Twenty-four rhino carcasses have been found at various nature reserves and parks in South Africa since 1 December, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment confirmed on Tuesday.
The department said seven carcasses were found in Mpumalanga, seven in the Kruger National Park, six were discovered in KwaZulu-Natal and four in the Western Cape.
After experiencing a brief decline in poaching in 2020, due largely to border closures and lockdowns as a result of COVID mitigation measures, poaching incidents are again on the rise. The loss of 24 rhinos in a two week period is a stark reminder of the delicate balance rhinos face for survival.
“We are at a perilous tipping point. If deaths eclipse births, South Africa’s treasured rhinos will once again be in serious jeopardy,” said Nina Fascione, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF). “The South African government must act quickly to reduce corruption at all levels and actively arrest and prosecute the criminal syndicates that are killing rhinos for their horns.”
In February, 2021, South African National Parks (SANParks) released a report indicating that the total white rhino population in Kruger National Park – once thought to be the largest population of white rhinos in the world – had plummeted 67% from about 10,621 in 2011 to just 3,549 individuals in 2019.
Authorities, including IRF, warned at the time that poaching would likely ramp up in other areas of South Africa with rhinos harder to find in Kruger. The poaching incidents over the past two weeks confirm this suspicion, as they occurred in six different locations spread out around the country and included private game reserves.
The continued loss of tourism revenue due to the global pandemic and the halt of international travel has already impacted reserves and SANParks alike, and will continue to place strains on rhino protection and monitoring activities.
While the act of poaching is often the most visible and most readily understood part of wildlife crime, it is the transport, trade and sale of illegal rhino horn – from the protected area, across provincial boundaries and national borders and all the way to the end consumer – that makes this type of crime not just possible, but also profitable.
Although the rhino horn trade is controlled by global organized crime syndicates, often those arrested are local poachers and low level operators. It is vital to also build cases against traders, sellers and higher level operatives to begin to dismantle criminal networks and secure severe criminal penalties to disincentivize poachers.
Corruption is a growing issue in South Africa. The most publicized cases are rangers or other park or game reserve staff that assist poachers or participate in a poaching incident. Though this happens, corruption extends into higher levels as well, including the police force and judicial system.
Corruption at higher levels can cause delays in trials and derail prosecution. Witness intimidation is common and as trials are delayed, many witnesses become unavailable or do not recall the incident.
Even when arrests have been made, cases drag on for years, allowing criminals to continue their illegal activities. “Rangers put their lives on the line every single day to save rhinos and other wildlife. However, poaching is a policing issue and rangers can’t do it alone,” said Fascione. “There needs to be a great deal of inter-cooperation between government departments, including environmental protection agencies, police and the court systems, which often operate in silos with their own mandates.”
IRF looks to the government of South Africa to continue to take actions:
- Maintain and increase where needed support for protection and monitoring activities in all SANparks.
- Foster coordination between key government agencies tasked with enforcing wildlife crime.
- Combat corruption and organized crime by building cases and prosecuting high level crime bosses. Enforce stiff sentences for wildlife trafficking as a deterrent.
- Proactively partner with game reserves to implement measures to stop the potential spread of the poaching crisis.
Greater collaboration also extends to the organizations working inside and outside the country. We must work together to ensure that limited resources are put towards the most good for the people of South Africa and the wildlife that is admired around the world.
“We join the public in the outrage over the deaths of these rhinos,” said Fascione. “It is critical that we turn this outrage into action to reverse these worrisome trends as quickly as possible to save South Africa’s rhinos.”