Durban - Rhino poaching syndicates are diverting more killing gangs from the Kruger National Park to the rhino reserves of KwaZulu-Natal, especially the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, which is fast becoming a new focal point in the country’s unrelenting rhino war.
At least 95 rhinos have been killed in KZN so far this year - up almost 20% compared with the same period last year. Nationwide, more than 6 000 rhinos have been killed over the past eight years.
Cedric Coetzee, provincial rhino security manager with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, explained that much tighter security measures in Kruger over the past year had led to a displacement of poaching to other parts of the country, especially KZN.
While the 2 million hectare Kruger reserve contains the largest remaining rhino population in the world, the smaller, 96 000ha Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park contains the highest density of wild white rhinos.
“When security is tightened in one place, as has happened in Kruger, the poachers start to look elsewhere for horns and now a lot of their focus is coming to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.”
Briefing local and foreign journalists in the park at the weekend, Coetzee said rhino-poaching gangs were entering Hluhluwe-Imfolozi almost every day, compared with the situation about 18 months ago, when there were about two or three incursions a week.
To evade Ezemvelo anti-poaching units, police and defence force partrols, poachers were increasingly operating on dark nights rather than in daylight or at full moon.
“The demand for rhino horn is not going away. It is getting worse,” he said, noting that prices paid to poaching gangs had multiplied almost tenfold compared to about four years ago.
“These are very hard men, including some ex-soldiers. Anyone who walks into a park in pitch darkness has got to be tough. They are people who have grown up in rural areas and know how to operate in the bush.”
Also read: Is legal horn trade okay?
Poachers also realised there was a high risk of getting killed or wounded, either by dangerous wild animals or in a confrontation with security forces.
“But this is not deterring them. The prices they are offered by criminal syndicates are just too high.”
Coetzee said when rangers heard a shot being being fired at night, they had to react quickly to establish the location of the shot in the 96 000ha park and then deploy forces rapidly to intercept poachers before they left the park.
He acknowledged that the tarred public road that cut through the centre of the park added to the problems.
“Roads will always be a risk, because it does not take long for someone to drop off a team and then drive on.”
In response to the increased poaching focus at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, Coetzee said new measures were being implemented to tighten up security, including heightened night-time response measures and the introduction of intensive protection zones.
The IPZ concept, pioneered in Zimbabwe several decades ago and implemented more recently in the Kruger National Park, involves more intense security measures, and can also involve physically moving animals into “rhino fortress” protection zones within a park.
Because of the large size of the park, Coetzee said it was considered impractical to dehorn rhinos, an option several smaller private rhino parks have embarked on to lower poaching risks.
However, rhinos in some smaller Ezemvelo parks with lower rhino densities had already been dehorned.