Rhino poaching numbers in South Africa this year increased by 50% when compared to the same time period last year – largely due to the lifting of lockdown restrictions and poverty brought on by Covid-19.
According to the latest statistics by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), 249 rhinos lost their lives between January and the end of June this year.
In 2020, this figure stood at 166.
Poaching activities in the Kruger National Park, the largest area to house rhinos, increased by 3.7% to 715 incidents, compared to 689 in 2020.
Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the two provinces where the park is located, accounted for 50 of the 249 rhino deaths.
However, it is not all doom and gloom – it cannot be, if we are to protect the remaining rhinos that roam South Africa, and reflect on their importance, this World Rhino Day.
Head of conservation for Investec, Geraldine Fleming, told The Citizen there was some good news among the damning statistics.
This came in the form of the death of rhino poaching kingpin Sydney Mabuza, also known as “Mshengu” or “Mr Big”. Fleming said a lull in poaching incidents was observed after his death. This was, however, short-lived.
Another victory was the reopening of the Skukuza Regional Court, the country’s designated poaching crimes court.
The court was temporarily closed by Mpumalanga regional court president Naomi Engelbrecht in August 2019, and moved almost 100km from Skukuza, for dubious reasons.
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Luckily, the battle to reopen the court, which boasted a 99.8% rhino poaching conviction rate, proved successful.
Lastly, Fleming said a rhino dehorning project, focusing on females, is underway in strategic regions of the Kruger Park, which hopefully means the source of income for would-be poachers is throttled.
Unemployment and illegal wildlife trade
With the Covid-19 pandemic came an influx in more dismal unemployment figures. But, lockdown restrictions did temporarily halt the transportation of poached goods such as rhino horns.
Fleming said once people were able to move around freely, poaching took off with earnest, “with poachers making up for lost time and money”. She said networks may have been stockpiling until the transport industry started up again.
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“With increased unemployment around reserves due to retrenchment, lack of tourism income, we are seeing more subsistence poaching and bushmeat consumption, but in these circumstances the temptation to get drawn into poaching and trafficking rings increases,” Fleming explained.
Current travel restrictions still make it difficult for people to smuggle wildlife products via air, which was always a popular method of travel, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
However, Fleming says these markets will likely “reorganise themselves”, with online trade channels already increasing.
What is being done to stop illegal wildlife crime?
One public-private partnership bringing together financial services, regulators and law enforcement is the South African Anti-Money Laundering Integrated Taskforce (Samlit).
Fleming said the work of Samlit has increased understanding financial flows and of criminal network operations into illegal wildlife trade.
The head of the Samlit expert working group on illegal wildlife trade is also Investec’s head of financial crimes compliance, Gerald Byleveld.
The biggest challenge in taking down illegal networks is to communicate and collaborate across borders. This means government and law-enforcement agencies across the globe have to work together to apprehend criminals and syndicates.
But with differing legal systems and laws, this makes convictions and sentences increasingly difficult.
However, in South Africa, the source of illegal products is significantly closer, which means Samlit has more of a chance of succeeding locally.
Don’t give up
Fleming emphasised it was “never too late” for the country’s rhinos, and all wildlife suffering under the illegal trade.
“If we give up hope, we will lose them all!”
She advised those feeling despondent about dwindling rhino populations need only read up on some positive stories.
One such story is Kenya increasing its rhino population by about 38% in under four years. And last year, it achieved zero rhino-poaching deaths.
“So, the time to act is now!”
Fleming said Investec wanted to salute all its non-profit partners in conservation on the 10th World Rhino Day anniversary, “who give their hears and souls to rescuing and protecting the animals we love to see in the wild”.
Those in conservation education, and corporates making their resources available, are also thanked for their contributions in ensuring that present and future generations will be able to see a rhino, and other wildlife currently under siege, in the wild.