By Tony Carnie
It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago that rhinos would be dehorned for their own protection in a park as large and famous as the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal.
The 96 000 hectare park is the province’s flagship Big Five reserve and is often referred to as the “cradle” of African rhino conservation.
This is the park where a tiny remnant population of Africa’s southern white rhino species was rescued from global extinction just over a century ago. From a population of just 50 or so survivors in the 1890s, these animals were guarded carefully by the former Natal Parks Board and multiplied slowly to reach just over 20 000 a decade ago.
All the white rhinos in Kruger National Park – and all other major parks across the country and Africa – are descended from that hitherto tiny population in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.
And now, nearly 120 years later, the KZN population is under siege once more – with rhino security experts confirming that an emergency operation is under serious consideration, to dehorn hundreds of rhinos in the most vulnerable sections of the park.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi under attack
For security reasons, the exact rhino numbers in the park are not advertised, but it is known that Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) has one of the densest populations in the world. Partly for this reason, several horn-poaching syndicates have diverted operations from the Kruger killing fields to the historic KZN rhino sanctuary.
Whereas horn poaching in Kruger dipped by almost 20% last year, the killing rate in KZN shot up by 38% in 2016. And, judging by poaching statistics for the first few months of this year, 2017 may prove to be the worst ever for KZN.
Sadly, there is a double-blow for rhinos. Not only have poachers shifted their sights to KZN, but the provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has also been hit by massive budget cuts for the new financial year – including a cut of nearly 30% to the operational budget.
Ezemvelo spokesman Musa Mntambo has confirmed the organisation is considering radical measures – including dehorning.
“Ezemvelo is prepared to do everything possible to stop the carnage that we are seeing in our province. If dehorning is a method that can stop rhino poaching in HiP, Ezemvelo will definitely consider it.
Currently the organisation has not taken a decision to dehorn HiP rhinos. This might change in the near future though should the current methods prove to be ineffective.”
Last month, provincial Economic Affairs MEC Belinda Scott announced a subsidy reduction of nearly R300 million for Ezemvelo. The subsidy is used mostly to fund salaries, but Mntambo said the cuts also translate into a R50 million (28%) cut in the organisation’s operational budget.
Provincial Democratic Alliance spokesman on Finance, Francois Rodgers, says Ezemvelo’s recent budget presentation has “disaster written all over it”, he said, warning: “It does not take a genius to realize that this budget is not sustainable and that, ultimately, Ezemvelo could slip into a state of paralysis “, noting a 25% decline in revenue and a 32% decline in operational revenue.
Questioned on the impacts for rhino security, Mntambo said the cuts would not have a measurable impact in the next six months or so, but the conservation agency would have to go on a fund-raising drive soon.
“Both private and government institutions will be solicited to assist. Fortunately we already work jointly with a number of different government departments and this partnership will continue throughout the financial year.”
He said it was fortunate that Ezemvelo was still supported by SAPS, SANDF, HAWKS and other security agencies, while several NGOs continued to fund anti-poaching initiatives in Ezemvelo reserves.
What about the vacant posts, overtime for anti-poaching units, informer payments and other security measures?
“If we had more money we would definitely fill all the vacant positions and pay higher incentives to our field rangers as well as our informers. Unfortunately we do not have a huge budget but we will continue doing all necessary patrols, be it at times that we might have to focus in areas that have more rhinos, rather than just doing ordinary patrols.”
Project Rhino coordinator Chris Galliers said that, even before the latest provincial government funding cutbacks for most departments, Ezemvelo had placed a moratorium on filling vacant posts and this was placing major challenges on the organisation.
Galliers said the unfilled posts in Ezemvelo reserves were an opportunity for government to create desperately-needed jobs, especially in rural areas where they were needed most.
The latest cutbacks would have an impact on rhino poaching, staff morale and conservation in general – as well as Ezemvelo’s tourism products and the province’s tourism offering.
Rhino poaching deaths in KZN rarely exceeded 10 a year prior to 2008. But by 2015, this figure rose to 116. Last year 162 rhinos were killed and – as of mid-April 2017 – the death toll in KZN was already 65.
Kifaru Wildlife Veterinary Services head Dr Mike Toft has already dehorned dozens of rhinos on large, privately-owned reserves in KZN. He says there was a 98% poaching decline in the last 18 months in dehorned reserves.
Toft estimates that wildlife vets can each dehorn between 14 and 20 rhinos per day, so even in a large park like HiP it was possible to dehorn a significant number quite quickly if enough vets were brought in.
“A quantum change in thinking is needed – and dehorning is one such option. Yes, it is expensive, but it will reduce poaching, and you also have to consider the overall savings in security costs.
This is an abnormal situation, so abnormal things are needed and we stand at a threshold right now. More feet are also needed, but in my opinion this is the only way forward.”
As things stand now, KZN is losing the war, and this is taking its toll on conservation staff – including veteran Ezemvelo wildlife vet Dr Dave Cooper. In a recent interview with Farmer’s Weekly, Cooper described how he battles to sleep.
“So many times I get to a rhino carcass, only to realise that the animal was still alive while the poachers were hacking its horns… I actually can’t begin to describe just how brutal the treatment is that many of these wounded rhino have received at the hands of poachers… I’ve found that dealing with this cruelty on an almost weekly basis is now getting to me. I’m increasingly struggling to deal with it.