Pictures: Leon Marshall, Gallo and Reuters
In the Lowveld town of Hoedspruit outside Kruger National Park, a box marked ‘Rhino MAIL’ in the foyer of a supermarket invites people to donate money for rhino protection. Those lacking the wherewithal can also deposit drawings, paintings, letters and poems dedicated to the besieged animal, and to the rangers walking the veld in the heat and sleeping out in the open, as they try to keep the rhinos from harm.
In a hall in Johannesburg’s plush Houghton suburb, a gifted 11-year-old pianist plays a melody he specially composed for the rhino to an audience packed with the city’s smart set. In America, after a visit to South Africa taught them about the animals’ plight, two siblings in their early teens start an international letter campaign to urge President Jacob Zuma to do more to protect the species.
On the Cape Argus Cycle Tour, one man rides his bicycle naked to draw attention to rhino poaching. In Dallas, Texas, a cyclist, this time in the correct gear, trains to ride for rhinos in some big international race. Around the world, events are dedicated to the species, and people walk, run, cycle, sail, fly, sing and otherwise demonstrate their concern for it. Back in South Africa you see more and more vehicles sporting red rhino horns.
Could there ever have been an animal that has touched the heart of so many? If only such compassion could be seen in countries like China and Vietnam, where the powdered horn is so sought-after because of the tragically mistaken belief that rhino horn is a cure for cancer, and is even a sexual stimulant.
So, is there hope for the rhino? Right now the situation looks grim. So relentless has been the killing that there were fears by mid-year that the 2013 death toll could surpass last year’s horrific 668, and top a thousand. This would place even further threat on our combined white and black rhino population of about 20 000, which represents the vast majority of this species the world over. In August this year the official death toll was 561 which does not bode well.
There does, however, seem to be some light. Until just six years ago, the annual rhino death toll was fewer than 20. Then in 2008 it shot up to 80. Soon it went into the hundreds. Poachers targeted game farms and reserves around the country, but it has always been Kruger Park, home to nearly half our rhino population, which has borne the brunt.
In 2002, South Africa and Mozambique agreed to remove the great war-time security fence that had been erected along Mozambique’s boundary with Kruger during the war, and create the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Whatever fencing hadn’t yet been removed simply fell into disrepair.
But poachers have been exploiting this boundary to such an extent that there have been calls to restore the fence. The onslaught has had Major General Johan Jooste of the South African National Defence Force, veteran of the Border War who now heads up the military, police and ranger units fighting poachers in the park, declare, “Kruger is under siege. It is one of the worst crises in the entire century of its existence.”
SANParks chief David Mabunda adds, “We just did not see this one coming. And it found us wanting, because from 1985 we had stopped investing adequately in wildlife protection. There was no threat then, but we are now waking up from self-designed slumberland. Budgets have not been growing to meet the challenge. We were happy to invest more in the tourism side of the business, to compensate for the declining state subsidy, but never imagined the ‘mighty’ South Africa – gateway to Africa’s economic growth – one day experiencing massive poaching like the rest of Africa and Asia.”
Yet there is hope. After the initial haphazard scramble to try to plug holes everywhere, a more coherent response to the poaching problem has been taking shape. Most important has been the improved co-operation between government agencies, and between the agencies and the private sector.
A representative body called the National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit has been set up to co-ordinate operations between the police’s Organised Crime Unit, the environmental crime agencies of national and provincial park services, the prosecuting authorities, customs and excise, and the revenue services.
At Onderstepoort, a growing rhino DNA bank has proved to be much help in linking suspects to the dead animals and so securing convictions. Better intelligence gathering through co-operation by the public, and an improved understanding in judicial officers of the complexities and seriousness of the crime, have seen a steady improvement in the rates of arrests and convictions. The tendency towards more severe sentences is also demonstrated by the 40 years’ prison sentence handed down last year to Thai citizen Chumlong Lemtongthai. He had used prostitutes to pose as hunters, and obtain rhino horn under the cloak of trophy hunting.
The government also seems to have made progress of sorts at the consumer end, by signing memorandums of understanding committing Vietnam and China to do more at their end to curb rhino horn trade and its uses. But it’s what has been happening on the Kruger Park front, site of more than 60 per cent of rhino killings, which holds our best hope of turning the tide.
Well-armed with high-calibre rifles, poachers enter Kruger with ease from Mozambique. Their obvious military training enables them to spend days in the veld, tracking their prey. They don’t mind drinking from muddy pools (although some bring along Kool-Aid). And once they have the horn it’s invariably an unhindered dash back across the border.
Kruger rangers spend days at a time patrolling. They report to a war room at Skukuza camp in the park, from which back-up units with dogs are dispatched in a helicopter or on motorcycles to hunt down suspects. Success has come in the shape of more and more arrests and of poachers getting wounded and killed in fire-fights.
But Kruger is a great expanse of land, and its lush vegetation offers the insurgents heavy cover. Most annoying has been their way of escaping arrest by simply crossing the border back into Mozambique. Some have actually waved mockingly at their pursuers when safely on the other side.
This is a far cry from the spirit of trust of not so many years ago, when Kruger donated truckloads of more than 3 000 head of game to restock Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park adjacent to Kruger, which had been left denuded by the war. After a prolonged stand-off, for whatever reason, the two governments seem to be working towards joining forces in taking on the poachers and their syndicate bosses.
If the principle of hot pursuit is reinvoked, poachers finding a haven by simply crossing the border will no longer be an option. Now, depending on how Mozambique lives up to its promises to tighten legislation and step up law enforcement, poachers might stand even less of a chance of getting away even if they kept on running.
Significantly, representatives from South Africa have agreed to continue to build on the project’s original vision, as encapsulated by Nelson Mandela and Joaquim Chissano, with emphasis on co-operation on issues of cross-border conservation. What this does mean is that, instead of the grand transfrontier scheme coming to an end if the fence was to be reinstated to help contain poaching, the fence will stay down and there will be ‘concrete actions’ within the ambit of the transfrontier park.
A task team will look into setting up a joint law enforcement operation inside the transfrontier park that will include ‘the revival of cross-border hot pursuit’. Both countries also agreed that the livelihoods of surrounding communities should be improved as a way of stopping them from being used by the poachers as hiding places, and as springboards for their cross-border raids.
On the broader front, there are still arguments over some aspects of the anti-poaching campaign, notably whether to resume legal trade in rhino horn as the government is now proposing. The reasoning is that it will undercut the illegal trade and help fund rhino conservation. But, others ask, why feed the very habit you are trying to discourage?
And there is another front on which the growing unity of purpose is becoming evident – moves from our government to give better effect to the groundswell of popular support for the rhino. A register of organisations will ensure better co-ordination among legitimate operators, and isolate the tin-shakers who abuse public sentiment for their own ends.
A dedicated central fund for channelling public donations could, in time, provide powerful financial backing for taking the fight to the foe.
There is no sign of public empathy waning, as often happens with prolonged wars, but how encouraging it would be if, at some point soon, the figures started showing a definite reversal of the hitherto depressing, upward trend.