A new economic analysis concludes that the most effective way to ensure the survival of Africa's elephant populations threatened by rampant poaching is not to legalise the international trade in ivory.

Johannesburg - When the poachers come for Kruger’s elephants – and they will – David Mabunda promises he and his elite team of park rangers turned soldiers will be ready.

“It’s inevitable, but they will find us ready,” said Mabunda, who heads SANParks. “When we do a rhino strategy, it’s not just about the rhinos. It’s a large mammals protection strategy.

“Yes, our focus is on rhino (protection). But when we train our rangers, we train them to protect all our large mammals that are vulnerable in the Kruger National Park. When we get the equipment that we will get for rhinos, that will also cover elephants.”

South Africa has already been warned that its sizeable elephant population could be vulnerable to attack this year amid bleak predictions for the rest of the continent’s diminishing herds – a fifth of Africa’s elephants could be wiped out in the next decade.

Last year, more than 50 000 elephants were slaughtered across central, east and west Africa, and parts of southern Africa, as surging demand for ivory products in countries such as China decimate populations.

There are increasing signs that the poaching wave is heading “down south”.

Dr Sam Ferreira, the large mammal ecologist at SANParks, recently told the Saturday Star that it was not unforeseeable for rhino poachers to take more risks to “maximise” their valuable bounty by beginning to take on elephants.

“I think we’re so focused on rhino but that’s something we shouldn’t forget about – elephant poaching. We are on high alert.”

Many African countries have not invested in conservation management and are now paying the price, says Mabunda. “This country is different. That’s why (Warren) Buffett says we must export the template we have learnt and share it with other countries in Africa.

“In Botswana there is more investment in elephant management. That’s why they’re not experiencing the same problem as other countries in Africa. They have a lot of elephants, and, yes, poaching is taking place, but the Botswana Defence Force has as its mandate, the protection of wildlife. They… shoot to kill. Unfortunately, we can’t.

“Our constitution says you can’t be murdering people. A poacher is worth more alive than dead because we will get more information from the poacher, to the handler, to the top.”

Faced with an unprecedented toll of 1 004 rhino slain last year – with 172 falling already this year, Mabunda dismisses criticism that the government is failing to rein in the carnage. “I walk in malls, wherever, where people say to me ‘don’t let this thing slip out of your hands’. They say ‘keep fighting, put more pressure.’

“People think the government is not doing anything. But it will take time for things to change. We had to start from scratch, to build the strategy, employ more rangers, to train them to the level of becoming paramilitary, becoming soldiers. So people that joined conservation for the love of it are now soldiers.

“The fact they’ve arrested so many people must make us very encouraged. That (Kruger) is the 10th unofficial province of the country. So where do you begin policing? The complexity of Kruger is the size. Where you have size you need a game changer.”

The game changer will be technology, paid for, in part, by the R255 million that Buffett, the billionaire investor, has donated to SANParks to counter poaching in the Kruger.

“Over the years we were not investing in technology because we didn’t need to. Now we do. The solution will ultimately cost us R2-billion – drones, terrestrial monitoring or radar systems.

“We need to make sure we know what’s happening to monitor the boundary, we need early warning systems, seismic sensors where people walking on foot can be picked up by fibre optic lines. There is a lot we need and it’s not cheap.”

South Africa’s rhino kingpins are “small fish in a big pond”, he believes. “The big bosses are in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China. They also sit in London, New York. They have sophisticated systems that will stop you before you get to them. We can’t, as SA alone, get them. The big guys are out there. Not here.” - Saturday Star