Rhino poaching at crisis level

2014-09-15 11:01
Warrant Officer Linda Luther investigates the scene where a rhino was found dead at the banks of a river in the Kruger National Park. (Getrude Makhafola, Sapa)

Warrant Officer Linda Luther investigates the scene where a rhino was found dead at the banks of a river in the Kruger National Park. (Getrude Makhafola, Sapa)

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Johannesburg - For retired army general Johan Jooste, the fight against rhino poaching in the vast Kruger National Park (KNP) is far from being won.

He has seen many a rhino carcass left behind by poachers since his appointment in 2013 to help save the endangered species.

"Are we winning the war? I would say not yet...the war in the bush is only 20% of the fight against rhino poaching," Jooste told a group of journalists and a Vietnamese delegation visiting the world famous park on a trip led by the Rhinos Foundation.

"It's like defending a country with a 3 000km boundary," Jooste said.

He is in charge of at least 400 rangers who patrol the 20 000 square kilometre park, assisted by a helicopter wing and several special rangers.

The SA National Defence Force and the police have also been roped in to assist in curbing poaching.

Rhino poaching at the park has reached crisis levels since 2007 when demand for the horn in Asia gained momentum.

DNA, ballistics important

Vietnam is at the centre of the illicit rhino horn trade where it has been used for many centuries in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) as a cure for various fevers.

So far this year, more than 730 rhino have been killed for their horns by poachers in the country. Most were killed in the Kruger. Over 1 000 were killed last year.

Park manager Dan Pienaar believes there has to be a proactive approach to poaching based on good intelligence gathering.

At least 11 rhino were poached back in 2007, compared to 1 004 in 2013. Well equipped and organised poachers cross into the park from neighbouring Mozambique, leaving animals dead in their trail.

"We need good intelligence, the rhino is under massive threat where ever it is. We also need to improve rhino breeding to offset the impact of poaching."

There was no further information on the possible relocation of the rhino.

In 2013, the rhino population in the Kruger was between 8 600 and 9 400, said Pienaar.

The park's environmental crime investigator Kobus de Wet makes sure that bullets that killed a rhino are collected from the crime scene, together with the animal's DNA.

"DNA and ballistics results are very important to ensure conviction in the courts," said De Wet as he led a contingent of journalists and Vietnamese delegates to a two-day old carcass in the park's Stols Nek area.

The dead rhino lay on its side, with a thick smell from the animal filling the air around it. Accompanied by rangers and Warrant Officer Linda Luther from the police, De Wet and the team get ready to collect evidence from yet another dehorned rhino.

Detectors are used to find bullet entry points. Once the bullet areas are identified, the animal is cut open and the bullets collected.

Luther packs the bullets away in an evidence bag and begins to collect some DNA from the animal.

"A man was arrested after he was found in possession of the horn in Singapore last month. That horn's DNA was found to match that of a rhino killed and dehorned in the Kruger six days before the arrest," said De Wet.

Greed

For Jooste, both South Africa and Mozambique needed to co-operate fully to fight poaching. The rangers are limited to the park, and can only protect it from inside its border.

"Besides tough legislation, especially in Mozambique, we need a new form of liberation...we need to liberate communities along the park from the illicit rhino horn trade," said Jooste.

"Money changes the vulnerable and poor and makes them greedy. When the poachers hand over a rhino to a middleman, they receive the kind of money they had never seen before, the kind of cash you and I haven't seen before too."

KNP spokesperson William Mabasa said at least 80% of poachers were from across the border with Mozambique. They have also seen KNP staffers arrested, as well as police officers.

In Vietnam, government partnered with non-governmental organisations and celebrities to debunk myths around the horn's healing properties.

Environmental activist Quyen Vu is one of those at the forefront of the anti-smuggling campaign in the Asian country.

"Education is important. We should keep educating and campaigning to the whole world. We shouldn't stop," she said, accompanied by Vietnamese singer Hong Nhung.

The very last rhino in Vietnam was killed for its horn in 2010, said Vu.

Jooste said: "We're living in the toughest year so far, and we need lasting solutions."

Read more on:    kruger national park  |  johannesburg  |  poaching

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