After the lockdown initially protected rhino from poachers last year, the economic consequences of this are now apparently contributing to a new wave of poaching, especially in private reserves.
In the first two weeks of this month alone, 24 carcasses were found nationwide. Among them was a pregnant cow.
A care home in Mpumalanga has taken in five orphaned rhino calves, four of whose mothers were killed for their horns in private reserves.
Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, told City Press sister publication Rapport that poaching in private reserves had increased by 10% since last year.
That’s because rhino numbers on state land have dropped drastically due to poaching. About 60% of the country’s rhino are now privately owned. Jones said only 37 of the 394 poached last year were on private land.
The restrictions on the movement of people under the lockdown initially kept poachers in check last year, but in the long run, it also hit reserves.
He said it could be assumed that reserves would therefore cut their spending, such as on security measures, making them more vulnerable.
“Poachers attack private reserves which are vulnerable and they know they are vulnerable.”
But, he added, even private reserves with sophisticated security systems are a target. “Poachers have their own intelligence teams. Poaching can happen to the best of us.”
On December 8, poachers shot dead four rhinos on the Inverdoorn reserve near Cape Town and wounded a fifth.
Owner Searl Derman said on Facebook the trend was that valuable information went from the staff of private game reserves to poachers.
This included the payment of bribes. As a precaution, all staff were subjected to polygraph tests throughout the night.
He did not want to divulge further information about this.
Rapport has learnt that two of the four suspects are from Zimbabwe, one from Mozambique and one from Limpopo.
Jones told Rapport that bribery of staff in state and private reserves was a “constant phenomenon”, but he was not convinced that bribery increased when staff were laid off or received smaller salaries.
Richard York, CEO of Wildlife Ranching SA, also said he was not convinced that bribery had increased in the rhino industry.
In the reserve which he co-owns, the staff own 25% of all the animals. In 2012, a staff member was involved in poaching there.
“We asked him why he would poach his own property. He replied that there was no tangible benefit in owning the animals because he did not get an income out of them,” York said the staff member had a point.
If rhino horn could be legally sold, the proceeds could be paid into an interest-earning account. The interest could be paid to the staff, and it would be more than poachers can offer them.
York also said poachers were focusing on private land due to the “drastic decline” in rhino numbers on state land. “State reserves lost 67% of their rhino between 2009 and 2019 due to poaching. If the decline in the birth rate is taken into account, the state lost 80%. Compared to the rhino production we achieve in the private sector, the state may have lost almost 93% of its rhino.”
Another reason for the increase in poaching during the festive season was that people in general, tended to be less vigilant about their property. However, SA National Parks was optimistic about the growth in its rhino numbers.
York said in his 2019-20 annual report that the Kruger National Park had 268 black rhino and 3 549 white rhino in 2019 “with births for the first time in five years equal to the combined natural and poaching deaths”.
Bonné de Bod, who made the documentary Stroop and is also an activist against poaching, said everyone involved with rhinos was on an island of their own.
She said the ring of steel that the state introduced during the lockdown period with strict law enforcement had shown how these groups could be united into a strong unit.
For example, in April last year one of the largest poaching zones in the world, the intensive protection zone in the Kruger National Park, did not lose a single rhino. This ring of steel was unfortunately not sustainable, De Bod said, but it showed clearly what the role of government was and should be, especially during the Easter and Christmas periods when an attack could be expected.
“It is pointless for the department [of environmental affairs] to get involved in debates on social media. They should, as in the past, issue press releases on how their Integrated Strategic Management Plan for Rhino is taking the fight forward, especially in view of the fact that we lost almost 9 000 rhino in the last decade.”