By Amanda Watson
If the trade of rhino horn is not legalised – and farmers are not hopeful – the question of “what then?” is met with glum faces, shrugs, and silence from private owners. However, a precedent for private owners to sell horn illegally has been set.
Dawie Groenewald from Louis Trichardt, his wife Sariette and nine others may face more than 1 800 charges including racketeering, money laundering, illegal hunting of rhino and dealing in rhino horn.
Hugo Ras and his ten alleged cohorts, face 318 rhino poaching related charges for 24 dead rhino.
Those are only the two major alleged syndicates authorities know about. If trade isn’t approved, it is possible others could go the same route.
The war on poachers
Private owners – who own at least a sixth of South Africa’s herds – have lost 23 rhino so far this year according to numbers presented at a meeting of the Limpopo Rhino Security Group (LRSG).
There were 19 arrests and five firearms were recovered. Four of them were hunting rifles and one AK47.
In a worst case scenario based on last year’s figures, it is estimated that more than 320 rhino belonging to government have been poached this year.
If government feels armed incursions onto South African soil to strip it of assets and threaten its people doesn’t constitute war, private rhino owners have no choice but to find a different approach.
The Blouberg mountain range is reminiscent of the then Rhodesian bush war, with levels of security usually only seen in movies.
Watch towers 15m high, double, sometimes triple electric fences with daily sweeps of perimeter fences, these serve to make life difficult for would be poachers.
Given the atmosphere, it would be easy for a shoot first, chat later culture to develop, yet praise is high for the efforts of the local dog master, police officers and the Rhino Task Team.
However, government support is still only reactive. There are only two dog masters – the detectives of the police dog world – in the entire province and officials can take hours, even days before they attend a scene.
There was a time when trade in rhino was healthy, but these days’ buyers have to be able to afford the security bill, too. “We don’t have a choice but to open trade,” says oom Piet, who not only dehorns his animals to protect them from poachers, but from each other. “There is an incredible public misconception over dehorning rhino. When done properly, it’s no more invasive than shearing sheep.” It costs him R100 000 a month to protect an animal worth more dead than alive.
One owner keeps her pair of dehorned breeding rhino in a 20ha camp less than 50m away from her house. “Please don’t print my name, all poachers have to do is Google me and they will know exactly where I am,” she says. She keeps 24 hour armed guard watching over her rhino which are destined for a game lodge, if she can overcome her fear of releasing them.
“If we can’t sell the horn, then we have to look at surgically amputating it so it doesn’t grow back. I’d rather have that than have dead rhino,” she says, adding money was running out for the 24 hour guard and the rhino would have to be released into the park. “NGO’s and government don’t support us, we are doing this on own.”
Not all rhino die immediately
When poachers fail and leave a rhino wounded, massive costs are involved. On Facebook Provet Wildlife Services shared the story of a rhino they treated after had been shot in the neck. “Luckily it was just a flesh wound not damaging any vital organs,” wrote Dr Peter Rogers. Not so lucky was another rhino which was hit in the eye. Its thick skull deflected the bullet and it went on to smash the left foreleg of the animal, necessitating its put down. In neither case were the horns removed.
At the end of March NGO Saving the Survivors reported two bulls had been shot and survived, while another was killed.
A vanishing species
At least 82% of the 1215 rhino poached last year were female, insists Dirk Fick, a rhino owner in Limpopo. In its lifetime a cow will bear about 10 calves. “Even if it was only 800 cows, this means about 8 000 rhino were lost to future generations,” said Fick.
South African National Parks had not confirmed this number at the time of going to print. If true, this means the much talked about tipping point of rhino births vs deaths has long been passed.
“We never started farming with rhino because we wanted to make money; it was because we love the animal. It costs me R60 000 per animal per year, but I’m not allowed to make any money from it,” Fick says.
A small minority of private owners insist government can do more, if it wanted to. “The army is sitting on its [backside\ and getting fat. These mountains, these poachers, are perfect training grounds,” said the owner of an eco-lodge.
Nonetheless, it is likely Environmental Affairs minister Edna Molewa’s Committee of Inquiry into the feasibility – or not – of trade in rhino horn will come back with a yes vote, which will eventually be presented to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora next year.
Rhinoceros is the ultimate in game farming, says oom Piet. “It has character, it’s an animal which grows tame, and it’s intelligent. It’s a wonderful animal and we must look after it.”