Changing Planet

Kruger Park to Move 500 Rhinos to Save Species from Extermination

The assault on South Africa’s rhinos has become so catastrophic that a large-scale emergency program is underway to evacuate a minimum of 500 of the endangered animals to safe havens. The move forms part of what the authorities call an “integrated strategy” to head off poachers that are slaying the iconic animals for their horn, which is prized in Asian markets for spurious healing powers or as a flashy symbol of conspicuous consumption. (For background to the poaching crisis, maps, and photos, read the National Geographic feature “Rhino Wars.”)

Ground zero of the rescue operation is Kruger National Park, home of nearly half of South Africa’s estimated 21,000 rhinos. Bordering on Mozambique, the 20,000 square-kilometer (7,722-square-mile) flagship wildlife sanctuary has been pounded relentlessly by poachers from across the boundary.

Already 631 rhinos have been killed in South Africa so far this year, 408 of them in Kruger. This despite a burgeoning security operation inside the park involving army and police units working with combat-trained rangers, all under supreme command of retired South African Defence Force Major-General Johan Jooste.

With the rhino death toll threatening to surpass last year’s record 1,004, the specter of the species being poached into extinction is about to become reality. Sam Ferreira, South African National Parks’ (SANParks) large-animal ecologist, explains that the animals’ natural mortality rate of 2 percent plus poaching deaths of 6 percent now equals the annual birth rate of 8 percent, meaning that the population has reached tipping point.

The implications of rhino numbers starting to drop in South Africa are dire. The country is the species’ main bastion in Africa, and indeed on the planet. South Africa is home to 93 percent of Africa’s white rhino and 39 percent of its black rhino. But with the country struggling with the onslaught from increasingly-better equipped poachers and the international crime syndicates that hire them, South Africa is now also turning to neighboring states to provide havens for at least some of its rhinos.

Moving from High-Risk to Lower-Risk

About half of the 500 animals to be relocated will be moved from high-risk to lower-risk areas inside Kruger Park. Areas regarded as high-risk are mostly in the densely vegetated zone along the eastern boundary with Mozambique which offers handy cover and easy entry and escape to insurgents, while less risky areas are in the more open and better secured region farther to the western side of the national park.

Rhinos will also be moved from Kruger to other parks and private game reserves that can serve as “strongholds” inside South Africa. The remainder of the 500 earmarked for special protection will be offered to neighboring countries, notably Botswana and Zambia, with which negotiations are already in progress to put up some of the animals. Only countries that are historically home to rhinos and which can offer sufficient assurance that the animals will be well protected are being considered.

According to Ferreira, the translocation has a dual purpose. Apart from getting the animals out of harm’s way, there is the additional benefit that they tend to breed more readily in areas of low-density rhino population than in higher-density places where they seem to have a natural tendency to curb their fecundity.

These latest initiatives to shore up the survival of wild rhinos were directed by the South African cabinet and announced at a media briefing in Pretoria this week by Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa. The national police commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, attended the briefing, underscoring the multi-pronged nature of the anti-poaching strategy.

Intensive Protection Zone

The briefing also suggested that the South African authorities have renewed their resolve to take the fight to the poachers and the smuggling syndicates. Part of this is the creation of what is called an “intensive protection zone” in Kruger Park. It covers an area adjoining the Mozambique boundary that has been seeing the heaviest incursions. The intention is to deploy the best technology and resources to get at the poachers. “We want this to become a bad place for them to go,” Ferreira said.

A remarkable disclosure by Phiyega was that South Africa has come to a “hot-pursuit” agreement with Mozambique, allowing Kruger’s security personnel to chase poachers even after they had crossed the international border. The ease with which culprits could escape simply by crossing back into their own country has constantly frustrated the park’s law-enforcement officers. Some poachers even had the temerity of waving at Kruger’s enforcement staff once they were safely across the border.

From what the police commissioner said, there has indeed been a significant improvement in co-operation with Mozambique. The country’s earlier attitude was such that it was ordered by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to report on what it is doing to help curb the poachers and smugglers raiding Kruger. Now Mozambique has tightened its animal-protection laws and instructed its security leaders to work more closely with their South African counterparts.

A vital further component of the “integrated strategy” is to win the hearts and minds of impoverished Mozambican communities adjacent Kruger. It is from these communities that most of the poachers are recruited by the crime syndicates, and which serve as staging posts and hiding places for contraband. The idea is that by creating new work and income opportunities for them, these communities will be more willing to resist or turn against the criminals and, instead, help curb the poaching activities.

Included in South Africa’s strategy to save the rhino is a diplomatic campaign to solicit help from rhino-horn consumer countries like China, Vietnam and others in the Far East by clamping down more tightly on the smugglers and the illicit trade in those nations. South Africa is negotiating memorandums of understanding with each of the countries individually.

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.
  • Linda Sue Foley

    Please do not send them to any zoos or circuses!! Please be careful where they are sent!

  • Roy Seeley

    What the authorities need is a fleet of drones cruising the Kruger which are armed. When the drones detect these killers shoot them. I bet the poaching and killing would soon dry up.

  • Tanmay Sharma

    Will shifting help? What if the same situation happens in the new area? I wonder how in spite of keeping such a strong security force in the protected region, the poachers could still hunt those animals.

  • jane reniers

    It states that half of them (260) will be sent to private owned facilities. Too bad that these facilities host rhino hunts… I would like to know more about this. Now it just looks like they earned a lot of money by saving them from poachers and selling them to trophy hunters…

  • JA Malone

    According to media reports, the private farms noted above are trophy hunting farms that have paid handsomely for the pleasure of killing the last of the rhinos. These magnificent animals are doomed, the governments of Africa are participating in horn and ivory trade from the top down.

  • Kishan de Silva

    The government should impose death sentences on poachers. The law needs to come down with an iron fist.The same should apply drug tratrafficking, murder and sexual related violence. This is the only way to reform society?

  • Theodora

    Change in regulation. Catch them and make them pay.!

  • Bradley Smith

    Harsh punishments need to be put in place to preservse the Rhinos.

  • Margaret

    Read recently that a prize of shooting a Black Rhino was awarded to a member of a so called Environmental protection group in the USA. What a fine example! What moral authority it gives them to tell poachers what not to do. If it’s wrong it’s wrong, don’t make it right for one but wrong for another.

  • Concerned

    Shoot to kill………the poachers, by any means necessary. Chase them, track them down and kill them. Simple. If they want war then war it is!

  • AWM

    why NOT a zoo or wild animal park, especially those with good, sensible breeding programs in place?

    the ‘wild’ is not safe for most of these animals anymore (poaching, habitat destruction, wars) and having a contingency plan and safe haven for these animals may be the ONLY way to keep them from disappearing forever.

    A zoo is a viable option, and a sensible one.

  • horen chandra sonowal

    Required death penalty
    And strict international my state assam in this yr about 1500 one horne rhino killed by poacher in kazironga wildlife sactuary

  • Ed McDonald

    I suggest a big project on the part of US citizens with international assistance welcomed. A national preservation organization needs to raise funds for securing a large parcel of suitable land as a preserve for elephants, rhinos, selected gazelles and cheetahs. I suggest that some ranchers in Texas may be willing to participate by granting long-term use of ranch land. A lot of planning and lobbying would be involved to get state and federal laws enacted to permit this and to limit liability in the event of damage from an animal leaving the preserve.
    I realize that this is a proposal that seems unrealistic in scope, but I suspect that America is only place (mostly) safe from poachers.

  • Ewa Czyzewska

    260 rhinoes have actually been sent FOR extinction – to private hunitng outfits where most probably they will be killed in canned hunts. Only those 250 under inteernational projects have a Chance – especially to be sent to Botswana under Rhinoes Without Borders. This move shows total inertia of South African authorities to protect widlife in their National Parks and raises strong doubts concerning proceeds from sales of the rhinoes. Unfortunately the operation, though presented – even by National Geographic – as saving rhinoes from poachers – has nothing to do with proper conservation.

  • Jay

    Silent Heroes Foundation is trying to help as well.

  • Chris Landau

    I think many should be moved to Australia, New Zealand and some South American Countries that might want to protect them.

  • Derrick White

    The rhinos being sent hunting ranches are being sent there because of the level of security they will receive and will not be hunted. Rhino hunting is under a strict quota and by permit only, handed out by the same wildlife agency . There’s no way to leave the country , for a hunter, with any trophies,ea. horns ,hides, without a already pre-qoutaed permit. The new rhinos are not part of that qouta and will be looked after better there than anywhere else.

  • Marilynne Perkins

    Tranquilize the rhino, remove or disfigure the horn so it’s not useful, there go the profits. Is this not possible. If the horn is not necessary for the animals survival, off it comes– same with ivory. am sure tourists won’t mind seeing hornless and tuskless critters as long as they are breathing!

  • Cari Lombardi

    Who exactly are funding the poachers for their activities? Particular organizations/countries? For particular animal parts? The economics of the problem need to be addressed on both ends–the poachers AND those that are funding the poachers. No $ = fewer killed.

  • I_Fortuna

    Seriously, many of you would put animals over the lives of humans? Aren’t you the same people who oppose animal cruelty and destruction? This kind of thinking is just a bandaid to a bigger problem facing the people of Africa. You advocate killing poachers? Well, why don’t you get your gun and go do it yourself? Oh, what is that you say? You don’t want to do the dirty work yourself? I see.
    Texas, btw, has ranches with exotics (mostly different types of deer) and they are usually hunting ranches except for those who keep zebra.
    Most Texas land is used for cattle, sheep and goats or hunting. With the drought the last several years, cattle and other livestock have had to be sold off because they cannot be fed or have water. We have had to import food and water from other states which is astronomically expensive. True there is a lot of land but I doubt most Texans are eager to have rhino on their property and it will take years to recover from a drought that is not yet over. Most Texas land is privately owned as well.
    Can you imagine the food, water and medical care costs for even one rhino? Do you think a rhino would get along well with a longhorn? These animals need lots and lots of their own space.

  • William

    Tract down the rotten(sic!!) end user of the horn and wipe the suckers out. Take some of the confiscated rhino horn,poison it and put it back on the market. Who cares about the end users. Save the rhino

  • Linnea

    The poachers on the ground are just poor people earning a pittance compared to the value of the horn. Perhaps some energy and resources should be directed at reducing the demand for rhino horn in Asia. The poachers will stop poaching if nobody is buying.

  • Eva Prueckl

    Kill the poachers like they kill our rhinos!!!

  • Gary W

    I would do it myself, if I were over there. Humanity is a scourge on this planet. A plague on Mankind would be no great loss. Terra needs to be rid of the curse of the hominids that wantonly the planet’s ecology and wildlife. We are greedy, useless, and contribute NOTHING of any use to the planet.

  • CJ Lowell

    How about devoting resources to educating the consumers of these so-called Chinese “medicines?”
    For thousands of years, cultural tradition taught that these animal products (and others…don’t get me started on tiger parts) had medicinal value. How about teaching these people (and leveraging sanctions against governments that allow this trafficking) that there’s no magical property or curative value to rhino horns, etc? Is there really an entire continent that has no idea they’re wiping out entire species because of their ignorance?

  • Mark

    The death penalty should be made mandatory for these poachers and cut off all visas to Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asian countries participating in these abomination. Trophy hunting should be outlawed except for trophy hunting of the trophy hunters.

  • Mark

    In response to putting animal lives before humans. Absolutely! Animals contribute beauty while too many billions of humans are selfish, greedy and contemptible in nearly every way.

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