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Greater transparency needed from a badly bruised ministry.

By May 30, 2020June 8th, 2020Editorial

Last week I reflected on South Africa’s dismal showing in The Breaking Point–Uncovering South Africa’s Shameful Live Wildlife Trade with China. This hard-hitting report will have left Minister Barbara Creecy and her colleagues in South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries smarting at the government’s failure to apply its strong regulatory powers and, by design or neglect, to allow thousands of animals to be exported to China.

To her credit, Minister Creecy did immediately meet with the authors of the report. But, somewhat predictably, little beyond a few vague assurances resulted. There was certainly no willingness to engage in policy discussions or a moratorium on the international export of live wild animals.

Ms. Creecy must have been relieved, therefore, to have had some diverting news. She was able to report that April this year “saw a marked decrease in rhino poaching countrywide. In Kruger, there were fewer rhinos poached than in any single month since September 2013.” She would be unwise to set too much store by this, however, as any respite might well prove to be very temporary. As travel restrictions ease as the country attempts to revive its economy in the wake of Covid-19, few would be surprised not to see a resurgence of rhino killings.

Neighboring Zimbabwe has already noted a spike in wildlife poaching as the wildlife management efforts have been redirected towards combating the spread of Covid-19. Let’s not forget that Zimbabwe’s poaching spike in 2008 was a warning of what was to follow in South Africa.

And although poaching is unlikely to reach the awful levels of 2013–2017, they will undoubtedly stretch the financing of anti-poaching efforts to the limit. Particularly so, given that meeting the costs of conservation security is so heavily dependent on tourism income, which for several months now has been non-existent. The economic knock-on of this is painfully evident in claims that as many as 600,000 tourism-related jobs are threatened in South Africa.

The same press release states that, by the end of 2019, the number of rhino births for the year in Kruger had equaled the combined natural and poaching deaths. It has been five long years since this last happened—a sad reflection on how ruthless and prolonged the attack on rhinos has been.

During the 11 years from 2009 to the end of 2019, some 8,372 rhinos fell to poachers in South Africa. A total of 5,048 of them happened in the Kruger National Park. There would, of course, also have been natural mortalities. These would have been higher than the average because of the twin stresses of prolonged drought and the rhinos’ susceptibility to tuberculosis.

Furthermore, there is collateral damage from poaching. Many young calves would have perished alongside their mothers. A number of the slaughtered adult females would have been pregnant at the time of their death, and some of the unborn offspring would have been females. All brutally removed from the potential breeding pool for no reason other than insatiable greed.

The effects of the poaching scourge are sobering.

In 2011, South African National Parks (SANParks) reported that the Kruger’s White Rhinos appeared to have leveled off at approximately 10,600 animals. Then, in 2016, a survey using “the scientifically accepted block count method” recorded that a total of 6,649 – 7,830 White Rhinos lived in the Park, a drop of more than 1,600 from the previous year. And the decline continued throughout 2017. At the end of that year, White Rhino numbers in the Kruger had dropped to somewhere between 4,759 and 5,532 individuals. The shocking reality is that in six years, Kruger’s White Rhino population fell from 10,600 to as few as 4,759—a 55 percent crash.

Some commentators feel that even these figures are high. In 2015, Dr. Salomon Joubert, former head of Kruger, estimated that there were only some 6,000 White Rhinos. Wildlife vet Dr. Kobus du Toit was even more pessimistic, saying that he put the total population at somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000.

Black Rhinos in Kruger are far fewer in number and have fared better, and it seems that they were less affected by the recent drought conditions. The count for 2017 was 427 to 586. These are the descendants of a founder population of 90 individuals originally from KwaZulu Natal.

Kruger’s conservation team stands by their grid pattern population counting methods, but these have been questioned along with the length of time between annual counts and the release of the results. It is understandable, therefore, that there is a great deal of speculation as to the “real” population figures for White Rhinos in the Park.

If Ms. Creecy wishes to regain some much-needed kudos for her rather bruised ministry, she must reverse its historical unwillingness to share statistics timeously and openly. Not to do so will only lead to further, mostly negative, speculation.

Her most sensible course of action would be to show greater transparency in all matters to do with her department. And in respect of rhinos, to allow an independent population count to take place in Kruger.

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