Johannesburg — EZEMVELO KZN Wildlife, the agency that is protecting the national parks in KwaZulu-Natal, is betting on its conservation measures to stem, at least in its parks, the sharp increase in the poaching of rhinoceros.
Rhino poaching has escalated sharply this year, with at least 125 rhinos (excluding orphans) lost so far, compared with 83 in 2008 and 122 last year.
Last Friday night, an eight-year-old white rhino was shot on private land with an AK-47 rifle at Karkloof Spa, at Otto’s Bluff near Pietermaritzburg.
The Wildlife & Environment Society of SA (Wessa) says even though the rate of rhino deaths is below the population’s replacement rate, the concern is the exponential increase in the poaching of these animals over the past four years.
Chris Galliers, from Wessa’s conservation unit, says possible reasons included the weak economy which had forced landowners to scale down security, organised crime in SA seeking alternative sources of income, closure of the specialised environmental investigations unit and lower vigilance caused by the relatively low incidence of poaching in the past few years, and rising demand for the horns.
Ezemvelo spokesman Jeff Gainsford says the provincial agency has lost 10 rhino to poachers this year, a figure that is more than expected.
While it is impossible to guard all of the 96000ha of land and 200km-300km of fencing under Ezemvelo’s watch, he says, the agency operates well-trained and armed antipoaching teams, as well as regular field rangers.
Often, even regular staff have no idea where the antipoaching teams are, he says.
Ezemvelo also works with the police, the national task team that has been set up to combat rhinoceros poaching, other central government agencies, South Africa National Parks and surrounding communities.
Asked whether Ezemvelo is increasing its antipoaching activities in the face of the recent increase in rhino deaths, he says they continuously operate “at a high pitch”.
For instance, several shoot- outs occurred with poachers in the past year, resulting in arrests and in some cases poachers were shot dead and some wounded.
No Ezemvelo staff were injured, he says.
Rhino horns have for centuries been used for traditional medicine purposes in the Far East, although there has been no scientific evidence to support their efficacy. The latest mistaken belief in the Far East that is of concern, is that the horns are a cure for cancer.
There are about 4000 white rhino in KwaZulu-Natal and 300 black rhino. Wessa says the recent arrest of 42 people involved in rhino poaching should be applauded, but more needs to be done to get poachers into the courts and given appropriate sentences.
“The last century of conservation has taught us that we cannot sit back on our laurels and think that we are in the clear”, Mr Galliers says.