Rhino cop: Grabbing the dilemma by the horns

2011-04-06 00:00

FOR strategic reasons, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is not going to divulge all its latest rhino-poaching manoeuvrings that are being used to combat the devastating onslaught these iconic creatures have suffered over the past three years or so.

But one thing people should know is that the organisation’s strategies are aimed at improving matters dramatically — and quickly.

As part of this battle, Ezemvelo has created and now filled a new post, rhino security intervention co-ordinator, and Jabulani Ngubane is the man who holds the reins.

He is nothing if not assured. His statements about substantially curbing rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal game parks are not offered as boasts of a new broom, they are more a studied statement of real probability.

Sitting on the runway at the Eshowe airfield under the wing of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s airplane, Ngubane sculpted his answers: attentive, logical and sequential. However urgent and emotionally weighted the need to overcome the slaughter, he defused the moment with broad reasoning.

“However focussed and immediate my task is — and it is one hell of a responsibility — rhino poaching is not something new to me or the organisation. Yes, the scale of the attacks has increased massively. But this does not mean we can’t deal with rhino poaching. What it does mean is that we have to focus and direct our resources very specifically to the challenge. And please let me assure you, this can and is being done.”

In a nutshell, it is a matter of putting the right systems in place. “We have the systems. But like any emergency in any field or profession, they have to be reorientated to the heightened situation at hand. While I will never speak wildly about such a sensitive and difficult task, things are under control. Believe me.”

He asked people to compare rhino poaching to the frequent cash-in-transit robberies that South Africa has experienced: “The point here is that you seldom hear of these robberies anymore. Why? Because the necessary forces have been strategically directed at the problem and the correct risk assessments and deployments were implemented.”

The fight is on and it is one that he said he will “put his life on the line for”.

It’s evident that the tide is already turning, he said. A total of 39 rhinos were poached in KZN reserves last year, with 25 arrests, while this year the figure stands at nine, seven in Ezemvelo reserves and two within private reserves. Two arrests have been made and nine firearms confiscated.

Other developments include the completion of an extensive risk assessment of all KZN parks holding rhino, field rangers have received “very specific, new equipment”, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) has been bolstered by 18 new rangers, intelligence has been substantially improved with the employment of a private-sector task force and various informer networks and staff are also being redeployed.

Ngubane’s overall assessment of rhino poaching is, however, far broader. The engine that is driving what he called this “vicious evil” has many components and a number of these are beyond his immediate control.

“I cannot deal with the businesspeople and crime syndicates with their overseas connections. But I do have a larger task in so far as providing ‘intel’ from surrounding communities is concerned.”

In this context, he said Ezemvelo’s continued outreach programme towards its parks’ neighbours must be considered in the overall poaching battle. Whatever successes are being recorded in the broader poaching field — “and there are a great many” — the focus on rhino losses has tended to obscure them.

“We are absolutely convinced that our hand of friendship and assistance over the past 10 years towards our people who have been dispossessed of land for game reserves, is bearing fruit. A great number of our amakhosi are showing a real willingness to support Ezemvelo, and their integration into and involvement with nature conservation is growing. This community support is critical, not just in rhino poaching, but in all forms of poaching.”

The poachers themselves were very often “end-of-the-line opportunists”, seduced by the comparative fortune being offered for horns. “You can imagine the temptation of these huge sums. But let it be known here and now: the vast majority of people living near our reserves want to protect our natural heritage.”

He asked people to measure his appointment by achievements.

“I will measure my success by its outcomes. This year I intend to reduce rhino poaching in our reserves by 50%, next year by 75% and by the third year I aim to have reduced it to what might be termed normal levels, even though I would hope to have stopped it altogether.”

It was commented that a position with such a public profile and pressure might be viewed as more suitable for an older hand, a hardened security warrior, long since entrenched in bush warfare.

Ngubane has a hefty laugh and this preconception was met with one.

“I am aware of this perception. I’m 34 and while that might seem to be young for such a task, I am entirely comfortable with my responsibilities. This field of law enforcement has been my specific field of experience and training since joining the old Natal Parks Board, subsequently Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife some 14 years ago.”

He detailed his experience: he was in charge of HiP’s Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) before becoming section ranger there and in charge of 20 field rangers and 45 staff. He points to his “excellent” mentor Peter Hartley and his exposure to the “hot” Masinda and Manzibomvu section of HiP as being formative and crucial in his career.

He was then promoted to conservation manager at Ndumo Game Reserve from 2005 to 2007, before once again rising through the ranks to become the biodiversity conservation co-ordinator for the Southern Zululand Region.

“What is important is the relevant, specific experience you gain. I have an extremely focussed field of responsibility, a field I am very competent in. But I will be consulting extensively with many of my colleagues. Ezemvelo has outstanding experience in this field. The inputs I will place in the field will, to some extent, be determined by the inputs I receive from consulting with them. I won’t be short of sound advice — that I can assure you of.”

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