/ 27 February 2024

Rhino poaching spikes despite high conviction rate

Rhino Poaching Figures Still On The Rise
KwaZulu-Natal had the highest number of poaching incidents, with 325 rhino killed, followed by Kruger National Park (which falls in Mpumalanga and Limpopo) where 78 rhino were killed. Limpopo was next, with 59 rhinos killed on game reserves and farms. File photo

South Africa has recorded a significant increase in rhino poaching despite concerted efforts to curb the crime, including a high conviction rate and long jail sentences served on poachers.

The latest rhino poaching statistics released by environment minister Barbara Creecy on Tuesday show that 499 rhinos were poached in South Africa during 2023, an increase of 51 from the 448 recorded poaching incidents in 2022. Of these, 406 rhino were killed on state properties and 93 on private game parks and farms.

KwaZulu-Natal had the highest number of poaching incidents, with 325 rhino killed, followed by Kruger National Park (which falls in Mpumalanga and Limpopo) where 78 rhino were killed. Limpopo was next, with 59 rhinos killed on game reserves and farms.

“The pressure again has been felt in the KwaZulu-Natal province with Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park facing the brunt of poaching cases, losing 307 of the total national poaching loss,” Creecy said.

“This is the highest poaching loss within this province. While KZN recorded 49 arrests and 13 firearms seized, multi-disciplinary teams continue to work tirelessly in an attempt to slow this relentless pressure.”

Kruger National Park recorded 78 cases, a 37% decrease from 2022. No rhinos were poached in any other national parks. 

Creecy attributed the decrease of rhino poached in Kruger to several interventions, including strong collaboration between external stakeholders permanently based in the park and the Skukuza Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, Skukuza police and police forensic teams.

It was also a result of the Kruger National Park Ranger Services Integrity Management Plan, which assesses the dynamics of corruption and focuses on building individual integrity and organisational resilience, and the dehorning programme. 

The use of technology such as improved access control through the installation of automated number plate recognition cameras and gate cameras as well as radar detection systems that remotely track poachers entering illegally on foot have also helped reduce losses.

Creecy said the government had hired additional personnel to aid the fight against poaching.

 “As part of the government’s poverty relief programme there are a number of fence monitors employed from neighbouring communities that patrol the western boundary fence of the KNP [Kruger National Park] and report fence breakages, illegal tracks and people entering the KNP as well as animals escaping from the KNP,” she said.

Despite the losses in KwaZulu-Natal, Creecy said she was “optimistic” that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was “working really hard” to reassert its management authority that it had become known for in the history of rhino conservation.

Rhino Poaching 2024

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife chief executive Bandile Mkhize said the entity was increasing its intelligence capabilities and the frequency of random operations with the police to combat poaching.

He said the entity had been short staffed during 2023 with just 55 field rangers employed in posts in the field out of a required 96 personnel, which had now been boosted to 88, leaving a roughly 10% vacancy rate.

“As Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife we have procured a law enforcement helicopter with night vision capabilities to ensure we are able to deploy this helicopter throughout the day and night. The helicopter we had did not have night vision and most of the poaching occurred at night,” Mkhize said.

“We have now fitted all our vehicles with real time tracking so we are able to know where all our law enforcement vehicles are at any stage and we are able to smartly deploy them to where they need to go.”

He said the park was also working with informants in neighbouring areas, where poachers tend to live, to detect their movements.

Mkhize said the entity had rolled out 8km of an 11km smart fence around Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park funded by the province and the environment department had provided R40 million to install a further 40km of the fencing.

The environment department said partnerships between the public and private sectors, and the financial and transporting sectors are critical to combating international wildlife trafficking

This approach is followed in the region and transnationally, working with the transit and end user countries in South-East Asia, especially with China, Singapore, Qatar, Malaysia and Vietnam.

But the increase in rhino poaching nationally was recorded despite the work of the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) regional and transnational operations to combat wildlife trafficking and high conviction rates.

Verdicts were handed down in 36 rhino poaching and trafficking cases, in which 35 resulted in guilty verdicts and one in a not guilty verdict. The cases resulted in the conviction of 45 rhino poachers and rhino horn traffickers with a conviction rate of 97%.

The following  cases were among the successful convictions in 2023:

• A former field ranger was arrested in Kruger after he killed a rhino with his R1 rifle and failed to report the incident. He initially denied that he discharged his firearm, and he replaced the ammunition with non-issued ammunition, but ballistic evidence linked his firearm with the crime scene. During the trial he alleged that the rhino charged him. This was not accepted by the court. He was convicted for carrying out restricted activities with endangered or protected species and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.

• In KwaZulu-Natal, five people were convicted for the killing of one rhino, conspiracy to hunt a rhino, possession of firearms and ammunition and possession of a firearm with the intent to commit an offence. They were found in a motor vehicle with hunting equipment and the DNA on the equipment linked to the DNA of the rhino. The firearms were ballistically linked to the crime scene as well. They were sentenced to an effective imprisonment term of 10 years.

• In Gauteng, a person was convicted for the possession of two rhino horns found in the in which he was vehicle travelling and was sentenced to an effective period of imprisonment of five years.

Creecy added that her department has embarked on a consultative process to revise both the Black and White Rhinoceros Biodiversity Management Plans (BMP) in line with the provision of the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act.

The revision aims to address the needs of both black and white rhino, provide a strategic approach and detailed action plan to conserving rhino and for working with range states to the north. The revised draft BMP will be published in a Government Gazette for public participation in the near future.

Slaughter in KwaZulu-Natal

“If you look at the figures for KZN for the last three years, it sat at 102, then 244 and now 325,” said Kim Da Ribeira, of Outraged South African Citizens Against Rhino Poaching. “If you add all of those together, it’s a staggering amount of rhino to lose from the population that they actually have … 

“These are huge losses for rhinos and for KwaZulu-Natal, it’s an absolute slaughter. I know that in KZN they do try their utmost but once again there’s politics involved here, there and everywhere,” she said.

According to Da Ribeira, the government is yet to show that it is in any way interested in trying to save the species, “otherwise they would have assisted in KZN when it first started.

“It just takes the poaching syndicates to set up the networks and when those are flying, it is so much more difficult to break them down. If they had done something three years ago, we wouldn’t have seen the figures we’re seeing now. They really have no will to save rhinos at all.”

The DFFE, she noted, had shifted responsibility for KwaZulu-Natal’s rhino poaching crisis to the province. “Our government is so quick to say KZN parks [Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife] don’t fall under their mandate, instead of actually doing something to address this. All they want to do is just move the responsibility into someone else’s court. They’ve done this all along.

“When I enquired a couple of years back about the fact that they were being hit so hard in KwaZulu-Natal, it was basically ‘it is not part of our portfolio … It sits with KZN parks and they must handle it’. Where, in real time, these rhinos form part of our national herd and I’m just astounded [by the poaching figures for KwaZulu-Natal].”

‘Government created this problem’

The DFFE, she said, had “created this problem” by not addressing corruption and advocating for proper sentencing in rhino poaching cases. “When that was brought up as well, where there were questions asked in parliament about it and directed to the minister at that stage – Edna Molewa – about how do we make sure that rhino poaching actually carries the appropriate sentencing. Then it was, ‘well that’s not our mandate, we have to now approach the judiciary to ask them to better prosecute wildlife crime.

“They can only lay certain charges against them whereas if they changed the way they did that, then it would mean there could be stricter sentences and bail, for example would be higher and things like that, so that people actually saw … there would be some consequences.”

Ultimately, this created the problem, she said, and when KwaZulu-Natal started to get hit, “they had all of these rhinos and then the buck was just passed again and it’s just moved onto the next person and the province must now sort it out. It’s rubbish.”

While the Kruger National Park had recorded declining poaching levels, according to Da Ribeira this is simply “because there’s so few rhino left in the Kruger. 

“If you’re not comparing apples with apples, it doesn’t work. You need to be saying that the population for Kruger was 1 200 last year and that so much percentage of those were then poached, basically … if there are less rhinos left in the Kruger, then we haven’t seen a decrease.”

The government, too, is not interested in supporting private rhino owners with the significant costs of security and dehorning, she added.

Building field ranger capacity in KZN

In a statement, WWF said that it would support improved field ranger capacity through targeted training and improving living conditions for rangers as part of a range of interventions that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is implementing. WWF, too, is helping Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife develop an integrity management plan to build organisational resilience. 

“The province of KwaZulu-Natal has a proud record of having played a critical role in rhino conservation in South Africa when rhino numbers had dwindled to just a few hundred animals,” said Jeff Cooke, the leader of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. “This is why we are committing resources towards supporting the authorities in their efforts to turn the tide on illegal killing of rhinos, particularly in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.”

Cooke said there is a growing recognition of the importance of making rangers work on the frontline of conservation efforts professional by improving morale and building trust within law enforcement teams. 

“This is one tangible area of work where the WWF is hoping it can make a difference. It is also imperative that we continue to focus on growing rhino numbers and increasing range as quickly as possible, through efforts such as the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, in the hope of building resilience in the populations to guard against the poaching onslaught.”