Cape Town — A R2 million reaction unit is to be set up to tackle environmental crimes, especially the alarming number of rhino killings.
Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica made the announcement during a media briefing following her Budget Vote speech on Friday.
She said so far this year 55 rhinos had been killed for their horns, and added that based on estimates gleaned from previous years, the department expected 163 rhino to be killed this year.
She said the National Wildlife Reaction Unit would be used to complement the work the department’s environmental inspectors, commonly referred to as Green Scorpions, were doing to curbing smuggling.
Though she couldn’t say when the unit would be launched, she said she had seen the organogram of the National Wildlife Reaction Unit and was “happy” with it.
While poachers continued to target the Kruger National Park, as well as reserves and national parks in KwaZulu-Natal, the Deputy Director-General of Biodiversity and Conservation Fundisile Mketeni said a surprising new trend was that poachers were now also hitting parks in the North West and the Eastern Cape.
Poachers often visited parks and reserves and recruited staff or coaxed communities who lived adjacent to parks, when it came to hiring someone to shoot the rhinos, he said, adding that the syndicates operated from either Johannesburg or the Far East.
Some staff from the Kruger National Park that had been recruited by poachers were behind bars, said Mketeni.
He said the department would continue to engage with those nations in the Far East through the help of Interpol and would follow up on the dockets as there were often problems that hindered a case before it appeared in court.
While the number of black and white rhinos in the country currently stood at 20 000 rhinos, the rhino population in Africa was decreasing in Africa in general and South Africa now had the largest population on the continent, ahead of East Africa and Botswana.
Sonjica also announced today in her budget vote speech that time slots for holding environmental court cases would be reopened.
The first such court would open on May 20 at the Johannesburg Regional Court and the special court would also be held at the Nelspruit Regional Court, the Durban Regional Court and the Hermanus District Court.
Sonjica said 300 prosecutors and over 200 magistrates had been trained on environmental crimes in preparation for the reopening of the special court and manuals on environmental crimes had been distributed to the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA).
On a more positive note, Sonjica said the department would be donating 32 black rhinos to Tanzanian wildlife authorities.
Black rhino are not indigenous to South Africa and the 32, from the Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth, are offspring of eight black rhinos that were brought to the country two decades ago.
“This is one of those fairy tale endings where an alien species has become a gene pool to restock depleted ranges,” she said.