Changing Planet

South Africa Regroups in War on Rhino Horn Poachers

The audience sat in stunned silence on hearing the announcement that, with five months to go, South Africa’s rhino-poaching toll for 2013 had already shot well past the 500 mark. The occasion was a meeting in Johannesburg where stakeholders were taking stock of strategies to put a brake on the killing spree.

With 536 rhinos killed in the country by the end of July, it seemed highly likely that conservationists’ worst fear would come true. This is that the death toll for the year will surpass 2012’s shocking 668 and head for 1,000.

This would mean that humankind might for the second time in less than a century be threatening to wipe out this iconic animal that walked the planet for many millennia before us. The last time the rhino was headed for extinction was during the first half of the previous century. Then it was thanks only to the desperate efforts of a few park rangers that it got saved from mindless hunting.

At the rate it is going, say conservationists, the death rate will in three years’ time start exceeding births, and that would put South Africa’s white rhino population of about 20,000 in decline and pose an even more immediate threat to the endangered black rhino of which there are hardly more than 2,000 left in the country.

Yet, grim as the news was, the impression from the Johannesburg meeting was that good progress was being made with the development of a comprehensive strategy for tackling the scourge on many fronts. It was even tentatively suggested that the rate of killing could start being turned round within a year or so.

The initiative is being co-ordinated by central government’s Department of Environmental Affairs, whose deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation, Fundisile Mketeni, told the Johannesburg meeting: “We in government understand the rising anger at what is happening to our rhinos. But let us look at intervention holistically. We are in this thing together. Let us take hands.”

The audience was made up of police and military top brass, government officials, delegates from South African National Parks (SANParks) and provincial park agencies, private reserve and game ranch owners, environmentalists and a number of non-governmental organizations concerned with conservation.

The main theme was how to develop a cohesive strategy against the rhino poachers and their crime-syndicate bosses who recruit them from mainly poor communities and who smuggle the horn for the most part to Far Eastern destinations where it is taken in powder form under the age-old but sadly mistaken belief that it has curative and even stimulative qualities.

Discussions were centered on a report submitted to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs late last year by Mavuso Msimang, a former SANParks chief executive, who was appointed by government last year to gather views through public hearings and workshops on how best to tackle the problem of rhino poaching. His main conclusion, too, was that there was no “silver bullet” and that the only way of countering the menace was through a multi-pronged strategy.

Mketeni said he and his department agreed there was no single solution, whether it be more effective law enforcement, or reopening legal trade in rhino horn (which is being proposed as a way of undercutting the illegal trade and generating funds for rhino conservation). It had to be a comprehensive approach, he stressed.

From everything said, it is clear that law enforcement remains the main thrust of the operation. There has indeed been a steady improvement in the rate of arrests and convictions. This is put down in large part to better intelligence-gathering, more help from the public and more efficient detect-and-arrest operations by the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit set up last year to coordinate operations between the police’s organized crime unit, the environmental crime agencies of national and provincial park services, the prosecuting authorities, and the customs and excise and revenue services.

A DNA bank developed at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort veterinary faculty has proved of growing help in linking suspects to the dead animals, securing convictions.

As helpful has been a better understanding on the part of judicial officers of the complexities and the seriousness of the crime. It has seen tougher sentences being meted out, the most notable being the 40 years in prison given last year to Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai for using prostitutes to pose as hunters so that he could sell rhino horn acquired under the guise of being legally obtained trophies to fake-medicine peddlers in the Far East.

Environmentalists hope such sentences will start serving as a deterrent to would-be poachers. They are also working at getting the judiciary to impose jail sentences rather than fines, which the criminals mostly have no trouble paying from the handsome proceeds of their crime.

To back up the wide-ranging campaign, the government is setting up a national rhino fund to help cover its spiraling cost. The idea is to ensure that public funds and donations made by the private sector get used in a more controlled way.

The aim is to set up a register of all rhino-protection organizations. So many have sprung up on the back of public sentiment that there has been growing concern that some of the money collected through can-shaking at shop fronts and other means is ending up in people’s own pockets.

The permitting system for legal hunts is also being tightened. The power to issue such permits resorts with South Africa’s nine provinces. The different and lax applications of the regulations have been leading to much abuse, as in the Lemtongthai case.
To try to overcome this by centralizing the permitting system would set off a constitutional wrangle because of central government’s intrusion into provincial competencies. To get around the problem, a law has just been passed that provides for the creation of a national database that will include a register of all professional hunters and hunting operators. Permit abuses could result in them being scratched from the register and losing their operating licenses.

Much of the discussion at the Johannesburg meeting was dominated by the controversial and sometimes emotional issue of whether to reopen legal trade in rhino horn. The idea is that the horn should come from the existing government and private stockpiles obtained mainly from natural deaths, confiscated booty and dehorning. Some argued it would bring better understanding of the market and allow better control of it. Others wanted to know how one may discourage a habit by feeding it.

Keith Lockwood, an economist and econometric modeling specialist, sounded a cautionary note. He agreed that part of the strategy should be to reduce demand for rhino horn such as through public information and education campaigns in countries like China and Vietnam, with which South Africa has concluded memorandums of understanding. But neither this nor legal trade was without complexities, he warned.

With the increased wealth of people in those countries being the major reason for the upsurge in demand for rhino horn, it would be a mistake to believe the market could be shrunk by educating consumers about the fallacy of its medicinal qualities. Research showed that the market was actually growing. It showed that for every one person using rhino horn, there were five who would have liked to use it if they had the means to get it.

Lockwood said care would need to be taken about how stockpiles of horn got released through legal trade. The syndicate bosses behind the poaching and smuggling were business people. A sudden drop in price as a result of stockpiles getting released too quickly could make the syndicates kill more rhinos to make up for lost revenue. Or, if opportunities got closed to them in one country, they would turn their business to other countries. They would even turn to other animals if it became too difficult to supply rhino horn.
“We need to move away from simplistic, dogmatic and idealistic solutions. Trade needs to be part of a bigger strategy. We need to look at protecting our biodiversity as a whole,” he warned.

Of all aspects of the anti-poaching campaign though, it is going to be what happens in Kruger National Park, home to nearly half South Africa’s rhino population, that will determine its success or otherwise. It is in that 20,000-square-kilometer (7,722-square-mile) stretch of mostly savannah that the deadliest battle is being fought to keep the criminals at bay.

Of the 536 rhinos killed in South Africa during the first seven months of 2013, no fewer than 334 perished in the country’s flagship park. This despite a drastic tightening of security, involving the deployment of police and military units and the use of drones and helicopters to assist a growing corps of combat-trained rangers who do day and night patrols of the park’s worst affected areas.

There is now hope of turning the situation around.

The worst problem has been that of poachers coming across the park’s 375-kilometer (233-mile) border with Mozambique to carry out their raids. It is a vast territory to patrol and the dense vegetation offers them good cover. More and more often encounters with the park’s security forces have been turning into shootouts in which mostly poachers died, though a ranger, too, was seriously wounded in one such skirmish recently.

Most irritating to Major General Johan Jooste, a military veteran from southern Africa’s bush-war era who heads up the park’s combined security forces, has been the ability of the poachers to escape by fleeing back across the border. Some, he says, will actually wave mockingly at their pursuers once back on Mozambique soil.

They might not be able to do so much longer. The two governments and their security agencies seem finally prepared to co-operate in getting at the criminals. They have even been talking about reviving the principle of “hot pursuit”, which will allow the park’s security personnel to go after poachers even when they cross the border.

On its part, Mozambique is preparing to pass legislation to turn wildlife offenses from misdemeanors into full-blown felonies. The view has been that its lax laws have been heavily responsible for drawing the big international crime syndicates to rhino-poaching operations inside its borders and to using Maputo harbor and airport as smuggling exits.

Much will depend on how quickly and how well the two sides’ security forces get to co-operate. Big-time criminals and much money are involved, and corruption runs deep on both sides. And there is considerable mistrust, even antagonism, that needs to be overcome before they can together start putting the poachers and their bosses on the back foot.

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 several 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.
  • Mike

    hang the poachers from a tree near where the rhinos are foundand let the birds pick their bones clean. This should deliver a clear message to other poachers.
    Do you realize that your future grandchilden may never see a real live Rhino??

  • Marthinus

    It is shocking. The tragedy is that the dropping of the fence between kruger and Mozambique actually facilitates incursions into kruger from Mozambique. There were reports in the media to the effect that 300 rhino which strayed into Mozambique were poached. The authorities in Mozambique are not prepared to co-operate.Members of their defence force and police service are allegedly involved in poaching. The dropping of the fence was , as far as I om concerned, ill -considered and irresponsible There is now talk about re-erecting the fence at a cost of R250 million, a cost which wil lhave to be borne by us. There is also irrefutable evidence that corrupt sanparks rangers assist the poachers and that some of the are actively involved in poaching. How is it possible that the culprits were given jobs as rangers. I think it is due to a flawed process of selection. What cannot be denied is that the greater limpopo transfrontier park is a total failure. Neither Mozambique nor Zimbabwe had a track record of concern for the environment when the agreement to create this park was entered into. An aerial survey in 2011 of a nature reserve in northern Mozambique showed that more than 1600 carcasses of elephants were scattered all over the park. In my view the idea of this park was the brainchild of idealists who were out of touch with reality and who failed to foresee the consequences which would follow as sure as night follows day. As far as I know , we in south africa, do not benefit at all from the creation of this park, on the contrary there seems to be ample evidence that it has become a burden.

  • Achmad Osman

    I am firm in my view that a better way forward to combat the scourge of rhino slaughter is to use the existing stockpiles of horn to create a legal framework to harvest and trade horn responsibly. For example, diamond and gem-stone trading is regulated and works to some extent. Yes – it will not be easy or fool-proof but if stockpiles are legally sold, the money can be used to put he fence back up, pay informers to secure convictions and pay for an aerial surveillance programme to assist with the fight to hunt down poachers.
    Rhino can be farmed and the horn can be shaved to be sold legally, to licenced dealers, using DNA to trace fraud. Small shavings from a horn can be indelibly marked to indicate its source. The horn will regrow without hurting the animal. When a rhino dies of natural causes, that horn can be shaved and the shavings marked as well – This will ensure the rhino’s future. We must change the way the situation is handled now today – the ban does not work.

  • stephanie blair

    there are quite a few aspects of this report that need further investigation : 1) just how strong is the committment made to combat poaching in KNP? Do they have enough manpower, equipment, airpower?
    Just how many rhino poachers have actually received adequate sentences, and how long have they been “out on bail” until this happens?
    Have any syndicate members been arrested, other than 1.
    Why has it taken so long for legislation to be discussed to enable our troops to go in and arrest these thugs – who can enter our country, fully armed, with impunity?
    When is the SA govt going to acknowledge the value of living, breathing wildlife as our natural heritage – not just a means to an end.
    Once the rhino are gone, the lion, elephant, leopard and so many others will follow.
    Think very very hard.

  • Joanne Nolan

    What i don’t understand, among many things, is WHY has the seized rhino horn been stockpiled?

    Was it for the future purpose of cashing in on it, under the guise of trying to eradicate poaching?
    Sadly, i feel the only clear deterrant to poachers is corporal punishment. Make an example of them and the buyers, let them know their blood stained money won’t protect them

  • Justin

    Where can individuals of the public bring forward ideas?

  • Shelley Powers

    Opening up a so-called “legal” trade in rhino horn will do to rhinos what it did to elephants when a “legal” trade in ivory was allowed: absolutely decimate every single one of these animals.

    Let’s not pretend this is anything else but a corrupt government pretending to care for the animals, all the while profiting by them.

    And CITES enables it. CITES has become nothing more than a joke, if we could laugh over something so profoundly sad.

    Education programs? Seriously? How can National Geographic even print such bilge water as this?

    Until countries that enable this trade (I’m especially looking at you, China) are severely punished, and other countries provide funds and even personnel to assist park rangers, nothing will work. Nothing will work.

    Let’s at least acknowledge that this little article is nothing more than a press release glossing over how serious the situation is.

    Shame on you National Geographic, for not standing up for the animals.

    Mike is right: the next generation of children will never have a chance to see these animals in the wild.

  • Rozanne Smith

    It’s so sad to know Rhinos are being killed so ruthlessly, for nothing. It has been tried and tested that Rhino horn contains no medical properties to cure anything. Why cant these poachers just eat their own finger or toe nails when having a headache. As the horn is made out of the same component found in human nails.
    I hope one day my children will be able to be mesmerized by these beautiful animals and that they will be roaming in the wild for years and years to come.

  • Yvette

    I returned from a recent visit to KNP feeling very disappointed and very angry. After spending a week in the park we only saw one rhino, whereas I have fond memories of prior visits and several rhino encounters of both black and white species.

    There were several of us split between three vehicles and some of the passengers in my car left at a later point with another friend of ours. Off course we amended our exit permits to reflect the change in passengers, but these permits were not checked at the separate gates at which we exited. For all the park authorities know, two people are still at large in the park!! Simple security measures such as ensuring that all passengers in vehicles are accounted for would be a simple means of ensuring potential poachers are not being left inside park boundaries.

  • Chuck

    They should start issuing hunting licenses… for poachers. No bag limit and using any means available.

    I would be willing to pay and go on safari to hunt down those murdering bastards. I bet the guides who organized these trips would make a killing (pun intended).

  • Ian Wethers

    I would recommend sending in Special Forces/Snipers and very quiclyput these bloody poachers on the “endangered List” . Period !

  • Don Darkes

    I live near the main parks that are being ruthlessly ransacked. Since it is clearthat the highest authorities are involved and that their pockets are being lined there is no hope for the rhinos. Therefore I take every opportunity to leave my boat-under-construction and visit the parks in my region- and when I am lucky enough to see a rhino or two I know it may be the last time that I may do do. perhaps I should restructure my boat as an ark?

  • Simon

    We need to set up large road blocks manned by police or military police near the small Mozambique border towns. The reason is that people in these small towns have begun trading the high priced rhino and have begun to enrich themselves. Individuals and criminal gangs have become instantly wealthy by selling rhino horn. Greater monitoring needs to be done close to these border towns.

  • Andre

    Some parks are already a rhino-safe poison into the horns. Surely doing this nationally and in a well-publicised way is the only real way to deal with this emergency and turn things around quickly?

  • Andrew Martin

    1) SA needs to resurrect the fence to block Mozambique and pass legislation to shoot poachers on sight.
    2) China needs to be internationally brought to task and traditional chinese medicine publicly ridiculed
    3) As a temporary measure rhinos must be de-horned wherever feasible; or alternatively as suggested above, all rhino horns injected with cyanide with worldwide publicity on the matter (including the Chinese)

  • Nikita Singh

    Even if you want to make an effort to help with funding, how do you make a contribution out of the love for the animals but knowing that gov and their corrupt habits are the only ones to benefit from the funding? Im ready to go full out and raise thousands but so dissapointed to know that it wont be used effectively.

  • Casper Wilsenach

    A humble suggestion ..We in South Africa must not be hypocrites.. if we really believe Rhino horn has no medical uses ..Invite the world media especially from the east to watch us burning useless Rhino horn. Defy them to prove we made a mistake!!If we become a supplier of Rhino horns by selling them ..Greed !.. we are as guilty as the poachers ..

  • John van Wijk

    During his visit to South Africa earlier this year (2013) The President of the United States made it clear that his country was prepared to assist South Africa in the current “war” against Rhino poaching. My suggestion is as follows. The USA would place at our disposal an unarmed, but fully equipped drone to be used for 24/7 surveillance over the Kruger Park. This drone could be based at Hoedspruit Air Force Base, which is very close to the park. The same personnel that man the controlling post in the USA for monitoring drones in Afganistan ,Pakistan etc, could be used to monitor this drone. Our rangers etc could be suppllied with an electronic chip that would indicate to the USA base that the individuals spotted on the ground were in fact friendly and not poachers. South Africa would have a base set up in the bush near Letaba in the KNP which is about in the center of the park with a Puma or Super Frelon helicopter that can carry about 20 armed rangers This command post would be given the co-ordinates of the poachers spotted on the ground and the 20 odd rangers could be sent off in the helicopter to catch them. On nearing the area, the rangers would form an extended line and approach.This, done on a daily basis I am sure this will have a huge impact on the numbers of caught poachers in the park. It is also very important to find out who the poachers are delivering the horns to in Mozambique, and here good liason with the Mozambique police would be a huge step forward.

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