By Ike Phaahla
Rhino protection has become an emotional subject, given the alarming rate of poaching in recent years, writes Ike Phaahla.
Conservation is a science. It’s a multifaceted field involving studies and observations informed by facts that evolve with time.
What was done previously in the name of conservation may not be relevant today, and could be regarded as a crime against nature and humanity.
Given their ever-changing quality, nature conservation matters are sometimes erroneously seen as pitting nature against human beings, drawing unnecessary parallels between the importance of caring for nature and people.
In some cases, questions have been raised around cases where nature has been seen as taking priority over the well-being of humans, who themselves face enormous life challenges.
Practically, it is always going to be difficult to have an objective view on what or which needs must receive priority.
The debate around rhino protection is one such topic. It has become an emotional subject, given the alarming rate of poaching in recent years, especially in the iconic Kruger National Park. As a result some people have become irrational in their arguments about what needs to be done.
The South African National Parks (SANParks) which is the custodian of the country’s natural heritage, has the largest rhino population in the world living in the wild.
The majority of these magnificent animals are found in Kruger National Park, which has been hit the hardest by rhino poaching.
This year alone, more than 400 animals have been killed in this vast park. The figures are an enormous challenge on officials to come up with innovative solutions to tackle this problem head-on.
An array of resources has been deployed in the park to support the structures in place.
Some of these measures against rhino poaching are of a scale unprecedented in the history of the country’s nature conservation efforts.
But the question on everyone’s mind is whether we are winning the battle. First, the results may not be visible to many, but on the ground, we can see the difference. So, yes, our measures have somehow made an impression in preventing the rhino slaughter from continuing unabated.
While people may interrogate the interventions, I believe that we should ask ourselves what could have happened had we just gone on with life as usual. The answer is that we could possibly be at the tipping point, where more animals are dying than are being born.
We are not in an ideal situation, but it is far better than what could have happened.
Partnerships are important in this fight. The SANDF, SAPS and surrounding private game reserves have joined forces in the fight against rhino poaching. More rangers have been recruited or retrained for this difficult task.
A joint operations committee has been set up and is operational. Communities from surrounding villages are constantly being addressed and brought into the structures to be the eyes and the ears of law enforcement agencies.
SANParks came up with a five-year plan to fight this scourge. The plan is in its third year. There are aspects that have worked and those that need to be fine-tuned.
The use of technology is being investigated, but it should be noted that the vanguard has been the people, especially the men and women of the Rangers Corps.
The many arrests that led to convictions and long prison terms were largely through the efforts of these brave souls. SANParks is the first to admit that the going is tough, but we remain optimistic that the tide will soon turn in our favour. Light always triumphs over darkness.
The Kruger National Park is a big laboratory, and as we speak, technologies are being tested, theories are being interrogated and all that is being offered as a solution is being explored, albeit not blindly. In the next 18 months SANParks should be able to turn around the situation.
It is no secret that a large number of rhino are killed in incursions emanating from Mozambique, which borders Kruger on the east. The government and SANParks have been hard at work to try to find lasting solutions to this problem, apart from increased border patrols by the South African army and rangers in a park as big as several European countries.
In May, Mozambique and South Africa signed a landmark anti-poaching agreement, which is in part aimed at preventing the country from being used as a transit point for rhino horns. Mozambique has moved to approve a law that criminalises poaching. Both these measures are fairly new, and their impact may not yet been felt, but they are commendable steps.
There is no doubt that greed is the main driver of rhino-poaching, not poverty as initially thought. Experience suggests that the illegal hunters rely on their well-honed bush skills, and guerrilla training from the country’s civil war. Syndicates are exploiting all those aspects.
The other key aspect is that there are villages in the Limpopo Transfrontier Park that are being used as springboards into the Kruger National Park. Those villages are not supposed to be there, according to the agreements signed by Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe on the dropping of the fences between them. The government is occupied with those issues as SANParks concentrates on its mandate of conserving the country’s natural heritage.
This is a fight we simply cannot afford to lose. All methods to save the species have to be considered in line with global best practice in conservation and not emotions.
However, anything to do with this historic park and thousands of its different species is bound to stir emotions, as South Africans and people abroad who have visited it over the years have developed a special bond with it. It’s a relationship we do not dare take for granted.
But it must be noted that some of these emotions, emerging from certain sectors of our society, appear to be misplaced, or guided by personal agendas and an entrenched sense of mistrust. Some individuals and groups have constantly waged public battles to portray the park in a negative light, casting doubt on our commitment to conservation.
These attacks have time and time again been proven to be meaningless hysteria. Furthermore, as in any crisis, the financial resources allocated to rhino conservation, thanks in part to private donations, have drawn the attention of organisations who seem hell-bent on exploiting the situation by coming up with costly measures to fight poaching. These have proved to be good only on paper and failed dismally when put to test, resulting in significant financial implications. These are some of the lessons we have learnt in our quest to save our heritage.
Our commitment to saving the rhino, one of Africa’s famed Big Five, is unquestionable. The Kruger will remain a premier destination for unique African safaris, offering lifelong wonderful memories for local and international visitors. Rhino species will be part of that experience for generations to come.
* Phaahla is the spokesman for SANParks