It has been a bad year for rhinos in South Africa. Many more got killed than in 2010, the 333 toll of which was described with words like “shocking” and “outrageous”. Most thought it couldn’t get worse.
It’s got much worse. The tally for 2011 is at least 433. It could end up being higher, for even as the year drew to a close, reports kept coming in of more dead rhinos found with gruesome wounds or just stumps left where their horns had been.
• Friday, December 2 – two white rhinos found shot in a private park in a mountainous region north of Johannesburg;
• Saturday, December 3 – a black rhino found shot in the far north of South Africa near the border crossing into Zimbabwe;
• Wednesday, December 7 – four white rhinos found killed in private reserves just outside the western boundary of South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park, with the one victim’s calf so badly injured that it had to be put down;
• Friday, December 9 – the carcasses of five rhinos are found inside Kruger National Park, not far from one of its southern gates;
• Monday, December 12 – a report appears on the front page of newspapers on a gruesome mutilation of a rhino bull and cow in a private reserve in the far south of South Africa. They were darted and had their horns hacked off with a machete. Both could be revived by having antidotes administered, but the cow had to have her unborn calf aborted. The owner told of how he found one of his female staff members crying and hugging the debilitated cow where she lay crumpled under a bush. The use of the specialized drug, called M99, or etorphine, to incapacitate the animals, has once more raised suspicions about the possible involvement of veterinarians or people connected to the service.
• Tuesday, December 13 – a suspected poacher was arrested after he got wounded in a fire-fight in Kruger National Park with park rangers and soldiers. Two other suspects escaped across the border into Mozambique. Four fresh rhino horns were recovered.
The rising toll confirms a trend that is all the more alarming when considering that only 13 rhinos got poached in 2007. The 2011 spike in killings happened despite a multi-pronged strategy devised last year, involving park rangers, the police and the defense force, the prosecuting authorities and even revenue and customs services.
In Kruger National Park, a special unit of soldiers was deployed in the beginning of the year to patrol the park’s 250-mile (400 km) border with Mozambique, which has become the main springboard for poaching sorties across the South African border.
Despite the increased security presence, 244 rhinos were killed in Kruger National Park, which is home to about 10,000 to 12,000 white rhinos and about 500 black rhinos.
Ken Maggs, head of the park’s anti-poaching unit, says 21 poachers were killed in skirmishes with park rangers and the soldiers, and 78 were arrested.
“Unfortunately, the fatalities are a by-product of the value being put on rhino horn. The poachers come into the park armed with hunting rifles and assault weapons. We operate under the legal prescription of arrest, not to shoot to kill, but the poachers come prepared to fight. They switch tactics, such as coming in by night rather than by day. And in the dark, you need to make split-second decisions, or risk leaving your family without a father,” Maggs explained.
He says he is an optimist and is sure the situation will be turned round. But, he adds, it cannot be a single-tool solution. It has to be a whole toolbox, and the bigger the better.
Maggs was appointed head of the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit that was set up last year as an umbrella body to co-ordinate efforts between various state bodies and private reserve owners in the fight against the rhino killings.
The poaching and rhino-horn smuggling, he explains, are operated at several levels, and each requires different types of expertise. It is a complex network which, tragically, even extends into wildlife-protection organizations and veterinary circles.
At the ground level there are the poachers who mostly come from nearby communities and who have the local knowledge about where their targets are and how best to get to them. It is the field operatives, the rangers and police and soldiers, who have to deal with them.
At the next level are the recruiters, who find the poachers and pay them. This second and also the third level ensure that the booty gets moved as quickly as possible to the smuggling rings, which at the next level see that the horns reach the market countries, mostly China and Vietnam.
While each category presents its own challenges, requiring particular sets of expertise to deal with, there is also a fifth category of intervention needed. This is at the highest political and diplomatic level to ensure that the support structures and legal framework are in place also to deal with the problem both in the neighboring countries from which the assaults are made and the far-away countries in which the rhino horns end up.
“Unfortunately, there are still too many people who think of the target as just a rhino and therefore of such killings as simply another wildlife crime. It should in fact be seen as organized crime and get treated in the same way as gun-running, armed robbery, heists and hijacking. It is not surprising that, considering the odds of getting caught or killed when committing those other crimes, more and more criminals are getting into the rhino-poaching business,” says Maggs.
Already there is close co-operation between South Africa’s parks authorities, the police, the military and the prosecuting authorities. But Maggs believes the situation can only be properly addressed if the co-operation gets extended to Mozambique’s police and military. That, however, requires intervention at government level.
Dr David Mabunda, chief executive of South African National Parks, indicated that the next big step in the unfolding strategy may well be to get such co-operation going between the security forces of the two countries. He suggested South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and the national minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa, were due to have talks with the Mozambican government.
“In 95 percent of the cases – no, even more – Mozambicans are involved in the poaching. Many return in body bags. We don’t boast about killing people. Our purpose is to arrest them, also to gather information. They should know the risk by now, but still they keep coming and the gangs keep multiplying.
“The answer should come through joint operations between the South African and Mozambican security forces. Their Limpopo National Park (which forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park with Kruger National Park) is supposed to serve as a buffer. It isn’t, and we need to talk to them about it,” he said.
As for the market-end of the brutal trade, he said South Africa’s Presidency and the country’s department of international relations were discussing the rhino question with China and Vietnam and he believed progress was being made.
WWF’s African Rhino Program co-ordinator, Dr Joseph Okori, has also called for more coordinated international efforts. He said last month: “Vietnam should follow South Africa’s example and start sending poachers, traders, smugglers and sellers to jail. In order to save rhinos from extinction, the criminal syndicates operating between South Africa and Vietnam must be uncovered and shut down for good.”