SA National Parks (SANParks) has begun dehorning selected rhino cows in the southern reaches of Kruger National Park to reduce the impact of poaching losses on its population.
“It’s been established that the loss of a cow has a multiple effect since it includes the loss of a dependent calf and future calves,” it said on Friday. “The multiple effect is part of various factors that affect population growth of white rhinos apart from the immediate disruptive effect of poaching.
“Cows are important for the overall population performance and need to be protected by introducing stiffer sentences in incidents where they’ve been poached and a calf left destitute.”
SANParks said with reserves in the adjoining Greater Kruger region, it was collaboratively implementing a range of interventions, including dehorning of cows, as part of an integrated wildlife management approach to counter the effects of poaching.
Spokesperson Ike Phaahla said: “We have to try all we can to save the species and to grow the population. This is another tool in the box. We are constantly looking at ways to increase population numbers in KNP.”
This was coupled with strengthening security measures, information sharing on incursions and intelligence as well as continuous collaboration with law enforcement agencies.
“The NPA is being briefed extensively on the situation to deliver stiff sentences to those found in possession of ammunition, high-calibre rifles and trespassing in a protected area with the intention to protect crime.”
Dr Jo Shaw, the African rhino lead for WWF International, said dehorning was well-recognised as an important part of the toolbox of responses available to rhino managers.
“Reducing the gains to be made from killing a rhino, ideally while increasing the costs, acts as a deterrent to poachers. Sadly, the ongoing high levels of poaching pressure necessitate these kinds of proactive interventions. However at scale, this is not a wholesale solution and dehorning operations at a site level must be accompanied by additional responses to address the drivers behind illegal behaviour along the entire trade chain.”
Karen Trendler, a wildlife rehabilitation expert and manager of the National Council of SPCAs’ wildlife trade and trafficking portfolio, said strategic dehorning had been on the cards as it was practised in other areas.
“SANParks were so anti-dehorning for so long. I wonder what brought this decision on? It makes sense to protect cows and calves but I’m not sure how this will impact on bulls.
“I’m happy hear NPA and SANParks are pushing on prosecutions for the losses and potential loss of calves to be taken into account in sentencing.
Save Our Rhino’s Loraine Liebenberg was surprised by the decision as it had been made without any stakeholder participation, which “raises a number of serious questions.
“For years we, the public, have been advised not to interfere in KNP’s rhino management strategies because ‘experts’ have the matter ‘under control’. For months, many have been calling for the release of Kruger’s rhino population census figures. With no poaching and management updates since the beginning of the year, the public is being kept in the dark about how critical the situation could be. Which studies have been used by KNP to come to the decision to dehorn?”
Poachers entering KNP would still target dehorned cows as it was “better to leave with something than nothing”.
“Furthermore, some studies suggest dehorned rhino display behavioural changes, which could affect breeding potential. With one of the last rhino strongholds in the world embarking on a dehorning campaign, tourism revenues could suffer as a result.
“Had we been consulted, we would have suggested the funding allocated to dehorning have been better spent on re-erecting the fence between Kruger and Mozambique, as well as bucking up techniques used at major ports of entry and exit for detecting illegal rhino horn.”
Dr Andrew Taylor from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife in Trade programme, said: “While dehorning does not prevent poaching, if combined with other anti-poaching interventions, such as deployment of trained field rangers, detection dog units and technological tools, dehorning can help reduce the chances of a rhino being targeted.
This strategy is being applied by SANParks and Department of Environmental Affairs in their integrated management strategy. The EWT supports efforts to save its rhino and explore measures available to them to do so.