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Durban - Conservationists fear money donated by the public to help save the endangered rhino, could be lining the pockets of opportunistic fly-by-nights posing as NGOs.

Bandile Mkhize, chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said “everyone was jumping on the bandwagon” proclaiming to help rhinos, but not everyone cared about the endangered animal. Conservationists were asking where the money raised from the public to help fight rhino poaching ended up.

Chris Galliers, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa’s Rhino Initiative co-ordinator, said as there were numerous NGOs and non-profit organisations operating to save the rhino, there was a need to ensure that the public’s money went to the right places.

“A database of this nature is long overdue, and will help see who is doing what,” said Galliers.

He said there were many organisations capitalising on pretending to save the rhino.

There is so much alarm in environmental circles about scams involving fund-raising for rhinos that the government has stepped in and asked all organisations and individuals involved in anti-poaching and conservation projects to register with the Department of Environmental Affairs by the end of this month.

The department said “concerns have been raised by industry role players about the legitimacy of organisations involved in fighting rhino poaching”.

With it being World Rhino Day on Sunday, the move to register rhino projects has been lauded by conservationists as a step in the right direction.

Mkhize said that instead of (the public) showing these different NGOs and projects the money, you should ask them to show me the rhinos they have saved.

“We are very happy with this initiative, as this will sift out who the real players are. The public is giving money left, right and centre to help fight rhino poaching, but as Ezemvelo we are the custodians of thousands of rhinos, but we are not seeing that money,” said Mkhize.

So far this year 635 rhinos have been poached while 194 people have been arrested for poaching.

The Kruger National Park bears the brunt of rhino poaching with 396 rhinos killed this year.

Also, 64 rhinos have been killed in Limpopo, 63 in KwaZulu-Natal, 62 in North West and 43 in Mpumalanga.

“I have suspicions about certain organisations. We have to question whether some of these people are just there to line their pockets,” said Mkhize.

He urged people to ensure that when they choose to donate money, it was a legitimate operation.

“We can show you the rhinos we have helped save, people can inspect our books, and see how our projects are working.

“This is what you must ask of the organisation you want to support,” he said.

The call for organisations to register went out last week, and department spokesman Albi Modise said there had been keen interest.

“We have received many calls from people wanting to register.”

The database, he said, would also allow government to see where the gaps in fighting rhino poaching lie, identify opportunities to collaborate, and determine whether a difference was being made.

“Sometimes we get calls from foreign governments wanting to make a donation to a certain project, and they want to know from us if that project is legitimate, but we have no way of knowing,” he said.

Modise said some NGOs were concerned by the activities of other NGOs, and a database would allow the department to see which were credible and which were fake.

“Once we establish this, we would have to come up with a symbol or a registration number that would allow the ordinary member of the public to know that if they choose, as an example, to buy a rhino armband, that that money spent is going to a legitimate NGO (which) is registered with us, and the money is going directly to saving a rhino,” he explained.

Sheelagh Antrobus of Project Rhino KZN, a network of NGOs and institutions in KZN collaborating in rhino conservation, said her organisation had once come across a scam operation.

“About eighteen months ago we saw a stall at a community fleamarket selling T-shirts and other gimmicky things with rhinos on them, with money allegedly going to a particular cause, which we knew wasn’t real. We confronted them and asked them for their credentials. They soon packed up and left,” she said.

Antrobus welcomed the department’s intervention.

“People in KZN can rest assured that if they are donating towards any member of Project Rhino, their money is going directly to saving rhinos, and we will all also be registering with the department.”

Galliers said tourism was a major income generator for the country, and if rhinos were lost, it would have a negative impact on tourism.

As an example, he said, the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute had reported that there may be as many as 30 elephants being poached a day, which it believes is contributing to a declining local tourism economy over the last two years.

“We need to celebrate rhinos as part of our natural heritage, for the impressive animals that they are and because it is just the right thing to do,” said Galliers.

Kirsty Brebner, rhino project manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said there were many “fly by nights” who were collecting money on the back of pretending to save the rhinos.

“We are not sure where the money goes, and this would help to sort the credible from the not so credible, and identify gaps where NGOs are doing good work.”