National Geographic Society Newsroom

South Africa Unveils Reaction Unit to Combat Rhino Poaching

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg Faced with mounting outrage at the rhino-killing spree that has hit South Africa this year, the country’s government has finally come up with plans aimed at tackling the scourge on a wider front and in a more coordinated way. The two-pronged scheme includes the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime...

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

Faced with mounting outrage at the rhino-killing spree that has hit South Africa this year, the country’s government has finally come up with plans aimed at tackling the scourge on a wider front and in a more coordinated way.

The two-pronged scheme includes the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit that includes specialists from various law-enforcement agencies and wildife-conservation sectors to ensure more arrests and convictions.

The scheme’s other arm is a diplomatic offensive aimed at enlisting the assistance of governments of Asian countries where the rhino horn is marketed for spurious medicinal and decorative purposes.

The new combined reaction unit has been in the making for several months as reports kept coming in almost daily of yet more rhino slayings.

At a media conference in Pretoria yesterday where she announced the new measures, the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, disclosed that the rhino toll for the year already stood at 227. At the rate it is going, she is reported as warning, the figure could exceed 300 by the end of the year.

The new unit will function on an interim basis, and, if successful, it will become permanent. It includes members of the South African Police and its crack unit known as the Hawks. It also has representatives of the National Prosecuting Authority, and members of South African National Parks (SANParks) as well as of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the environmental authority in the province of KwaZulu Natal where the renowned project to save the species from extinction was launched about six decades ago, and where the poachers have been particularly active.

There have even been suggestions that laws might be amended for courts to impose stiffer sentences and to refuse bail to suspects. The Star newspaper quotes Sonjica as telling the conference that tougher penalties did not appear to be having the desired effect of deterring poachers.

The diplomatic offensive includes the conclusion of a conservation agreement between South Africa and Vietnam. Sonjica will visit the country for the signing ceremony and intends using the occasion to raise the South African government’s concern at the number of Vietnamese citizens being arrested at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport for possession of rhino horn.

Beeld newspaper’s Elize Tempelhoff reports her as saying: “I am not going to confront the Vietnamese, but am going to put it very clearly and diplomatically to them that our rhinos are getting killed, that rhino horn is being smuggled out of South Africa, and that we are concerned about it.”

She also noted that officials of her department are engaged in talks with their counterparts in the International Relations and Cooperation Department (as South Africa’s foreign affairs department is known) about raising the issue of wildlife smuggling with China and Japan, which, too, are favorite markets for rhino horn.

Among the figures given at yesterday’s media conference were: there presently are 26 rhino-poaching cases involving at least 80 accused before South African courts; over the past three weeks, 21 more people were arrested in connection with poaching of the animals; the latter included the high-profile arrests in the country’s Limpopo province where two veterinarians and a prominent game farmer were among the suspects netted.

Beeld‘s Tempelhoff reports today that there could be more such arrests coming. She quotes Ken Maggs, head of SANParks’ poaching reaction unit, as saying: “I am sorry to have to tell you, but these are people who are involved with wildlife conservation. It is going to put the wildlife business on its head and shock many people. We have already issued summonses for their arrest.”

Maggs predicted that there would be a marked drop in poaching once the suspects had been arrested.

Reflecting the government’s welcome new sense of concern, Sonjica said the impression existed that to kill an animal was “nothing, really.”

“I am telling you today, animals are just as important as people,” the Environmental Affairs Minister added.

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 >>

Join Nat Geo News Watch community

Readers are encouraged to comment on this and other posts–and to share similar stories, photos and links–on the Nat Geo News Watch Facebook page. You must sign up to be a member of Facebook and a fan of the blog page to do this.

Leave a comment on this page

You may also email David Braun ( if you have a comment that you would like to be considered for adding to this page. You are welcome to comment anonymously under a pseudonym.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

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