Times live (SA)
The discovery of seven butchered rhinos in a single day has shocked conservationists who are battling gangs of armed poachers in KwaZulu-Natal’s flagship Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesman Musa Mntambi confirmed on Monday that seven rhinos were found poached and dehorned in the Makhamisa section of the park last Wednesday – all within about 800m of each other – although two appeared to have died about two weeks earlier.
Responding to criticism on why it had taken so long for two of the carcasses to be detected and whether this was an indictment of Ezemvelo’s ability to monitor and control poaching in the 96‚000 ha reserve‚ Mntambo said: “Our field rangers are highly skilled and use a number of strategies to detect dead animals‚ including observing vulture behaviour.
“However‚ vultures only eat the carcasses that are visible. The rhinos that were killed two weeks before they were discovered were killed under very thick bush which made it difficult for them to be seen from above. However‚ if it was not for the vultures‚ we might have not yet discovered the five that were killed last week. Our field rangers noticed the carrion birds converging at a particular spot and they went there to check.
“On arrival they discovered five (dead) rhinos. As a norm‚ once a carcass is found we search the area to see if they are any other carcasses around. It was during the search of the vicinity that we discovered the two rhinos which were 800 metres or so from the five discovered with the help of vultures.”
He also said there was no evidence that vultures fed on the older carcasses. However‚ a former senior ranger in the Hluhluwe‚ iMfolozi and Giants Castle reserves said he believed the latest discoveries were indicative of “a massive internal problem” in Ezemvelo.
Former senior ranger Gordon Bailey said: “If well-planned‚ regular patrols were carried out‚ field rangers would soon get to know the rhino concentrations in their respective areas. The sudden loss of five to seven rhino would be immediately noticed‚ plus the sudden excessive appearance of the predators such as jackals‚ hyena and even lions on occasion‚ would bring notice to the situation.
“If dead game is unseen‚ just the presence of those other species would also bring vultures down to investigate. Once the missing rhino come to their attention‚ the field rangers would start an immediate search‚ calling in extra staff for help. For far too long Ezemvelo has played the blame game with all sorts of excuses and their inability to get this situation under control carries very nasty undertones‚” he alleged.
“I have previously spoken to people within Ezemvelo‚ some at very senior level and have refrained from speaking out publicly‚ because there have been several other ex-game rangers and research staff also meeting with and offering their assistance in an attempt to slow and hopefully remedy the shocking situation playing out within the organisation.
“Obviously‚ my silence has been far too long and after seeing the latest poaching figures I can no longer remain silent‚” Bailey asserted. “It’s clear that the leadership at various levels has failed‚ the job has not been done and the mess has to be cleaned up with immediate effect. We can’t have a perception that the poachers are just too smart to be beaten. If Ezemvelo need to double the staff levels to get on top of the situation‚ then this is what needs to happen.”
Speaking during a media tour to Ezemvelo’s new rhino anti-poaching “nerve centre” in the park last month‚ Ezemvelo acting chief executive Bheki Khoza said the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park had been hit by a poaching “avalanche” over the last two years – partly due to a displacement of poaching from the Kruger National Park to rhino reserves elsewhere in the country.
Earlier this month‚ Ezemvelo rhino security general manager Cedric Coetzee said there were now up to five gangs of armed poachers entering the park on a daily basis. Last year‚ 222 rhinos were killed by poachers in KZN – about 85% of them in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.