We’ve seen many rhino anti-poaching organisations emerge since the epidemic of rhino killings hit South Africa in 2008. The fight against rhino poaching has been a long, gut-wrenching and often contentious battle, but it remains a fight that is very necessary.
Rhino poaching was finally declared a priority crime in SA in 2009, after the numbers of rhino killed rose with each passing year. In 2014, anti-poaching communities were stunned when the stats revealed that 1215 rhino were poached during that year.
However, it hasn’t been all bad news. By 2015 we finally saw a decline in rhino deaths across South Africa. Documented by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), 1175 rhinos were poached in 2015. This number declined to 1054 in 2016, 1028 in 2017 and 769 in 2018.
Everybody is relieved at these statistics, but how was this achieved and who or what contributed to this downward trend? South Africa has been the focus of much anxious attention from the conservation community, since the country has the largest population of white rhinos.
Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, a top veterinarian, says rhino poaching is an important topic that is very close to his heart.
“I think there can be several drivers to the downward trend in rhino poaching numbers. Some very traceable and others not. Some drivers are education of communities, effective anti-poaching programs and less rhinos being available to poach,” he says. Steenkamp is a qualified veterinarian and a member of the Royal College of Veterinarians.
Supporting the rangers
Rhinos have been poached at an alarming rate in South Africa and rangers, reserve managers, and security personnel have put their lives on the line to protect the animals. These anti-poaching teams have been crucial in curbing the numbers of rhino killings that are largely caused by the demand of rhino horns by businessmen, celebrities and government officials in Vietnamese society. The horns are either seen as a status symbol or used for its supposed health benefits.
Poachers are often highly skilled and armed with guns, making them extremely dangerous. The rangers face daunting challenges out in the field. They really are the unsung heroes of this narrative.
Although poachers’ predominant goal is to kill rhinos, rangers have become targets too. They also have to deal with very grizzly and highly disturbing scenes at the site of poaching incidents.
Steenkamp says that it was a definite step in the right direction when state funding for anti-poaching activities increased significantly. “So much money is being spent in this field, it is astonishing.”
Sharing Steenkamp’s sentiments is the chief director of communications at DEA, Albi Modise. He says the DEA, provincial conservation authorities and the South African National Parks have contributed financially towards anti-poaching initiatives. The South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force have also contributed manpower and equipment.
However, the drop in poaching figures could also be the result of fewer rhinos being available now to poach, Steenkamp says. “Heavy poaching over the past number of years have reduced the breeding individuals to such a level that so many fewer rhinos are being born annually. This is very disconcerting.”
Collaborative law enforcement
South Africa has been criticized for the lenient sentences that poachers have gotten away with, but according to Modise there has been a concerted effort to change this. In a recent statement, the outgoing Minister of Environmental Affairs, Ms Nomvula Mokonyane, also attributed the drop in rhino poaching to this effort, known as the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros Approach.
“The decline is not only indicative of the successful implementation of the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros Approach countrywide, but also a confirmation of the commitment and dedication of the men and women working at the coalface to save the species,” Mokonyane said.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) also invoked a wide range of legislation to enact charges upon those involved in rhino poaching offences. This collaboration between government agencies has boosted the fight against rhino poaching.
There have been a number of persecutions finalised, with sentences ranging from 10 to 33 years imprisonment. In 2016, 680 arrests were made, 317 more than the previous year. In a media statement published on the DEA website on 13 February 2019, there were 318 rhino poaching-related cases on the court roll involving 645 accused and 897 charges. Of these cases, 275 were ready to go to trial.
Although the future of the rhino rests on the shoulders of our rangers on the front lines, their efforts are useless without support from government, conservation organisations and local communities.
The decrease in the number of poached rhinos since 2015 is also thanks to like-minded individuals and companies who are dedicated to making a difference to the rhino conservation cause.
Thanks to a broad community of people, organisations, businesses and government institutions that have pledged their support, rhinos across South Africa and Africa stand a better chance of survival.
Steenkamp says the education of communities has also had an impact in decreasing rhino poaching. “Education of communities around areas where rhinos need to be protected and education programs in consumer countries have been pivotal,” he says.
International organisations have also been champions in the fight against rhino poaching, through donations, sending support teams and supplying required equipment.
Although the downward trend in poaching is worth celebrating, our rhino species are not out of the woods yet. Let’s take the time to celebrate the successes even as we redouble our efforts and pledge to continue the fight.