As economic woes deepen under the Covid-19 lockdown, a spike in rhino poaching is expected
About two weeks into the national lockdown, a group of men with hunting dogs were spotted in the Pilanesberg National Park.
Unknowingly, they triggered a camera trap and the reserve’s staff pounced. “When they saw the heat was on them, they escaped,” says ecologist Piet Nel of the North West Parks and Tourism Board.
This type of incursion, he said, had not been reported for more than a decade in the park. But as economic woes deepen under the Covid-19 lockdown, Nel, and conservation officials in the North West, who are already battling rhino poachers, are bracing for more such incidents.
“At other reserves there’s been a slight increase in meat poaching, especially towards the east of the province,” says Nel, who tells of how illegal fish harvesting in some of the provincial dams has spiked, too.
“I’m not sure how this is all going to unfold in the next months but we’re preparing for meat poaching and even petty theft in the parks. People are very desperate. If you’ve got a family to feed and you’ve got absolutely nothing, at some stage you are going to revert to crime.”
Across Africa, wildlife protection and conservation efforts are often funded by tourism income but Covid-19 lockdowns have led to a halt in tourism and wildlife reserves are facing serious budget shortfalls, says the International Rhino Foundation. Communities near reserves are dependent on tourism for jobs within reserves or for opportunities created outside of them.
“The lockdowns have especially affected the poorest of the poor and the small, informal economies within community areas. Hungry and desperate communities along the boundaries may turn to bushmeat poaching,” it says.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that bushmeat harvesting is on the rise, says Andrew Campbell, the chief executive of the Game Rangers Association of Africa.
“There seems to be a perception that bushmeat poaching is starting to creep up in some areas, while other places have not seen it.... People who are unemployed don’t have the economic capacity to provide food and resources to those that depend on them.
“The bigger problem is what happens in three, six or 12 months from here, because it (unemployment) won’t turn around quickly. It’s not just the tourism problem. It’s the overall economic impact on these communities and reserves are under pressure to deliver tangible benefits to neighbouring communities but unfortunately, very few of them have got that right.”
Dr Andrew Taylor, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s wildlife in trade programme, says there might be an increase in bushmeat poaching.
“The massive drop in tourism income will lead to job losses, which will lead to more people being hungry and seeking illegal and unsustainable sources of food. If those job losses include anti-poaching teams, then there will be fewer law enforcement personnel patrolling reserves.
“This is speculation but I think it is a logical sequence of events, and is a good reason to promote sustainable sources of game meat,” Taylor says. “I’ve also been told, however, that some places have been very quiet on the poaching front over the lockdown, although this could be temporary.”
The rise in unemployment and associated social challenges caused by the lockdown will “no doubt drive hungry and desperate people to look at wild and domestic animals as sources of food”, says Matthew Norval, the chief operations officer: conservation at Wilderness Foundation Africa.
“While this is sometimes understandable and some would argue have a negligible impact on wildlife populations, the cumulative impact is substantial.”
Wild animals outside protected areas will be “exploited the most” as well as reserves that don’t have the necessary security and access-control measures in place.
“Unfortunately the illegal hunting of wildlife was widespread before the lockdown and is no longer only carried out by people trying to feed their families.
“The trade in wildlife meat and products such as pelts and body parts used in the traditional medicine market, has become increasingly more organised, with potentially devastating impacts especially on species already compromised by loss of habitat and low numbers that reduce breeding ability.”
While rhino and elephant poaching receives significant attention and funding, the illegal killing of and trade in other wildlife is part of the same problem.
“Many people are not even aware of a flourishing illegal trade in plants and smaller creatures from spiders to snakes, lizards and even beetles. This is all part of the same problem that sees the exploitation of the countries’ natural heritage to such an extent that it will result in certain species disappearing.”
At this end of the illegal-use spectrum, the criminals are well organised, having turned their illicit activities into a lucrative enterprise that requires international networks to realise the profits.
“To feed the demand, low-level criminals involved in local trade of meat, wildlife products, live specimens and even plants can be employed to gather material that is no longer being used to feed or fund hungry families, but now enters the realm of international trade with murky relationships with other illegal activities.”
It is very likely, says Norval, that unscrupulous middlemen will increasingly take advantage of people with limited options and thereby gain access to this illegal material.
Campbell says small-scale subsistence hunting for bushmeat has been happening “forever”. “It is a problem when it’s done unsustainably and when that goes to the commercial level, obviously the impact is huge.... Certainly by placing 50 to a couple of hundred snares, you’re not aiming to catch one animal - you can decimate a herd of impala or anything that walks through. It’s indiscriminate. Dog hunting is also done as a sport, with betting involved, so it’s not always about filling a stomach.”
The issue is complex, says Norval. “Solutions lie in a combination of improved law enforcement, reduction in demand for illegal products, awareness campaigns and importantly, working with people that live close to wildlife so that whatever benefits are possible can be realised.”
‘We are going to be a target’
The gruesome sight of a magnificent rhino bull, its horn severely hacked off, remained with Piet Nel and staff at the Pilanesberg National Park for days.
The rhino, which was killed on May 7, was one of three that poachers have slaughtered in the Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Game Reserve since the start of the national Covid-19 lockdown.
“It was really terrible - the bull was one of the nicest animals in the Pilanesberg,” says Nel, an ecologist with the North West Parks and Tourism Board.
“If you see a magnificent animal like that in front of you and two weeks later it’s snout is hacked off by poachers, it’s unbelievable. You never can get used to these crime scenes.”
Since January, Madikwe and the Pilanesberg each lost seven rhinos to poaching. “After lockdown, we only had three incidents in both the Pilanesberg and Madikwe. We reckon this is because of the level 5 restrictions - the roads were fairly clear. The police had all the roadblocks and the ports are closed so they can’t get rid of the merchandise.
“In level 4 we see a slight return of poaching again and we’re very worried about it because obviously now we think people are very desperate for money and we believe it’s going to pick up again. We’re preparing quite significantly for that - intensifying technology, putting thermal cameras in the hotspots and increasing boots on the ground. We are working with the private sector and the SA Police Service.”
He explains how on March 27, the carcasses of two rhino were discovered in Madikwe but they were “probably shot before the lockdown” while on March 28, two more carcasses were found which were four to five days old.
“Since the lockdown started, we lost one animal in April - it still had its horns, we couldn’t find any bullets on it and it seemed like a fairly healthy animal. We’re not sure if the animal was shot.
“Sometimes the bullet travels right through the body and then it would still stay alive for another two or three days before it eventually succumbs to its wounds. In Pilanesberg on April 29 they found one carcass - a female. Her calf was taken to the rhino orphanage.”
The North West is home to the country’s third-biggest rhino population. “Botswana also lost a lot of animals, which borders the North West so we believe we are definitely going to be a target,” warns Nel.
Last month, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries stated that rhino poaching has shown a significant decrease in most parts of the country during the lockdown.
The International Rhino Foundation, which has established a reserve fund to provide emergency support for Africa’s rhinos under the lockdown, says the “police and military presence on the roads has made it risky” and difficult for poaching groups to travel.
“There have been incidents, but by far fewer over the lockdown period than normal and definitely far less than expected. However, the longer the lockdown continues, risks will increase as desperation also rises.”
Bigger snares made of cable
Since the start of the national lockdown, there seems to have been a marked increase in poaching either through setting snares or hunting with dogs “possibly to supplement the trade in bushmeat”, says John Wesson, of the National Association of Conservancies.
In the past six to eight weeks, poaching and snaring have risen at the Cullinan Conservancy, says its chairperson Joan du Toit.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the poaching of blesbuck and the police have refused to assist us. There are more snares and bigger snares made of cable - people are looking for big game ... In the last few months, our game farms have been poached out virtually,” she says.
Peter Roberts of the Rustenburg Vulture Valley Conservancy says there has been a “big increase” in poaching in the area.
“Hunters are shooting game at night especially along the main roads ... They use spotlights and silenced weapons.”
Malcolm Stainbank, the chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Conservancy Association, says at the Beaumont Eston Conservancy and Mid-Illovo Conservancy, there have been daily incursions and from five different groups of people. “There have been from three to 20 persons and up to 40 dogs on one poaching incident. A lot of the poachers are outsiders, including policemen, businessmen with connections locally.”
Reynold Thakhuli, the acting head of communications for SANParks, says for reserves like the Kruger National Park, “there has not been any marked increase in subsistence poaching although forays with dogs into the perimeter of the park have become frequent. Snaring has not abated and continues”.
Covid-19 hits communities
“We’re lucky that rangers are allowed to work and are considered essential services,” says Andrew Campbell, chief executive of the Game Rangers' Association of Africa.
“If reserves can afford to pay them, they’re still working, doing wildlife monitoring, counter-poaching and all the conservation work they do. But what you’re going to see is that their salaries might be going home, but the number of dependants increases because their brothers, uncles or sons, might be out of a job.
“They may be a waiter at a lodge - and this puts pressure on the rangers. They are the link between the protected area and the community...
“It’s a worry going forward because for tourism, obviously the tap is turned off but expenses are still going on in many places. How long can that last?”
Along with the ecotourism sector, the hunting sector, too, has been left in dire straits and the lockdown has revealed the fragility of financing models for conservation in South Africa, says Campbell.
“The wildlife economy in SA is huge. It’s one of the only growth industries over the last 10 years. We’re sitting on gold here in terms of our conservation areas. There are over 8400 protected areas in Africa, that’s a huge amount of land under wildlife - and we’ve got to try use that for the benefit of Africa’s people,” he says.