South Africa witnesses alarming spike in rhino poaching

Poachers have killed 24 rhinos in South Africa since the beginning of December, according to the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment.

The provinces and reserves that have reported carcasses are KwaZulu-Natal (six), the Kruger National Park (seven), the Western Cape (four) and Mpumalanga (seven). 

“The department condemns the continued poaching of these iconic species for their horn and commends the work being done by rangers and security officials over the festive period to stem the killing of rhino,” it said on Tuesday, adding that in the first 14 days of this month, nine alleged poachers were arrested.

According to Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching (Oscap), 23 rhinos were poached in 36 hours between Tuesday and Thursday last week. 

However, in a statement issued on Tuesday, Creecy’s department said it had noted posts on social media in recent days stating that 23 rhinos have been poached in South Africa within a short period of time. “The truth of the matter is that 24 rhino carcasses have been found in South Africa since 1 December 2021,” it said.

Kim da Ribeira, the director of Oscap, has now called on environment minister Barbara Creecy to deal with the “frightening surge” in rhino poaching since the beginning of December.

“Your department is mandated to give effect to the right of citizens to an ‘environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations’,” she wrote in a letter to Creecy on Tuesday.

“Given the extent to which rhinos are being poached in both private and public game reserves, it would seem that you are unable to fulfil your responsibilities to the people of South Africa.”

She described how a rescue organisation had taken in a 12-hour-old calf whose mother was slaughtered; and the organisation had been caring for four other orphans since 24 November.

Last week, at Inverdoorn in the Western Cape, five rhinos were poached in one night, including a pregnant female. Four of the animals, including the pregnant female died; one, whose face was badly hacked, is receiving veterinary care. 

According to Da Ribeira, when she approached Creecy’s spokesperson, Albi Modise, on Monday for his reaction to the poaching surge, he had asked if she was referring to the five rhinos poached in Inverdoorn. “Is your department unaware of the surge in poaching that has been raging for the past 20 days?” she wrote. 

Da Ribeira wrote how the government’s lack of action to proactively safeguard populations in state parks and provincial parks so that they do not follow the same fate as those in Kruger National Park, is “indicative of the window dressing being done under your leadership of the department”.

Corruption, Da Ribeira said, with the involvement of criminalised government reserve staff, is not being confronted with any obvious urgency, “endangering the lives of honest rangers and rhinos alike. Poaching syndicates operate with impunity and, as the Kruger population dwindles, the pressure mounts on private owners.” Some private rhino owners are struggling to meet their obligations as rhino custodians, she said. Many rely on tourism income, which has dwindled because of travel and other restrictions associated with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic

“Private owners, rescue organisations and those supporting these organisations and owners are feeling overwhelmed and alone, with no prospect of assistance from the government.” 

Da Ribeira noted how, at the time the high-level panel report on the management of South Africa’s iconic wildlife species, including rhinos, was released in May, Creecy had stated that her department would be initiating a participatory process with private rhino rhino owners.

This, Creecy stated, was “with the recognition of the important role and contribution by private owners, including some major ecotourism-based rhino populations, to rhino conservation, to find win-win solutions to safeguard rhino conservation and broaden and deepen the bio-economy associated with rhino”. 

“What has happened to this process and when will it be initiated?” Da Ribeira asked in her letter.

Conservation specialist Karen Trendler explained how poaching usually increases around Easter and Christmas, which is cynically referred to as “Christmas shopping” in anti-poaching and law enforcement circles.

“We’ve had one or two rushes like this over the years where there has been a large number over a very short period of time,” Trendler said. “People are going on holiday; they’ve knocked off from work, so they actually have the time to go and poach. They want money to take home and they’re travelling home. So there is a lot more motivation and opportunity to poach at this time of year. Also, you tend to find some of the law enforcement agencies are so busy with other things.” 

The spike in rhino poaching is worrying. “There was a downturn with the Covid-19 lockdown and then it slowly started climbing and this [the latest upsurge] is very concerning, but I think we also need to take into account that one of the incidents was five in one go, which does push the number up in a 36-hour period quite substantially.” 

Covid-19, Trendler said, had hammered game reserves. “They have had to downscale on staff; the tourism income isn’t coming in, so there isn’t the money and the resources for anti-poaching that there was previously. Now we’ve got this travel ban again. So, to what extent that is playing into the current sudden increase is also unknown.”

More could have and should have been done to protect the country’s rhinos in recent years, Trendler said. “When I think of all those workshops where we were fighting about whether to sell rhino horn, that was a lost opportunity to look at strategy and security. There is corruption, and more could have been done, but at the same time you’re up against international organised crime

“If you look at the reports coming out from the organisations [that] monitor and research it carefully, organised crime is growing, it’s huge. and poaching is part of it ― it’s just a commodity that feeds into that … It’s a massive problem you’re up against.”

Modise told the Mail & Guardian that he could not comment on Da Ribeira’s letter, because he had not yet seen it. 

His department will provide an update on the total number of rhino killed for their horn this year in early 2022.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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