The unofficial SA rhino death count for the year rose sharply to almost 120 animals yesterday – the first day of an apparent government news clampdown slammed as a “public relations disaster”.
On Monday, SA National Parks (SANparks) advised that it would not release any news on rhino poaching until further notice and that all queries would now be handled by Department of Environmental Affairs spokesman Albi Modise.
Modise told The Mercury last night that he did not have accurate figures on the latest death toll. Nor could he comment on reports that more rhinos had been killed in Kruger National Park over the past few days.
Nevertheless, The Mercury has confirmed from several sources that three dead rhinos were found at a privately owned game reserve near Hluhluwe on Monday.
It is also understood that the death toll for the first two-and-a-half months has now risen to around 119 rhinos – almost 40 more deaths than the last official figure of 80 deaths reported on February 29 in a SANParks statement.
Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, said last night that he could not understand the logic of SANParks’ refusal to comment on rhino deaths in the parks it controlled.
“The announcement on Monday has become a public relations disaster, especially as it comes on the heels of the secrecy bill. We are picking up gross indignation on social media networks today.”
Jones said even before the SANParks announcement, there was “almost extreme secrecy” about providing regular rhino death statistics.
“We now have an official information vacuum, but my information is that the current death toll is somewhere between 115 and 119.”
Fundisile Mketeni, deputy director-general of the national Department of Environmental Affairs also came in for flak in Cape Town yesterday during a sitting of Parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental affairs.
DA MP Gareth Morgan told the committee that even if there was a need to improve and co-ordinate government communications via a single source, the SANParks announcement had been handled badly.
Meanwhile, Sapa reports that two game farmers and two field guides are among five men arrested in connection with rhino poaching in northern KZN who will apply for bail tomorrow.
Farmers Ewart Potgieter, 34, from Louwsburg, and Riaan Vermaak, 32, from Newcastle, were arrested on March 4 after police set a trap for them, Beeld reported yesterday.
The two guides, Nkosinathi Sithole and Mduduzi Sithole, were both employed by the Mkhuze Falls private game reserve near Pongola, while the fifth suspect, Filemon Mbatha, was a farm worker.