Durban - Defence Force soldiers are to be deployed in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (HiP), in northern KwaZulu-Natal, to join the fight against rhino poaching.
The move is controversial as the military are not meant to operate in civilian matters. Some soldiers are deployed in parks on border areas, as this is interpreted as being border defence. The “training excercise” is to start next week.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has identified 16 rhino poaching syndicates in the province.
This comes as the yearly total of rhino poached in South Africa reached an all-time high of 704 by the end of last month. This exceeds the annual record of 668 set in 2012, according to data provided by the Environmental Affairs Department on Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Communications manager, Musa Mntambo, would only confirm that the park was “in negotiations with the SANDF”.
“We are discussing with provincial SANDF,” he said.
“I cannot comment on the details. We are discussing how many personnel, the hours they will work, and where exactly they will be deployed.”
However, plans to accommodate the military personnel seem quite far advanced, as a camp with ablution facilities is being erected in the park for them.
Ezemvelo has already identified September, October and November as a “high risk” period in which there is a spike in rhino poaching, according to past statistics.
It is thought that the soldiers will be drawn from a Durban-based unit. Ten soldiers from 121 infantry battalion, stationed at Mtubatuba, and Manguzi, are already active in the Tembe Elephant Park, on the Mozambican border.
Some sources claimed the soldiers could be stationed at the HiP camp within weeks.
Ezemvelo’s recently appointed anti-poaching co-ordinator, Cedric Coetzee, travelled to Kruger Park to meet top officials involved in anti-rhino poaching efforts there.
The SANDF deployed 265 soldiers in “Operation Corona” at Kruger National Park and the borders around the park, following a plea for help by South African National Parks (SanParks).
Ezemvelo chief executive, Dr Bandile Mkhize confirmed a few weeks ago that Coetzee had met the Kruger Park team “to find ways of synergising their efforts with our own”. Mkhize revealed that Coetzee had made a presentation to Ezemvelo’s management, outlining his strategy for fighting the rhino-poaching scourge.
“I am instituting a joint operations command including ourselves, the SAPS, our Project Rhino stakeholders, and the SANDF,” Coetzee told them.
“Essentially, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is for the first time integrating its own efforts with the expertise and resources of private law enforcement agencies,” Coetzee had added.
Coetzee outlined his strategy as:
l Project Border Security, which sees the return of the SANDF to patrol the Mozambican border.
l Project Intelligence which sets up a formal network for information gathering.
l Project Civil Action will set up a legal team to investigate and interrogate key suspects.
l Project Sangoma will identify key rhino-poaching role players and conduct special investigations to disrupt poaching networks and their operation capability.
Coetzee had said Ezemvelo’s intelligence units had identified about 16 poaching syndicates operating in KZN.
“Many feed off informers, including sangoma (traditional healers), drivers, the shooters, and even our own (Ezemvelo) staff.
R60-million has been provided by the province for the operation.
Mntambo said the negotiations with the SANDF at this point dealt only with soldiers for foot patrols, but military equipment such as helicopters would be used if necessary.
Night vision equipment has been provided to rangers.
HiP’s Project Zap Wing already has a fleet of aircraft (fixed wing and helicopter) that fly over private and public game reserves.
Mntambo said private security firms were already patrolling the corridor road from the park to the Mozambican border.
Rangers have been fighting a losing battle as syndicates have been using helicopters, night vision equipment and high-powered rifles.
Mntambo said 68 rhino had been poached in the province this year. He could not say how many of them had been poached in the HiP.
According to Reuters, many of the poachers come from Mozambique and sell the horn to crime syndicates to feed rapidly rising demand in South-East Asia, where the horn is thought to cure cancer and tame hangovers.
“We need people to be ashamed of this. The fact that our rhinos are killed is because there is a market out there. There are people who are coming to steal our heritage,” said Fundisile Mketeni, a top biodiversity official at the Department of Environmental Affairs.
“The poaching syndicates are determined to carry on with their nefarious acts, using the poverty that is prevalent in Mozambique and South Africa to recruit poachers,” said Ike Phaahla, a spokesperson with SA National Parks. - Daily News