Rhino onslaught baffles experts

2009-07-28 00:00

FIFTEEN rhino have fallen to poachers bullets in KwaZulu-Natal since the beginning of this year, including a Black rhino found dead at Isimangaliso Wetland Park on the Eastern Shores.

This figure brings the shocking tally of rhino slain by poachers over the last 18 months to a total of 29 recorded incidents.

Two of the white rhino shot this year were killed on a private game ranch near Empangeni in Zululand, but the others have all been poached in protected reserves under the control of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Investigators were hopeful yesterday of a possible breakthrough when they detained four men and a woman, all of Chinese origin, who were caught travelling illegally in Opathe Game Reserve near Ulundi — the reserve where 11 white rhino have been lost to poachers since March this year. The suspects are believed to be shopowners in Ulundi.

KZN organised crime unit head Director Johan Booysen said forensic tests will be carried out on the vehicle to determine if the suspects are linked to poaching activity.

They are expected to appear in court soon.

The Witness this week questioned why none of the poaching incidents that occurred from January at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve and in Opathe Heritage Park near Ulundi had been made public via normal media channels by EKZNW, and whether there was a “cover up” of the poaching incidents by the organisation.

The former Natal Parks Board cites as one of its greatest achievements the fact that it saved the white rhino population from extinction.

This month alone, eight white rhino were shot dead and their horns removed by poachers at Opathe Game Reserve under EKZNW’s control.

EKZNW’s chief executive officer, Dr Bandile Mkhize this week apologised for the failure to keep the media informed about the rhino losses, saying the subject was “quite painful”.

Citing figures he said were collated by the provincial rhino investigation committee that comprises members of EKZNW and members of the SA Police Services organised crime units across the province, he said 12 white rhino were lost last year, plus a black rhino, which was snared at Ndumo Game Reserve and then de-horned by poachers.

The Witness reported one additional incident in December last year, bringing the total to 14 rhino known to have died at the hands of poachers in KZN last year.

The last white rhino killed in December 2008 in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi was not shot, but was believed to be on the verge of dying from an injury suffered in a territorial fight with another bull when it was captured by poachers and the horn was taken.

Investigators reported that the rhino had been cruelly cut on one of its hind legs with a sharp instrument, indicating an attempt to cut the hamstring, and that the horns were chopped off while the animal was possibly still alive.

Asked about the apparent inability of EKZNW’s anti-poaching units and the SAPS to stem the rhino poaching tide, EKZNW media spokesman, Jeff Gaisford agreed that given that in 2007 not a single rhino had been lost to poachers in KZN’s reserves the sudden massive escalation of poaching was cause for grave concern.

Mkhize said in response to inquiries by The Witness that EKZNW was doing what it could within the constraints of its available budget and human resources to combat the onslaught. “I can assure [you] too that we have no intention of losing any more of our white rhino,” he said.

Mkhize said the 14 white rhino and one black rhino killed this year is an “unacceptably high” tally, particularly at Opathe Game Reserve. “We are taking our own internal steps to correct this,” he said, but declined for “security reasons” to elaborate.

He also confirmed that EKZNW has a number of specialised anti-poaching units that are operative in its protected areas and said in addition the field ranger, staff of each protected area conducts their own patrols.

“Given the size of some of our rhino parks, I have to admit that our staff are quite thinly stretched and it is not possible to cover the entire fence line of any given park. Our parks are also known for their rugged terrain and thick bush and this does hamper effective anti-poaching operations,” Mkhize said.

EKZNW CEO Dr Bandile Mkhize confirmed the following rhino poaching incidents this year.

January 2009: Eastern Shores, Isimangaliso Wetland Park, one black rhino found dead. No bullet was found, but a suspicious wound was found that could have been a bullet entry wound. “We surmise that this animal was shot, but ran off and died some 10 days later. Both horns were recovered”.

March: Opathe Game Reserve, one white rhino.

April: Opathe Game Reserve, two white rhino.

May: Nyala Private Game Reserve, one white rhino.

June: Imfolozi, one white rhino.

June: Nyala Private Game Reserve, one white rhino.

July: OpatheGame Reserve , eight white rhino.

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