Sheree Bega looks at the 10 things we need to do now to save the rhino.
1 Get more boots on the ground: To win the war against poaching, believes the International Rhino Foundation, we need more experienced front line rangers, monitors and those trained professionals that form the critical front line defence against wildlife crime. They need to be well-equipped with a fleet of technological innovations including drones, helicopters, infrared and GPS systems, as well as sniffer dogs, at their disposal.
But even SANParks acknowledges that this is not enough to “secure rhinos”. Then there is the sagging morale of rangers themselves – exhausted by the sheer scale of the slaughter, particularly in epic poaching zones, like the Kruger National Park.
“We need a well-motivated force, but our rangers are in a war they are not winning,” says Jo Shaw, the manager of WWF-SA’s rhino programme.
It’s the job of Major General Johan Jooste, who commands the anti-poaching corps in the Kruger, to encourage his team. “Our rangers are doing a sterling job. We are working hard to support them physically, materially and mentally. This is a protracted, tough war.”
He cautions against excessive militarisation in the Kruger. “Do you want more uniforms than Billabong T-shirts in the park? It’s a place of serenity, of nature. Let’s clear the park from the outside – do the demand reduction campaigns, help poor communities and collapse the crime networks. Fight poachers, and you only fight the symptoms.”
2 Curb Far Eastern demand: At $65 000/kg, rhino horn is the most expensive commodity on the planet. In China and Vietnam, it is used as a status symbol among the new elite to ease hangovers and get high, as well as for its supposed “medicinal” properties that can cure everything from impotence to cancer.
This year, Vietnam has started rolling out ambitious anti-poaching campaigns, imprinting messages on the myths of the medicinal value of rhino horn on electricity bills and airport billboards, for example.
It shouldn’t end there. “To date, the primary approach has been a mass marketing but, if we want to really make a difference down the road, there needs to be more targeted efforts to change consumer behaviour,”Jason Bell, the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s southern African division points out.
3 Consumer countries need to get serious about law enforcement: Illegal consignments of rhino horn are only sporadically seized in the Far East. “We need both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to take the stick to those involved in the illicit trade on the consumer end,” says Bell. “This will send a serious message to consumers in these countries that their governments want to take action and could have a ripple-down effect on consumer behaviour in the longer term.”
Shaw agrees: “We are seeing occasional seizures at airports and so on, but there’s no real law enforcement and action being taken against consumers and even dealers on that side.”
4 Destroy horn stockpiles: To prevent stockpiled horn from leaking into the illicit trade, stockpiles should be destroyed in a “transparent and audited manner”, says Bell. There is evidence to suggest that speculators are stockpiling rhino horn, both in Africa as well as end-user countries.
“Strong statements need to come from the Chinese and Vietnamese governments that they won’t tolerate banking on extinction and any horn seized should be destroyed.” In South Africa stockpiles are in the hands of private owners and the government’s own stockpile is at a towering 20 tons.
5 Bring criminals to justice: A new dedicated special investigation unit has been set up, led by detective services that focus only on rhino poaching. But the illicit trade is run by highly sophisticated and organised criminal syndicates – and until these masterminds are brought to justice, the killing fields won’t stop.
For the most part, it is poachers and couriers being caught in the net. “A holistic enforcement approach, which sees anti-poaching as part and parcel of a broader effort to shut down criminal networks, not just deal with poachers, is crucial,” says Bell.
Allison Thomson, the founder of Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching, says her analysis of the arrests versus convictions, puts this at 16 percent “due to dockets going missing, poachers escaping from holding cells and just bad police work”.
“The fact that conservation officers that were involved in the many pseudo-hunting cases have never been charged or even disciplined shows the lack of interest by our government in bringing perpetrators of these crimes to task.”
6 Rein in Mozambique: Improved co-operation between South Africa and Mozambique is crucial. “The crisis is such, that if the Mozambicans don’t come to the party, they will be complicit in the continued decline of rhinos,” says Bell. “Our rules of engagement are just not sufficient in order to deter poaching and despite many pleas to the government to change these rules nothing has been done because of pressure from Mozambique to protect their citizens from being killed.”
For her part, Thomson is frustrated. “We have a terrorist incursion into our country from Mozambique and they complained to our government that too many Mozambique citizens were being killed – asking if we valued our rhinos above that of the lives of poachers … Without commitment from Mozambique to stop these incursions what hope do we have of saving our rhinos?
“The list of poachers that was produced in Parliament recently has names of top officials in the police, magistrates, rangers, game park officials on it but yet they walk around untouched entering SA at will without any consequence.”
7 Display decisive leadership: Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa recently told the parliamentary hearings on rhino poaching that the country’s approach is “strategic, targeted and innovative”.
But there is too much lip service, argues Thomson. “Firstly without the political will to really stop this, we will not win this war. Until now we have been given the run-around by the politicians. Look at how they reacted to the coup in Lesotho – they went in there overnight and took charge. How have they treated the terrorist incursion over our border into Kruger – they sent in a hundred or so troops to protect 350km of porous border!”
In the Kruger, there is a massive breakdown in the top management “with all the infighting going on”, she alleges. “How can they possibly be doing all they can to fight poaching when they are busy watching their backs?”
8 Manage our rhinos: If poaching continues at its current rate, the predictions are gloomy – rhinos could be wiped out as soon as 2020. In its latest research report, released this week, SANParks scientists state that during the last five years, the number of rhinos lost via poaching, removals and natural deaths has matched the number being born.
SANParks promises that the Kruger is a “big laboratory”, where technology is being tested, and theories are being investigated – in the next 18 months, “we should be able to turn the situation around”.
Shaw welcomes the emergency plan of translocating hundreds of rhinos in poaching hot spots like the Kruger to well-secured and well-managed areas to boost population growth.
9 Don’t be distracted by the controversial debate over a legal rhino horn trade: The Department of Environmental Affairs has set up a panel, criticised for being run by pro-traders, to investigate the feasibility of a legal trade in rhino horn.
Its work will determine whether SA approaches the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2016 with a proposal to legalise the international trade.
“There seems to still be a lot of people being distracted by the idea there is only one solution – trade. “It almost seems like there is a pro-trade lobby and an anti-trade lobby and both sides are more concerned about the other side losing than about them saving the rhino,” says Shaw.
What has the government done to stop demand, wonders Thomson. “Nothing. They have only participated in increasing demand by allowing the pseudo-hunting to continue and increased demand on the back of the possibility of trade being opened.”
10 Conservation must benefit impoverished communities: Rhino conservation programmes must benefit impoverished communities, where poachers are recruited. Too often, the importance of this is downplayed. “We need to be working together with the communities who live around protected areas and making sure they reap the benefits around wildlife,” says Shaw.
“I’ve visited villages in Mozambique and there is real hunger in these households.
“I think South Africa can learn from other countries, like Namibia and Zambia, not just paying lip service but making sure communities do benefit from wildlife conservation in an equitable way.”