Photographer: Armand Hough

Durban - Two wildlife conservation groups are pursuing plans to set up a privately operated “rhino fortress” in Limpopo province as an insurance policy against rhino extinction.

Advertised as the country’s first Private Intensive Protection Zone for white and black rhino, the aim is to provide high-security perimeter fences and seismic detectors as a first line of defence, along with tracker dogs and 24-hour anti-poaching units at an undisclosed location in Limpopo.

The plan is being driven by film-maker and forestry executive Johan “Didi” Schoeman and former advertising executive Louise Joubert.

Schoeman also heads the US-based Wild Africa Conservation Fund, while Joubert is founder of the SanWild wildlife sanctuary in Limpopo.

They claim that corruption and the unrelenting wave of rhino horn poaching in state-owned conservation areas could mean that the future of wild rhinos in South Africa ultimately rests with private landowners.

“It is clear that the war on rhino poaching is not being won and that trade arguments are counter-productive to the slaughter. Rhinos are fast running out of time and valuable genetics are being lost,” they said.

The long-term sustainability and funding model for their proposal appears unclear, however, although they have launched a Rhino Guardian project appealing for financial support from the private sector and NGOs.

There are more than 300 private rhino owners in South Africa, who own about one third of the country’s total rhino population. Many private breeders argue that they cannot afford mounting security costs unless they are allowed to sell horn on the international market.

John Hume, the largest rhino breeder in the world, recently estimated that it was costing him more than R2 million a month to protect around 1 400 rhinos on his 8 000ha private ranch in North West province.

While government and state conservation agencies have not disclosed the total number of poachers killed in Kruger National Park and other conservation areas during the “rhino war” that flared up eight years ago, the Private Rhino Owners Association claims at least 220 poachers have been killed since 2008.

Schoeman and Joubert, however, suggest their privately operated intensive protection zone in Limpopo - which would not be open to pro-trade rhino breeders or to tourists - could be funded for the first three years by local and international donors and thereafter through a wildlife veterinary and rehabilitation unit and by offering the services of anti-poaching teams to private rhino owners.

Responding to questions on why she believed the future of rhinos could not be guaranteed in state conservation areas, Joubert said public access and the sheer size of areas such as Kruger National Park presented major security risks.

She argued that corruption and a lack of political will to act “swiftly and decisively” to end the poaching crisis made it essential for private landowners to intervene.

Wildlife managers in Kruger National Park announced plans last year to relocate an undisclosed number of rhinos away from the park periphery, either to intensive protection zones closer to the centre of the park or other conservation areas in South Africa and Botswana.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is also planning an intensive protection zone inside the 96 000ha Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.

The Mercury