‘Lucky’ Thandi’s new lease on life
Kariega – You have no idea how big and frightening a rhinoceros is until you’re on your hands and knees 15m away from a skittish mother and her week-old calf. Her nervousness is entirely understandable: three years ago, poachers left Thandi for dead after darting her and hacking her horns from her face with an axe.
Why are we so close? It’s hard to imagine that a creature 1.5m-high at the shoulder and weighing 2.5 tons can be virtually invisible, but the Eastern Cape bush is thick and she stands motionless in a deep thicket, her grey skin blending in with the gloom.
The Kariega Game Reserve anti-poaching unit becomes aware of her proximity when little slurping sounds are heard. Her calf is suckling.
We freeze, then sink to our haunches. Carefully moving brittle twigs around our feet, we back away, centimetre by centimetre, so as not to spook her. She knows we’re there.
Thandi can’t see us but her as yet-unnamed calf can. A rhino’s famed myopia develops as it gets older, primarily because they spend much of their lives staring at patches of grazing no further than the tips of their broad noses.
The curious calf spots us and moves a few steps in our direction. Thandi shuffles and stamps one of her fore-feet. We return to the vehicle. The job of the anti-poaching unit is to see if mother and daughter have survived the night, not to distress them.
A few days later in Pretoria, Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa holds a media conference. “We cannot say we are winning the war on poaching,” she says. “The figures are worryingly high.”
Molewa says losses would have been much higher had it not been for joint anti-poaching activities conducted by the SANDF, police and SANParks teams.
The statistics for last year reveal a 21 percent increase in the number of rhinos killed illegally over the previous year – 211 up on the 1 004 slaughtered in 2013. Of these, 827 were killed in the Kruger Park.
One senior SANParks official, Dr Howard Hendricks, made a sobering statement: by the end of 2014, he said, the rhino population was essentially the same it had been 12 months previously.
The implication is that the number of rhino deaths far exceeded the number of births.
This is what rangers and scientists call the dreaded tipping point; where the rhino population goes into perhaps irrevocable decline.
Equally disheartening is that the escalation in illegal hunting has caused the potential tipping point sooner than expected, despite the introduction of a plethora of strategic as well as tactical counter-measures and a surge in the number of poacher arrests.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) responded immediately, calling this year the “make or break” year for South Africa’s rhinos. But, because nearly 90 percent of all white rhinos are found in this country, the WWF was in effect saying the next 11 months are make or break for the species.
Let’s do the maths based on South African rhino numbers as determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, suggests Dr Andrew Muir, chief executive officer of the Wilderness Foundation. The conservation union last year estimated there were about 19 000 white rhinos in South Africa; 9 000 in Kruger.
“It is generally accepted that the rhino population grows by 6 percent to 8 percent each year based on the difference between birth and natural mortality figures,” says Muir.
The national herd should have shown a growth of between 1 140 and 1 520 animals, but this was almost cancelled out by the illegal hunters. Kruger’s numbers should have swelled by between 540 and 720; instead the park suffered a serious net reduction, with over 9 percent of its total population killed by poachers.
The numbers don’t tell the full story of the impact of poaching, contends Muir. “How many of the rhinos killed were female?” he asks. “How many were pregnant? How many calves were orphaned?”
Unlike with elephants, orphan rhino calves are not adopted by the herd. They either die in the bush or, if rescued, are taken to a rhino orphanage.
Muir contends there are at least 200 orphans in South Africa.
Female rhinos, he adds, usually reach sexual maturity at age 7. Under optimum conditions, they can give birth every two years for the next 30 to 40 years.
Continued high losses mean fewer females to replenish herd numbers, and the annual rate of population decline will accelerate.
About half the national white rhino population lives in Kruger and a further quarter in other national and provincial parks. According to Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, 5 000 are privately owned and can be found in reserves such as Kariega or on farms.
“There are about 380 of these but only 60 to 70 can be said to hold sustainable breeding populations. Of this number – about 4 000 animals – 1 000 are in the hands of a single owner.”
For obvious reasons, says Jones, this owner is reluctant to have his identity or location disclosed.
Over the past couple of years, about 40 owners have fallen off the rhino association’s register because their stocks “have been poached, partially poached or sold because they have become too expensive or risky to maintain”.
WWF rhino programme manager Dr Jo Shaw says while overall growth of the white rhino population might be compromised, the decline seems restricted to key populations such as that of Kruger.