The Institute for Security Studies has warned that the number of poaching incidents in Southern Africa has tripled since 2010. Picture: AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File

Johannesburg – Ahead of World Rhino Day Friday, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria has warned that the number of poaching incidents in Southern Africa has tripled since 2010, endangering lives, threatening communities and undermining the local economy.

In a Thursday press release, the ISS said poachers of endangered species often benefited from moving their illicit harvest along the networks of criminal syndicates, which traffic deadly arms and drugs, and addressing this phenomenon was essential.

However, being able to establish clear behaviour patterns remain difficult due to gaps in data recording and reporting, according to ENACT a new EU-supported project that monitors and develops responses to transnational organised crime in Africa.

“The illicit trade in wildlife is a very serious conservation issue, but has important social impacts too," said ENACT researcher Ciara Aucoin at a seminar on Thursday.

“Syndicates operate in more than one sector. The trade in wildlife products like rhino horn, pangolin and lion bones support a supply of guns and drugs and contributes to challenges of corruption at multiple levels,” added Aucoin.

And the devastating impact on animals and the ecosystem, aren't the only sectors affected as the human cost is also immense.

This includes harming tourism, including the economic engine of areas like the Lowveld in Mpumalanga province.

“Pockets within local communities are criminalised; the same communities where many rangers and their families live,” said Major-General Johan Jooste, head of Special Projects at SANParks.

Poachers are often the most visible part of the criminal networks that straddle the globe, but they make up just one part of a worldwide crime ring.

Wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative organised crime globally and one of the most expensive security challenges facing Southern Africa.

The true cost of wildlife crime is difficult to ascertain, but estimates are as high as US$23 billion (R299 billion) a year, according to Global Financial Integrity.

South Africa spends R200 million annually and employs nearly 450 rangers just to protect the Kruger National Park, a magnet for tourists who marvel at one of Africa’s best preserved wilderness areas.

Yet the fight against wildlife crime continues to be an uphill battle.

Only five tonnes of the estimated 37 tonnes of rhino horn poached between 2010 and 2016 were seized by law enforcement agencies, according to the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC.

Rhinos are among the species facing perilous decline and possible extinction.

United Nations Comtrade data shows that the import of hunting rifles into Mozambique from 2010 to 2015 increased at a similar rate as poaching in the Kruger Park, according to Khristopher Carlson, a senior researcher at the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey.

"Combating wildlife crime must remain a priority," said ENACT head Eric Pelser.

"We need to pay more attention to the aspects of wildlife crime that are harder to measure, such as the drivers of demand and how poachers and smugglers are recruited. Better understanding leads to better tactics. We can’t afford to get it wrong anymore."

South Africa’s role in fighting poaching was of critical importance in that 79 percent of Africa’s rhinos are found here, according to EU Ambassador Marcus Cornaro.

Addressing the problem involves unambiguous legislation, persistent law enforcement and coordinated action along the entire wildlife trafficking "value chain" – including tackling demand.

Current strategies to save Africa’s wildlife include developing militarised anti-poaching methods, working with communities surrounding wildlife areas, and disrupting the sophisticated networks that recruit poachers from local communities.