Business is booming in Africa’s oldest game reserve, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, which has become the favourite new destination for South Africa’s rhino horn poaching gangs. Whereas poaching in the giant Kruger National Park to the north west dropped by almost 10% last year, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi has recorded an astonishing 100% growth in poaching in just three years. Tony Carnie of Roving Reporters filed this story from the frontline:
Kruger is much bigger and much closer to the porous border with Mozambique, but there just seems to be something special about the smaller Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park that makes it worth driving an extra 400 – 500km for regular moonlight poaching expeditions.
Providing new insights into the latest modus operandi of some of the country’s increasingly sophisticated rhino poaching syndicates, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife rhino security co-ordinator Cedric Coetzee says the Mpumalanga Province-based “shoppers” typically hop into their cars late in the afternoon. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is the provincial parks’ custodian.
“They leave (Mpumalanga) at around 3pm and can be back home in Hazyview by noon the following day,” Coetzee told the annual Ezemvelo conservation symposium that ended in Howick on the weekend of November 12.
To reduce the risk of getting rumbled by armed ranger patrols in daylight, the poachers do most of their business at night, using hit-and-run tactics. Typically, a gang will use three or four rented cars, he says, rather than risk their own vehicles and number plates being seen too often in the vicinity of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
The shooter will not travel in the same car as the weapons, which are hidden in another vehicle. Having extra vehicles also makes it is easier to split up and throw law-enforcement agencies off the scent and to employ decoy tactics.
“Sometimes they will deliberately fire shots along the eastern fence to alert our patrols and then their colleagues will come in through the western fence line on the opposite side of the park. Instead of hiring local hunters, the gangs have their own well-trained and accurate shooters.
“Most of the poaching is planned and supervised from Mpumalanga, though we have also noticed that the gangs are moving around more. Instead of Mpumalanga alone, they are also moving to the Free State, Eastern Cape or Limpopo. They operate nationally.”
Though he did not go into specific details, Coetzee said organised crime was only able to exist in corrupt environments.
“We have to look at corruption at all levels . . . it exists all the way up to international level.”
While Coetzee believes there have been “some good efforts at all levels” to contain horn poaching, KwaZulu-Natal has become the new hot spot.
As of last week (November 5, 2017), poachers had killed at least 202 rhinos in KZN this year, mostly in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi – a 100% increase compared to 2014, when 99 rhinos were killed, and vastly more than the 14 animals killed in 2008 (see graph).
While more recent national statistics have not been released, the poaching rate in the 2 million hectare Kruger National Park dropped by almost 20% last year following an onslaught that rose sharply from 2008 onwards.
Dr Peter Goodman, a private wildlife consultant and former Ezemvelo senior scientist, told the Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practice that organised poaching remained the greatest threat to the survival of the country’s black and white rhino species.
“It is not all doom and gloom,” he said, “but we are sitting on a knife edge and we have to contain the current poaching rate.”
Based on current live auction values of around R300 000 per white rhino (not the more lucrative black market price of around $60 000 per kg of rhino horn in Vietnam), Ezemvelo had lost about R43 million worth of rhino last year and more than R55 million so far this year.
“The State is not committing appropriate levels of manpower, resources or management expertise to resolve these issues – so the funding shortfalls have to be pursued through donor funding and partnerships. We can’t keep beating at the door of Treasury. We have to become more innovative,” he told the symposium.
Magdel Boshoff, a senior official of the National Department of Environmental Affairs, said her department had no plans to introduce a new moratorium to prevent the domestic sale of rhino horns in the wake of the recent court decisions to overturn the moratorium that was in place from 2009 till earlier this year.
Instead, the department had published draft regulations earlier this year to allow for the export of a limited number of horns for “personal use” by international buyers. She expected that new regulations would be finalised within the next 12 months.
The department was also considering the enactment of much harsher penalties for rhino poaching and trafficking – by increasing maximum fines from R10 million to R20 million and maximum jail terms from 10 years to 20 years.
Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, said private rhino ranchers now owned 37% of the total South African rhino population – more rhinos than in the rest of Africa – and had incurred costs of nearly R2 billion in rhino security and management costs since the 2009 moratorium on domestic rhino horn sales was imposed.
“The well-intended world ban on horn sales by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the domestic moratorium have not saved the life of a single rhino and have helped to create vast transnational organised crime syndicates who profiteer through illegal trade in rhino horns,” he said.
This story forms part of Roving Reporters coverage of the recent Symposium for Contemporary Conservation Practice organised by Ezemvelo in association with Wildlands, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Roving Reporters coverage of the symposium was supported by the Human Elephant Foundation. Read more at www.rovingreporters.co.za