Get IOL's cool new iPad app...
Statistics released by the Department of Environmental Affairs ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Bangkok reveal the inability of South African authorities to turn the tide against rhino poachers.
In the first 60 days of this year, 130 rhinos were slaughtered, of which nearly 92 were killed in the Kruger National Park.
At the current rate of attrition, this will mean 780 rhinos slain in 2013, and around 600 inside Kruger - up more than 100 on the already critical corpse count for last year.
Worse, the Kruger statistics predict an increase of around 25 percent from last year - an increase that, according to environmental scientists, could lead to a negative population growth by 2015, where more rhinos are killed than are being born.
Though not overtly identified by the department, the epicentre of the problem lies across the border in Mozambique – especially in the Mozambican badlands incorporated into a planned system of transfrontier parks.
It is here that impoverished communities have turned into heavily armed bands of rhino and elephant poachers, serving syndicates linked to the Asian underworld.
In a World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) ranking of countries based on their efforts to prevent the illegal animal trade, Vietnam, Laos and Mozambique came last.
Mozambique, where until last year rhino and elephant poaching was not even a crime but merely a misdemeanour and where conservation laws are seldom enforced, has emerged as a major transit point for smuggling rhino horn and ivory.
The numbers show 48 Mozambican poachers were killed in 2008, 62 in 2009, 48 in 2010, 71 in 2011 and 52 in 2012. So far this year (up to February 11), a further eight Mozambican poachers were shot dead.
Conservation law enforcement operatives cite the widespread involvement of members of the Mozambican defence and security forces, as well as those tasked with conservation, as one of the most distressing issues.
Mozambican national Gerson Chauque, a member of the country’s Frontier Guard, was shot in a skirmish with South African forces in 2012.
Another Frontier Guard turned poacher, Bento Pequenino, was shot in the abdomen on November 22, 2011, and is currently in detention in South Africa.
More recently, on February 11, South African anti-poaching forces clashed with eight Mozambican poachers in Kruger, killing seven. The one who survived has been identified as a member of the Mozambican armed forces.
Another of the dead Mozambican poachers, Silva Ngovene, used a Mauser 458 gun that the Frontier Guard had seized from a group of poachers on the Mozambican side of the border, securing it in the Massingir District Police Command.
The firearm ended up in the hands of a poacher known as Vembane, killed by South African troops in Kruger on January 8.
Last week, ballistics tests revealed that a heavy-calibre .458 hunting rifle seized from a Mozambican in Ndumo Game reserve on the KZN-Mozambique border last November was the same weapon as the one used to poach rhino at the Hluluwe-Imfolozi Park, where the rotting carcasses of seven rhino were discovered in a single weekend.
Authorities believe the weapon is a “gun for hire”, supplied by an identified suspect in Maputo and used by poaching gangs roving between rhino hot-spots.
Equally troubling are indications of collusion in the Mozambican government, and of links between corrupt officials and transcontinental organised crime.
One South African anti-rhino poaching official said despite the introduction of legislation criminalising the killing of protected wildlife, poaching in Mozambique continues to be treated “like a parking offence”.
A senior wildlife investigator with the Endangered Species Crimes Unit said Mozambique’s failure to bring the criminals to book reflects a lack of political will.
“The fact we don’t see the results from our Mozambican counterparts is a sour indictment of the state of affairs over there.
“We ask for results from the few arrests they publicise, but we get very little co-operation, except complaints that their citizens (poachers) are being shot by our rangers and security forces in our parks.”
The difficulties also extend to the business of investigation.
“We have to rely on Interpol for help because there is no memorandum of agreement in place that allows us to retrieve the DNA from horn seizures to check if the horns originate in South Africa.”
- Sunday Tribune