You will have heard that there is no ‘silver bullet’ to end rhino poaching and that it’s an incredibly complex battle. Never have truer words been spoken. Since the start of the poaching epidemic in 2008 South Africa has lost thousands of rhinos – a figure that, despite so much effort, remains far too high. Coupled with the increasing poaching figure comes the question – why after all this are we still losing more rhino than ever? Sadly, few people realise the challenges facing those on the frontlines. At this stage the poachers have the upper hand – they know when, they know how, and if need be they’ll just come back another day or hit a softer target. It literally is a case of one-by-one until there are none.
Poachers are resourceful and use every possible element to their advantage. Reserve size, terrain, vegetation, weather (extreme heat, cold, thunderstorms,) road networks and access control are some of the elements that go into their planning. A small team, usually two or three men but it varies, carrying a weapon, some large calibre ammunition, a backpack, an axe and knives, a few old cell phones and the desire to make money can wreck deadly havoc in a reserve. Equipped with basic staples of water, bread and perhaps a few cans of tinned fish, poachers infiltrate for up to a few days surviving on their bush skills and the bare minimum. If they manage to avoid being detected by rangers – like tracks found or gun shots heard – they could manage to kill a few rhinos per trip. In smaller reserves where the risk of detection is high, poachers orchestrate shallow hit and run attacks and will often be back over the fence before rangers even get to the scene.
Anti-poaching teams bear the full brunt of the poaching scourge, with rangers in targeted areas coming into contact with poachers on a daily or weekly basis. While rangers are governed by strict rules of engagement, poachers are armed (with weapons for their own personal defence – or the hunting rifle) and will not hesitate to shoot on sight. The community upliftment from poaching profits in some areas is evident, with poachers openly call themselves ‘professional hunters’ and poacher bosses becoming the untouchable “Robin Hoods” by creating “jobs” in their communities. In other areas through a westernised way of life, fast money and self-enrichment of big houses, fast cars, women and alcohol have attracted unsavoury elements into once peaceful, proudly traditional, poor but functioning communities. Contrary to popular belief, not all poachers are driven by poverty. Criminals involved in cash-in-transit heists, vehicle hijacking, ATM bombing, gunrunners, murder and other aggressive crimes have also become involved – significantly increasing the mortal threat to rangers and rhinos alike.
There is no shortage of new recruits and poachers are quickly replaced. Excellent co-ordination by poaching bosses and co-operative alliances between various poaching groups empower them to be more effective at poaching, enabled by deeply entrenched corruption at every level. This includes betrayal at the heart of our reserves – insider involvement that enables the poaching groups. Be it a guard at a gate that gives access to poachers, a ranger on the poacher payroll or a member of the kitchen staff that hides a weapon under a bed, the lure of “easy money” – and lots of it – can quickly sway a moral compass. Money made from illicit gain will always outweigh that of a legitimate wage, and the corroding of our institutions from internal corruption is very difficult to pinpoint let alone prove. The multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary, multi-agency law enforcement strategy combined with an all-of-government and whole-of-society approach required to finding lasting solutions to an ever-evolving problem like rhino poaching is so complex that even now – so many years down the line – we have made some (but too little) progress.
Ongoing, well-coordinated intelligence-led arrests aimed at poaching bosses and their local Vietnamese/Chinese buyers would go a long way to bringing the numbers down. Coupled with an expedited court process and strong sentences, our authorities could be sending out a strong message. Sadly, our failing systems, lack of political will and leadership, apathy and indifference, inter-agency politics, slow court processes and deeply embedded corruption are playing right into the hands of the poachers. It is here that our South African Police Services (SAPS) have yet to commit sufficient enforcement capacity. While the existing SAPS members working on cases – all unsung heroes – do their utmost to bring poachers to book, there are just far too few police members to deal with the existing case load let alone get on top of new cases. Daily challenges include lack of information sharing, trust issues and a high case load compounded by ongoing and relentless poaching activities – often with very little evidence left at the crime scene, which can be days to months old and at the mercy of the environment. Although there has always been great emphasis on Mozambique and the situation in the Kruger National Park, the damage being caused by entrenched local South African organised crime gangs is of grave concern.
All these factors that make up the complex web of challenges that need to be tackled. While our focus is on the future of the rhino, the bigger question will ultimately be – what will it take to secure a future for our wildlife? SRP.com will continue to channel funding towards specific projects, putting as much as we can into areas containing larger rhino populations that are managed by DEDICATED and RESPONSIBLE conservation minded rhino owners/custodians. There are many groups doing their best in areas where they can make a difference. Some days are soul destroying, the sheer vastness and cruelty of what we are up against is overwhelming, but no matter how bad it gets we have to keep on trying. No matter what, all of you, please don’t give up.