If this is the best you can do you’ll never beat the poachers
One of South Africa’s most iconic species is facing a devastating threat; a threat that – if unchecked – could all but wipe out both species of African rhinoceros.
For some time now, conservationists and activists have been trying to make the world – and in particular the governments of the countries where poaching has now become endemic – wake up to the severity of the situation.
Those of us who would dearly love to be able to show our grandchildren the magnificent spectacle of elephants and rhinoceros living feely in their natural habitat are left to wonder why is it that countries that earn many millions of dollars in revenue from wildlife tourism each year remain reluctant to commit the necessary resources to combating the problem?
Over 700 rhinos lost to poaching
So far this year South Africa alone has lost more than 700 rhinoceros to poaching and the rate at which they are being slaughtered is accelerating.
Over the past week I’ve been on safari in Sabi Sands and Madikwe Game Reserve. Unfortunately, far from being encouraged by the efforts being made to save the rhinoceros, I have been shocked, demoralised and disappointed by the ineffectiveness of the measures in place to combat poaching.
At Sabi Sands the security is in the hands of a private contractor. They are supposed to patrol the reserve and check all traffic in and out.
When we arrived nobody gave us a second look. When we left we were asked to open the boot of the car, the guard glanced inside and slammed it shut. He didn’t look under the bags or in the bags. We could have had kilos of rhino horn hidden in there and he wouldn’t have spotted it. He didn’t even look inside the car itself.
This casual attitude did not come as a surprise. Talking to our ranger we’d learned that this was the norm. He himself had gone through the gate to take two rifles into Skukuza for repair; the rifles were lying on the back seat in their sleeves in plain view and the guard didn’t notice. The passage of all firearms in and out of the gate is supposed to be recorded.
He told me that another ranger had an even more ridiculous experience. He’d been travelling through the gate and had actually said to the guard “I’ve got a rifle in the back of the car.” The guard had just laughed and said something to the effect of: “Yeah, sure.”
Convinced that for the poaching to be so rampant there must be collusion from staff working at lodges inside the reserve rules have been put in place to try and control movement within the reserve.
A curfew has been put in place prohibiting traffic inside the reserve after 11pm. This has done nothing to slow down the poaching but it has effectively killed the social life of staff who can no longer enjoy a relaxing night out with friends at a neighbouring lodge.
There is a plan being considered that will prohibit local staff from driving their cars into the reserve at all. Instead they will have to leave them at car parks by the gates. The lodge management will then have to drive back and forth to collect and deliver their staff from the gate.
Just how absurd such measures are is highlighted by the fact that the company with the responsibility of providing gate security has declared that they do not have the resources to provide a 24 hour service. Therefore between the hours of 7-10 each day, there will be no security at the gates.
They haven’t even got the sense to vary the hours during which the gates will be unmanned; it is the same time every day and everyone knows it. That’s as good as sending out an invitation to the poachers.
No better at Madikwe
The day we arrived in Madikwe Game Reserve, a flagship game reserve in the North West of the country, close to the border with Botswana, we were told that a black rhino had been killed by poachers 2 days earlier. Our ranger took us to see the carcass just in case there were scavengers feeding on it.
There weren’t, but it wasn’t the dead body of a precious black rhino that shocked us. What shocked us was that this rhino had been killed about 300 metres from the North West Parks headquarters building.
Come on. How can you let that happen?
If the poachers feel confident enough to commit their crimes within sight of the park headquarters what does that tell you?
It didn’t get any better when we left the park either. We arrived at the gate and were simply asked where we had come from. We gave the guard the name of our lodge and handed over the stamped entry pass. She just said “Have a safe trip.” Didn’t ask to look in the car, didn’t ask us to open the boot; nothing.
Do they think that poachers are going to be carrying signs?
Blaming it all on demand from Asia is a cop out
It’s all very well to lay the blame at the door of the Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai for whom rhino horn is seen as an essential part of traditional medicine. Whilst it is true that if there was no demand then rhino horn would not be more valuable than gold and the huge rewards for poaching would not exist. But, no matter how hard we try, overturning centuries of custom and superstition is going to be a slow process and the wild rhinoceros will be extinct long before that goal is achieved.
It is time for tough measures
I’m not suggesting for a minute that defeating the poachers is an easy job, but it would certainly be easier if those charged with safeguarding the nation’s wildlife took the matter seriously enough to commit adequate resources to the task.
Now that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is not engaged in military action in neighbouring countries why not get them involved? The former SADF had a reputation as some of the best bush soldiers in the world.
In neighbouring Botswana the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) is actively engaged in anti-poaching operations and it is noticeable that poachers are far less successful there than in South Africa.
Poachers who don’t give second thought to taking on park rangers might not be so willing to come up against the SANDF.
One thing is for certain; if the situation is allowed to continue as it is there will soon be no more rhinoceros in the wild.