The shadow of rhino poaching keeps darkening the magnificent landscape that places South Africa among the most biodiverse countries in the world. Already the figure for the year so far stands at about 200 rhinos killed. This has conservationists fearing that the toll for the year could end up exceeding the shocking 333 killed last year.
The poachers keep pouncing practically daily, shooting the helpless animals in state and private parks, often using high-powered assault rifles, and then hacking off the horns for the international syndicates to smuggle to the mostly Far Eastern markets where it is mistakenly believed by many to have healing properties.
The relentless onslaught on the endangered species is being carried on in the face of stepped-up and better coordinated security operations involving state law enforcement agencies, conservation organizations and private reserve owners. The military has even been called in to patrol Kruger National Park, the country’s flagship reserve which houses more than half of its approximately 20,000 rhinos.
At least 20 poachers have already been killed in shootouts, mostly with the soldier patrols, but still Kruger Park accounts for no fewer that 126 of the close to 200 animals killed this year. Arrests have been put at 123, with six convictions and many awaiting trial.
WWF, the respected conservation organization, has warned that unless the problem is tackled, more rhinos could die this year than last year.
Joseph Okori, its African rhino programme coordinator, said: “Poaching is being undertaken almost without exception by sophisticated criminals, sometimes hunting from helicopters and using automatic weapons. South Africa is fighting a war against organized crime that risks reversing the outstanding conservation gains it made over the past century.”
He added: “Swift prosecutions of wildlife crimes and strict sentences for perpetrators will serve as a deterrent to potential criminals. Poachers should be shown no leniency.”
Stiffer sentences have indeed been imposed on poachers and smugglers in terms of new guidelines set for such cases, but many suspects are still allowed bail, which they easily pay with their ill-gotten proceeds and then flee.
Part of the trouble seems that officials charged with the protection of nature do not always sing from the same song sheet. They sometimes seem to be at distinct variance as to how seriously to take this threat to one of the country’s most enigmatic and endangered species.
One of the most glaring instances of this was reported earlier this month in The Star, Johannesburg’s oldest and biggest quality daily newspaper. Its front-page headline read: “Rhino hunting scandal – Officials issue permits to poaching accused kingpin”.
The report by Kristen van Schif concerned a game-ranch and hunting-firm owner, Dawie Groenewald, who was last year arrested along with two veterinarians and several other people in Limpopo province, which comprises the scenic north-western portion of South Africa and houses some of the country’s most beautiful nature parks, including the northern section of Kruger National Park and Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site that covers the archaeological remnants of an ancient African kingdom. Kruger Park in particular, but several of the province’s other parks as well, has been the target of rhino poachers.
The suspects were released on bail pending further investigations. Groenewald had to deposit a whopping (South African currency terms) R1-million (about U.S.$150,000). This was later reduced to R100,000 (about $15,000).
Part of the bail terms were that the suspects were not allowed to engage in activities relating to rhino. However, the report quoted the political head of the provincial administration’s environmental department, Pitsi Moloto, as saying that permits to transport and hunt rhino, among other wild animals, were issued to him because the period prohibiting such activities by him had expired.
An official in his department told the paper the permits were issued on the basis that he was innocent till proven guilty. However, Rynette Coetzee, project executant of the law and policy program of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, one of South Africa’s oldest and most esteemed conservation organizations, pointed out that permits got issued at the discretion of the department, which was mandated by the country’s constitution and its laws to protect biodiversity.
Groenewald told the reporter he did not understand what the fuss was about. But Pelham Jones, head of the Private Rhino Owners Association, said it was “deeply repugnant” that a person under investigation could continue to trade freely.
Meanwhile, further evidence of the international tentacles of the rhino smuggling business has come with the arrest earlier this month of a Thai businessman in Johannesburg on suspicion of having falsely obtained permits for rhino hunting. Such permits are allowed for trophy hunting in terms of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The arrest was carried out by the elite police unit known as the Hawks in co-operation with the state’s revenue services and a forensic investigator.
Several citizens of Vietnam have also been apprehended this year, confirming suspicions that the country has become one of the major markets for rhino horn next to China. There have been suggestions that the country’s authorities are reluctant to crack down on the illicit trade because government officials are themselves primary consumers.