Time is running out

Dogs have been deployed to track poachers. (supplied)

Dogs have been deployed to track poachers. (supplied)

At the end of October, the total number of rhino deaths in South Africa stood at 790 — 122 above the total for 2012. With the killing months ahead (for some reason, poaching deaths rise towards the end of the year), there’s every chance that the final tally for this year will be pretty close to — or could even exceed — a thousand.

As Dr Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the African Rhino Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) points out, currently the rhino birth rate still exceeds the death toll — but with deaths jumping by over a third each year, the tipping point is looming and numbers could start to decline as soon as 2014 to 2016 if the escalation in poaching continues as it has done since 2008.

What needs to be done — by government, owners, parks, everyone involved — to save the rhino?

The first point to remember, says Dr Mike Knight, chairman of IUCN Species Survival Commission — African Rhino Specialist Group, is that poaching is not the only threat the rhino faces.

Other threats include habitat change and degradation, as well as changes in land use.

“In southern Africa private enterprise has been increasing the number of potential homes for rhino — driven by the financial return from wildlife. But we have also seen a reduction in the efficiency of protected areas authorities, which has led to a threat to protected-area integrity and its resources, inclusive of rhinos.”

These issues must not be forgotten: they need to be tackled at the same time as the poaching.

“In acknowledging that rhino-related matters are complex and sadly there is no quick-fix to the current rate at which our rhinos are being poached, it is recognised that there is a need to apply a long-term plan and work in a multifaceted way to address rhino poaching systematically.”

World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) has developed a five-point strategic framework to address the issue in a holistic manner and try to address the drivers of the problem.

The five key identified areas are: building and protecting key rhino populations to help them grow, developing buffers in local communities around rhinos as the first critical line of defence, supporting and tightening proactive law enforcement efforts to break illegal trade chains, improving co-operation between South Africa and important transit and consumer countries in the illegal trade chain, and understanding rhino horn trade in end-user markets and influencing demand.

Without healthy and resilient populations of both black and white rhino, all the effort will go to waste.

Since 2003, WWF-SA has focused on the the critically endangered black rhino through the Black Rhino Range Expansion Programme. Emslie points out that a healthy rhino population by definition means a population that is not overstocked.

“If you do nothing to manage a rhino population in a fenced reserve, eventually numbers can build up to the point where quality nutrition for breeding females can start to become limiting and population performance can start to slow and may even ultimately decline.”

The secret is to remove some rhinos to reduce densities and improve nutrition for the remaining rhino. In what is a win-win solution the surplus rhinos can be moved to new populations where they have the potential to breed rapidly.

Active biological management relies on continually investing surplus rhinos to create new populations. However, as poaching increases there are fewer surplus rhinos to sell, reducing revenue for state conservation agencies and private sector owners.

Since state-run reserves that can have white rhinos already have them, future expansion of range and numbers is now dependent upon private sector and communities providing more land for rhinos.

But many of the smaller private reserves are becoming uncomfortable about having rhino, due to the additional cost incurred in protecting them, let alone the potential risk to owners, staff and their families.

Community engagement is also vital. The research done by Research Africa provides a starting point for thinking about how communities can be involved in protecting the rhino, the next critical step is to ensure effective sharing of benefits from wildlife resources to further incentivise communities to be involved in conservation actions.

Proactive law enforcement
“We need to focus attention on key rhino nodes in the country and ensure that they are secured,” says Chris Galliers, rhino initiative co-ordinator at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.

“Increased border security is much needed.” Our lengthy and porous borders are very hard to police, but there’s light on the horizon. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has formed a partnership with SANParks as a technology capability provider.

Surveillance, remote sensing and a range of stealth technologies that detect human movement will likely be part of the package the CSIR brings to bear. As a spill-over effect, this work could well enhance South Africa’s ability to secure its borders significantly.

The private sector sees the area of security as one where it can make real, meaningful contributions.

For example, during October an aircraft was donated by DemoTech to The Wilderness Foundation’s Forever Wild Rhino Protection Initiative to provide aerial support for its patrols plus overhead surveillance and monitoring.

While these are great initiatives and helpful, we should never be distracted by high-tech solutions into losing sight of the basics, says Emslie.

“If you can keep your manpower density high, coupled with good leadership on the ground, history shows that you can be successful, so it’s just as important to invest in boots on the ground.”

Or paws, for that matter. Inside the Kruger and on neighbouring private property, dogs have been deployed for some time now to track poachers. Dogs are also being used to check cargo. However, all contributions, whether in cash or in kind, should be monitored to avoid duplication of effort, and to ensure resources are deployed where they will be used to best effect.

“We need a centralised permitting office,” says Galliers. “There is no space for egos in this fight. The rhino just does not have the time.”

Furthermore, if donations are used inefficiently, both the private and public sector organisations run the risk of donor fatigue setting in, because people see their funds poorly administrated and become desensitised to the crisis.

“We need swift and punitive justice in our courts to send out a clear message to South Africans and the world that we are taking this issue seriously,” says Galliers.

“The state needs to invest in greater skilled human capacity to deal with the situation — more investigators, intelligence networks, forensic experts, unified police force and so on.”

Improving co-operation
Galliers says we need to increase pressure on countries that harbour poachers and poaching syndicates, not just the consumer (or demand) countries.

The government has made agreements or memoranda of understanding with a number of countries on both ends of the poaching chain, including Mozambique and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) in South East Asia.

We can “use the situation to leverage greater political will within the African Union for the securing of our countries’ natural assets, and not succumb to the current unsustainable exploitation by other continents, which ultimately leaves Africans worse off,” says Galliers.

“This needs to be translated into tangible improvements in regional law enforcement efforts and sharing of intelligence, which is largely not happening,” says Knight.

It is critical to get a grasp of the end-user market, says Emslie. There is a huge amount of ignorance about the demand countries, about how and why horn is being used and why demand has risen so sharply.

Recent research from WWF-SA shows that one reason may be that rhino horn has become a status symbol — in Vietnam, for example, where wealth has risen sharply and people now sometimes use horn as a status product (a tonic with rich food and drink).

“Rhino horn has long formed a component of traditional medicine in Asia, where it was historically prescribed to reduce fever,” states Shaw.

“Recent changes in demand are thought to be linked to new markets in Vietnam, where it is now used as a detoxification health tonic and hangover cure.

Horn is also believed to be finding its way to China. Emslie says: “Of course, you’re dealing with a black market, which makes it difficult to figure out what’s going on.”

Tackling this crisis is a very complex task.

“I think we still need to improve the co-ordination between all parties involved in the fight against this scourge,” says Galliers.

“I do believe that there is still scope for far greater political will from the highest level. The threat and risks of not getting on top of this does and will impact on the country’s economy, society and obviously the natural environment.

“We need every relevant department to come to the party to deal with this: the department of justice, international affairs and so on. A detailed national rhino security management plan is needed.

“Success is dependent upon numerous issues working together,” says Knight.

He has common concerns with other experts, such as the need for political will, better monitoring and permitting, increased resources and manpower devoted to busting organised crime networks and improving on-the-ground protection.

He also singles out greater beneficiation of the resource, exploring other forms of revenue generation opportunities and job creation opportunities, international co-operation and communication, and sharing of intelligence.

“Without these we have a difficult road ahead,” he says.

This article forms part of a supplement paid for by Nedbank. Contents and photographs were supplied and signed off by Nedbank