Kimberley - Controversy surrounds the sale of 260 rhinos from the Kruger National Park (SANParks) to three private hunting farms in the Northern Cape and the Public Protector has been called in to investigate.

After the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, earlier this month announced that 500 rhino would be “evacuated” from the Kruger National Park in order to “ensure their ‘continued safety’ during the escalating poaching crisis in the Kruger” it has emerged that SANParks signed contracts for the sale of 260 of these rhinos to three hunting safari companies in the Northern Cape.

Apparently the contracts with the companies, all three displaying photographs of rhino hunts on their websites, were signed in October and November 2013, 10 months prior to cabinet approval for the sale of the rhinos.

It is believed that the 260 rhinos were sold for a mere R60 million which equates to an average price of R230 700 per rhino. In May 2014, at an auction held by Vleissentraal, six rhinos were sold for R3.3-million, an average price of R550 000 per rhino.

It has also emerged that one of the Northern Cape farm owners, has been identified in Julian Rademeyer’s book “Killing for Profit” as the individual that allegedly connected Dawie Groenewald (who is out on bail on 1 872 charges relating to rhino poaching) with a Vietnamese rhino horn buyer.

It is further alleged that one of the co-owners of another farm is a senior officer of Wildlife Ranching SA (WRSA), raising questions about the involvement of a SANParks board member who, up until very recently, was also a senior WRSA member.

When questioned about the contracts, SANParks spokesperson, Rey Thakhuli, said that SANParks had transactions with several businesses and were not at liberty to divulge who they were doing business with.

Molewa has, however, confirmed that Hector Magome, senior SANParks executive, was suspended because the SANParks board had “issues” about the procedures that were followed with the sale of the rhinos.

Magome is believed to have signed the contracts for the sale of the rhinos to the three hunting companies at the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, Allison Thompson, from Oscap, an anti-rhino poaching organisation, has lodged a complaint with the Public Protector asking for the sale of the 260 rhinos to be investigated.

Thompson yesterday said that, judging by the sheer number of rhinos sold, it was clear that they would not be used in conservation efforts but rather for hunting.

“Sixty male and 40 females were sold to one farm alone. This raises serious concerns, as only one male would be needed to cover a few females if the rhinos were to be used in conservation efforts. Of even more concern is the fact that the animals were sold by inch of horn and not per animal.

“There is no doubt that these animals will be sold or hunted and we have called on the Public Protector to urgently investigate these sales, as well as other related suspicious issues, and to halt the movement of these rhinos from the Kruger National Park until such time as a full investigation has been done into the contracts and the suitability of the destinations that these rhinos are being moved to,” Thompson said.

She added that while the animals had not yet been relocated to the farms in the Northern Cape, deposits for the sales had been paid by the three hunting safari companies.

Thompson added that private hunting outfits had no interest in conservation and only preserved animals for hunting and killing them.

“What is the use of moving the rhinos for their own protection when they are only going to be hunted,” she asked.

SANParks yesterday responded to media reports stating that while they had missed the window to move local rhino this year, it had developed a plan for March 2015.

“We have missed the window to remove the animals because it is now getting warmer. The best time to move them is in winter,” SANParks spokesman, Isaac Phaahla, was quoted as saying.

SANParks yesterday, however, said it realised the importance of protecting the animals by implementing the strategy announced by the minister on behalf of cabinet and had no intention to delay its implementation.

“I merely gave context to the fact that there were currently no definite dates for the relocations, the fact is that we have to plan the logistics around this. The reports suggesting a postponement are false and that the best time to do mass capturing and translocations was coming to a close.

“I stated that the period recommended by scientists is between March and October and that is what I pointed out. At no stage did I mention a date and suggested that this will only take place next year. The relocations will be taking place as soon as all the planning has been finalised,” Phaahla said.

He added that the rationale behind the move was to grow the number of the animals while at the same time keeping them safe. He said a lot of work would go into investigating the places where the animals would be kept.

“The animals will only be moved to an area where they will be properly looked after and protected from poachers. They will only be moved to areas where there is expertise for their well-being,” he said.

Molelwa has also stressed that the rhinos would not be relocated to hunting farms.

“In terms of the integrated strategic management, agreements will be entered into with the recipients of the relocated rhinos to ensure that the animals are not hunted, as the objective of the management plan is to contribute to the growth of the rhino population,” she said.

The DA in the Northern Cape yesterday raised concerns about the sale by saying that while the extent of rhino poaching in the Northern Cape had been on a lower scale compared to the rest of the country, they feared that moving 260 rhino to the Province could change this, unless urgent measures to curb rhino poaching were put in place.

“It is deeply worrying that government, who is ultimately responsible for the protection and conservation of our rhino, is failing in its duty to protect our rhino population. Of added concern to us in the Northern Cape, is the fact that our provincial Department of Environment and Nature Conservation is severely under-resourced and has a shortage of compliance and enforcement officers,” the DA’s Ismail Obaray said.

The DA this week submitted parliamentary questions to the department to ascertain the extent of rhino poaching in the Northern Cape.

“We are trying to establish whether the Province has the capacity to protect our rhino population. The DA will continue to probe the relocation of rhino to this Province, as well as the capacity to protect this animal population from ruthless poachers and money making thugs,” Obaray added.

At least 1 827 rhinos have been killed by poachers in the Kruger National Park since 2010.

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