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Are we winning the fight against rhino poaching?


At a press conference in Pretoria last Thursday, Edna Molewa, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and her colleagues from government’s ‘Security Cluster’ reviewed South Africa’s ongoing rhino poaching crisis and while there is some cause for optimism, the situation remains disastrous.

Molewa announced that a total of 1 175 rhinos were slaughtered by poachers in 2015, down slightly from 1 215 in 2014. This was the case, even though the total number of poaching incidents in the Kruger National Park (the area hardest hit by poachers, with 826 kills in 2015) rose by about 10%.

She put this “very very good news” down to the successes of the government’s Integrated Strategic Management Approach to combating rhino poaching. Clearly, a lot of people are doing some very important and impactful work on the ground. Among the achievements listed at the press conference were the following:

– 317 poachers were arrested in the Kruger National Park and adjacent areas (up from 258 in 2014);

– mobile forensic crime scene units were purchased and various “cutting-edge” technologies are being employed;

– close to 400 Magistrates and Prosecutors underwent “intensive training and awareness-raising”;

– 48 accused persons were convicted of various charges related to rhino poaching at an 88.8% conviction rate and 24 were sentenced to effective prison terms ranging from nine to 30 years;

– the Green Scorpions have stepped up monitoring and training at the country’s ports of entry and exit;

– the Hawks have busted two criminal poaching syndicates;

– emphasis is being placed on raising awareness in communities adjacent to national parks and on developing communally owned and managed wildlife conservation projects;

– a North Korean diplomat involved in illegal rhino horn trade was expelled from the country;

– memoranda of understanding have been signed with Vietnam and Cambodia, where awareness raising and demand reduction campaigns are being prioritised;

– funding, training and infrastructure development has been provided to Mozambique to bolster anti-poaching efforts in the Limpopo National Park adjacent to the Kruger National Park.

Quite evidently this important work is beginning to pay dividends, prompting Molewa to argue that “for the first time in a decade, the poaching situation has stabilised”.

Unfortunately things aren’t quite as rosy as this sentiment may suggest – a point succinctly made at the press conference by Major General Johan Jooste, the former army general in charge of SANParks’ anti-poaching efforts, when he noted that “there is a difference between success and victory”.

A total of 1175 rhinos butchered in a single year remains an unsustainable number, regardless of whether it has dropped a little from the previous year.

Sabri Zain, Director of Policy at TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, pointed out that, “while a slight decrease in rhino poaching in South Africa was apparent in 2015, and perhaps the authorities are having some impact on the ground, these numbers are hardly cause for celebration or complacency. The figures remain unacceptably high and continent-wide the scale of the rhino poaching crisis is spreading.”

His colleague Tom Milliken pointed out that the current poaching rate in the Kruger National Park, where about 10% of the resident rhino population was wiped out last year, is about double the natural rate of reproduction.

In addition, Millikan emphasises that “for Africa as a whole, this is the worst year in decades for rhino poaching. The poaching epicentre has spread to neighbouring Namibia and Zimbabwe, but is nowhere near being extinguished in South Africa: despite some commendable efforts being made, we’re still a very long way from seeing the light at the end of this very dark tunnel.”

TRAFFIC puts rhino poaching numbers for the continent in 2015 at 1305, up from 1299 in 2014.

Unfortunately, and I’d ask you to excuse the ridiculous pun, a rather large elephant makes its appearance in the room whenever South African officials speak about the fight against rhino poaching: the government’s position on legalising international trade in rhino horn.

Currently prohibited under the regulations of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the SA government has made a number of pronouncements in favour of lifting the ban on international trade, arguing, in the face of severe criticism to the contrary, that such a measure would reduce rhino horn prices and poaching.

At Thursday’s press conference, Molewa indicated that the Committee of Enquiry into the feasibility of legalising the international rhino horn trade, which was established in 2014, had concluded its work and that its report on the matter would be discussed at the next Inter-Ministerial Committee meeting. The recommendations the Inter-Ministerial Committee makes to Cabinet will be crucial.

Outside of the ongoing and commendable efforts to halt the poaching crisis, the single most positive move government could make is to once and for all dismiss the notion that legalising the trade in rhino horn could benefit rhino conservation.

The worst case scenario, both for the country’s standing in the international conservation community and for the rhino’s chances of long-term survival, would be for South Africa to table a proposal to lift the international trade ban at the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17) in Johannesburg later this year. Watch this space!

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