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It is a typically dry and recondite graph, buried deep in a peer-reviewed academic treatise: fixed and dotted lines meandering, spiking and dipping without any obvious purpose as they navigate and plot their position on the “x” and “y” axes. Footnoted explanatory keys confuse the general reader more than they illuminate.
But what it says when you boil it down is devastating:
- Less than three years from now, by 2015, the South African rhino population in the Kruger National Park will enter a negative growth phase; more rhinos will be killed off by poachers than are being bred.
- And unless that pattern is reversed, only five years later - by 2020 - there will be no rhinos left in the Kruger Park at all. In the doomsday scenario that emerges from the dry scientific prose of Dr Sam Ferreira, large mammal ecologist for SANParks at Kruger National Park, and a group of co-researchers in the September 2012 edition of the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the world’s premier rhino breeding programme will be no more.
Right now South Africa accounts for no less than 73 percent of the global population of the threatened species, and while some breeding programmes might persist by 2020 in private reserves, these are equally under threat. According to official figures released on December 19 last year, increasingly organised poaching syndicates had officially accounted for 633 rhino deaths in 2012. By the end of the year that number was expected to rise above 660. The official total lost to poaching last year will be announced tomorrow.
But the Department of Environmental Affairs figures do not tell the whole story. The Sunday Tribune has established that no reliable census of rhino populations was undertaken in 2012, as promised by minister Edna Molewa. Funded by international agencies, such annual census programmes involve systematic and scientifically controlled overflights co-ordinated with trackers and teams on the ground, and are considered vital to achieve accurate population counts. But late last year, at the height of the poaching crisis, the census that was supposed to have taken place during the dry season was called off early due to a faulty helicopter and earlier than expected rainfall, which led to rapid canopy and vegetation growth. Visibility conditions at a later stage made continuing the census a non-viable exercise, leaving these statistics unreliable from the outset.
But even without the detailed census, more than 420 rhinos were believed to have been killed for their horns in the Kruger Park in 2012 - up from 252 in 2011 and 146 in 2010. This does not include the count of animals that wandered across the border into Mozambique, only to fall prey to the poachers’ bullets and axes on foreign soil. This represents a dramatic increase of close to 48 percent over 2011.
According to Dr Richard Emslie, of the African Rhino Specialist group, legal internal trade in live rhinos in South Africa is also being undermined.
“Although private rhino owners in South Africa conserve more rhinos than there are in the rest of Africa, the escalation in poaching has significantly increased security costs and risks to rhinos and staff. This has led to a decline in live rhino sale prices from 2008 to 2011, with an estimated decline of $63 million (R542m) in the value of the country’s white rhino.
“In 2012, white rhino live sales are expected to decline further. At the same time, the number of private rhino owners in South Africa disinvesting in rhinos has increased.
“There is concern that the move away from rhino ownership may ultimately threaten the biological management of white rhinos, as the private sector greatly contributed to the rapid increase in numbers in the past.
“The escalating poaching threat combined with declining financial incentives threaten to curtail, and may ultimately reverse the expansion of, rhino range and numbers in South Africa. Reduced live sales may also seriously affect conservation budgets of both state agencies and private sector owners at the very time increased resources are needed to support rhino protection,” said Emslie.
In 2011 the International Union for Conservation of Nature formally declared as extinct the Western Black Rhinoceros, a subspecies of the black rhino once plentiful in the sub-Saharan savannahs centred in Cameroon. In 2010 the last known specimen of the Asian rhinoceros was killed in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, at the end of 2012, amid allegations of official collusion in the progressive massacre of the reserve’s once-thriving rhino population, concerns began to circulate that the last rhino in the Hwange National Park in neighbouring Zimbabwe had been killed for its horn.
Investigations by Independent Newspapers established that although this was not in fact the case - there may be four rhinos still surviving of the hundreds that once roamed the reserve - their future was hanging by a thread.
Conservationists mainly have linked the impending crisis in Zimbabwe directly to the granting of mining concessions to Chinese enterprises in recent years, as well as the influx of Asian immigrants to the region.
“If we don’t put the measures in place now, the animals will be extinct in the next couple of years,” said Johnny Rodrigues of The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. “Mining licences are handed out without any controls, and this poses a serious threat to the environment.
“There is no order, there is no control. This is just about taking as much as they can, and getting rich quick while they can. There are as many as 10 mineral and coal mining concessions around Hwange, including a colliery inside the park. The foreign nationals have been paying indigenous locals to poach the rhinos for horns, which they then smuggle out of the country,” said Rodrigues.
Several Chinese nationals connected to Zimbabwean government officials have been linked by international authorities in recent years to smuggling ivory tusks and rhinoceros horn.
Also a shocker is the 2009 revelation of a poaching cartel known as “The Crocodile Gang”. This group was accused of slaughtering rhinos and elephants to fulfil “requests” for horn and ivory by Chinese syndicates closely connected with the government.
Behind an “industrial-scale slaughter” of black rhinos, the “godfather” of the poaching cartel was revealed to be none other than Emmerson Mnangagwa - known by locals now as “The Crocodile”.
Also referred to as “The Butcher of Matabeleland”, he is the architect of Zimbabwe’s terrifying state security apparatus, creator of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Office - and rumoured to be next in line for president after Robert Mugabe.
In contrast, across the border with Botswana, the picture is markedly different.
Because of the hardline stance taken by the administration of Ian Khama, and with the army playing a key role in enforcing conservation laws, Botswana is rapidly becoming known as a country that is driving the change for a new conservation model in 21st century Africa.
President Khama recently announced hunting would be banned there from 2014, and that the country would pursue a strong eco-tourism ethos and strategy. Just last week Zambia followed suit and also announced it intended banning trophy hunting.
After the rhino was declared extinct or near-extinct on two occasions in the country since the 1980s, Khama, who serves as a patron of the country’s rhino breeding programmes, set a goal of bolstering the population to more than 500 by 2020.
At the most recent count there were just over 100 rhinos in Botswana’s conservancies.
Late in 2012 the Al Jazeera network broadcast a chilling documentary titled The Last Rhino, in which the film-makers crossed the South African border from the Kruger Park into Mozambique.
Here they found whole communities, still with access to weaponry from the country’s civil wars, whose livelihood and economy depended entirely on poaching rhino in South Africa.
While African nations and their leaders look to the East for economic aid, trade opportunity and infrastructure creation, the mother continent’s wildlife and its iconic creatures are looking to the West for their survival against extinction.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned of an expanding “new colonialism” sweeping across the African continent.
One that she says is being carried out by “foreign investors” and governments who seek only to exploit the continent’s natural resources.
Africa’s natural resources have become fair game for “foreign investors” and governments - which happens to have been increasingly noticed in the growing Chinese footprint across Africa. - Sunday Tribune