Teamwork to fight rhino poaching

Faced with the poaching onslaught against rhinos, conservation initiatives often splinter along turf lines, causing confusion among members of the public who want to support them.

Project Rhino KZN put the rhino cause ahead of personal agendas by eliminating duplication of efforts, co-ordinating activities and combining fundraising campaigns.

Sheelagh Antrobus, secretariat co-ordinator of the project, says it is an association of 18 credible state and private stakeholders across the province.

After the Kruger National Park, KwaZulu-Natal and North West are the two provinces worst affected by the rhino-poaching epidemic.

The fight to save rhinos is particularly poignant in KwaZulu-Natal because the province is renowned for bringing the southern white rhino back from the brink of extinction once before.

It is now home to roughly 21% of South Africa's white rhinos and 24% of the country's critically endangered black rhino population.

Southern white rhinos roamed throughout southern Africa until uncontrolled hunting in the 19th century all but exterminated them.

Thought to be extinct, about 40 individual animals were discovered in northern KwaZulu-Natal in 1894, leading to the proclamation of the Mfolozi Game Reserve to protect them.

By the 1960s their numbers had increased to 600 and so began Operation Rhino, the international success story that saw the translocation of hundreds of southern white rhinos back into habitats across Africa, including the Kruger Park.

"Project Rhino KZN is today's version of Operation Rhino, committed to the same ideals but operating in a vastly changed landscape," says Antrobus.

Launched in September 22 2011 on World Rhino Day, a crucial pillar of the project is community outreach.

It is providing boreholes to 22 schools with no water, for instance, while teaching children in the affected communities about the value of rhinos and other wildlife in ecosystems.

The project recently teamed up with humanitarian adventurer Kingsley Holgate on a "hearts and minds" tour along the Lebombo mountain range to encourage community support for rhino conservation.

"Kingsley used art and soccer to communicate with rural villagers," says Antrobus. "The villagers are at the front line of defence against poaching.

"They know who the poachers are, and were encouraged to contact the hotlines set up for anonymous tip-offs."

Another strategy is using aerial surveillance to monitor rhino populations and track poachers.

"We pioneered a region-wide programme that provides surveillance and reaction support to 24 state, private and community game reserves," says Antrobus.

"It is linked to intelligence efforts and has helped in the capture and arrest of poachers, recovered illegal firearms, found getaway vehicles hidden in thick bush and prevented poaching from taking place."

The project uses GIS technology for crime mapping and analysis of poaching syndicates operating in the province.

Members meet monthly for report backs, decisions on funding allocations and to share sensitive information in a confidential setting.

"Project Rhino KZN is not only preventing the decimation of rhinos in the province, it is also having a wider impact," says Antrobus.

"There is a growing awareness of wildlife crime in general, as well as the vital role conservation plays in society — not just protecting rhinos and other vulnerable wildlife species, but the value in maintaining ecosystems and protected areas for future generations."

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Michelle Nel
Michelle Nel has worked as a freelance environmental journalist, photographer and editor for more than 20 years. She is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Leadership Corps and was the first freelancer to win the SAB Environmentalist Journalist of the Year Award for print. She serves on the Linbro Park Environmental Monitoring Committee in Gauteng, which aims to turn a closed landfill site into a recycling and recreational area. She has helped numerous organisations with their communications strategies on issues ranging from people and parks to wetlands.

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