is having with poachers crossing the borders from that unstable country as well as from Mozambique.

Leon Marshall.jpg

Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>


Rhino horn: All myth, no medicine

Related reports from the rhino war zone:


International park becomes frontier in Southern Africa’s rhino war

South Africa vows to fight rhino poachers to “last man standing”

Elle Macpherson a voice for rhino conservation?

“Conservationists” behind rhino poaching spree, newspaper reports

South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

South Africa, Zimbabwe epicenter of rhino poaching

NGS stock photo of South African poster by Steve Raymer

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn