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South Africa’s Rhino War—real progress or simply marking time?

White Rhino, South Africa. Image: Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock

The Rhino Review and Shannon Elizabeth Foundation newsletter team took a well-earned break over much of last December and January this year. So this is our first, of what will now be a monthly newsletter for 2023. It seems appropriate that we start the year with an assessment of  South Africa’s war on rhino poaching and a few of the stories that caught our attention and you might have missed over the past while.

On Tuesday this week, Barbara Creecy, the South African minister for Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, released the official rhino poaching statistics for 2022. On the surface, her story seems to hold some encouragement in the decade-and-a-half war that has seen the butchering of at least 9,786 Black and White Rhinos in South Africa—last year, 448 rhinos were killed for their horns against 451 in 2021.

While the loss of rhinos didn’t rise, let’s face it, staying pretty well the same is hardly a statistic worth crowing about. And, yes, although a 35 percent drop in the poaching rate in the Kruger National Park is good news, in the country’s Kwa Zulu-Natal reserves, particularly in the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, the rate soared by nearly 140 percent from 102 poaching deaths in 2021 to 244 in 2022. Clearly, the forces of poaching are mobile and adaptive, attacking where the defenses are perceived to be weakest.

In her statement, Ms. Creecy said: “The steady decline in rhino poaching in national parks [Kruger, in other words] is related to the relentless war that has been waged by our fearsome antipoaching machinery as well as a comprehensive dehorning programme. This year’s outcome shows that collaboration between conservation authorities, the South African Police Services, revenue authorities and international agencies works.”

What she fails to mention, is that of course rhino deaths in Kruger have been fewer. How could it be otherwise, given that the park’s White Rhinos, always far more populous than the Black Rhinos, have crashed in number by some 80 percent? Not to detract from the heroic work done by so many rangers and antipoaching units working in Kruger, the fact remains that there are far fewer rhinos to hunt down and they are probably harder to find as a result.

Tellingly, she added, “We believe that if provincial authorities in KwaZulu-Natal follow our model, they will be able to significantly curb rhino poaching in their provincial parks before it is too late.” I am a bit perplexed, though, as to why there is any “if” about it? Kwa-Zulu-Natal is as much part of South Africa as any other province. So, if a “model” works for Kruger, which sprawls across parts of the Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, it should indeed be applied without delay and everywhere, including the reserves of KwaZulu-Natal. No questions asked.

This situation speaks volumes about what really needs to be done. When Major-General Johan Jooste was heading SANParks’ efforts to push back against poaching in Kruger, he initiated systems of intelligence sharing between the various players in Kruger’s security network. More about Jooste’s contribution to fighting Wildlife Crime in Kruger can be found in Rhino War: A General’s Bold Strategy in the Kruger National Parkhis thoroughly recommended memoir (written with Tony Park) of his time in the hot seat. Jooste was mandated to “go military” in his pledge to turn Kruger’s ranger corps into a paramilitary force that would take the fight to the poachers. In so doing, he changed Kruger’s ranger unit from a bunch of under-appreciated, demoralized men and women into what has been described as one of, if not the finest, antipoaching teams on the African continent.

In my opinion, what is needed now, is to take the general’s crime-fighting “model” and apply it to the entire country, with no ifs and buts accepted. Poachers are no longer a motley crew of crudely armed desperados but now, more often than not, well organized into teams that include highly skilled shooters using sophisticated combat weapons. These units are the foot soldiers of the local kingpins of organized crime, networked into the dark and ruthless world of global crime rings for whom rhino horn and ivory are just part of a product line that includes gun-running, drugs, and human trafficking.

The only way of dealing with this is via a Jooste-style Kruger “war room,” a task force organized on a national scale cooperating with international crime fighters such as Interpol, Europol, The FBI, The UK’s NCA, UNODC, and Traffic. The importance of this cannot be overstated. As Crawford Allan, Traffic’s Senior Director on Wildlife Crime, says: “Wildlife crime goes beyond conservation issues, it is also a threat to national and regional security, a barrier to sustainable human development and a fuel for corruption.”

Corruption is, of course, key in any discussion about curbing rhino horn poaching. And while I agree with Crawford’s assessment of wildlife crime as a “fuel for corruption,” I would also argue the reverse—that corruption is, in the first instance, an equally integral part of enabling wildlife crime.

The scourge of corruption, sadly, is no stranger to South Africa and, indeed, almost everywhere in Africa. However, in the context of rhino horn smuggling, the nefarious dealings of criminals in South Africa are of prime importance. If, for example, a “war room” scenario could be a reality in the fight against horn trafficking, how much harder will that task force’s job be in light of a corrupt environment? Corruption is the enemy of trust, and trust among crime-fighting institutions locally and abroad is central to success.

Corruption is often downplayed among the hard-core proponents of a legal trade in rhino horn as a revenue-earning solution. This is understandable as corruption is justifiably put forward as a compelling argument against being able to operate a “clean” trading platform. But there is no gainsaying the awful truth that, in some circles, South Africa is at the threshold of becoming a “mafia state.”

In The Conversation, political scientist Sandy Africa refers to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime’s report that South Africa has increasingly become a center of organized crime, transcending national boundaries.

Africa writes: “The picture emerging from the report is that there are organised networks inside and outside the state that enable, facilitate and exploit opportunities for private gain. Or, they exercise unfair advantage in economic activity in the public and private sectors, using coercive methods … The areas of public life where criminals exploit or intimidate their way into influence are growing. In recent times grand-scale crime has seeped through to healthcareeducation and parastatals. Speaking out against malfeasance comes at a high price.” There can be no doubt that conservation is one of those “areas of public life.”

Such “illicit economic activities” have become so intertwined with South Africa’s dual economic system comprising a”first,” or formal economy and a “second,” or informal economy, that Prof. Africa describes the complex overlap between licit and illicit as the country’s “third” economy. What an indictment.

The seduction of the state and other public organizations is so pernicious that the breakdown of trust in some areas seems almost irreparable. For example, I sense that some private rhino owners are becoming reluctant to report poaching incidents as this would perhaps draw attention from suspect elements within crime-fighting elements that are part of the problem rather than the solution.

Adding to the difficulty of assessing how well or poorly we are doing in the rhino war is that the figures touted in Ms. Creecy’s release are simply a reflection of what happened last year. As stated earlier, the poaching war machine is better armed and organized than ever before and has become rapidly adaptive to changing circumstances. Anyone with half an eye on conservation could have predicted the onslaught in KwaZulu-Natal, where poaching started to look ominous at least seven years ago when 116 rhinos were lost in 2015. With the writing so clearly on the wall and having learned the lessons of Kruger, why has it only now been suggested that “if” KwaZulu-Natal follows Kruger’s model, some benefit might be seen? Everyone knows the province’s reserves are in disarray after years of incompetent management. Indeed antipoaching strategies as a national priority should have been taken out of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s hands years ago.

As noted, things can take a turn for the worse very quickly in the battle against rhino poachers, so while we pat ourselves on the back for winning some of last year’s skirmishes, mayhem can be raising its head in other parts of the country. Take the Eastern Cape, for example. Follow the poaching stats for 2021 and 2022, and you will see a zero – no rhinos poached. Job well done? Maybe? But, in the first weeks of 2023, rumors abound of severe attacks in the province’s private reserves. There can be little doubt that experienced poaching gangs who have learned their trade elsewhere are now casting their predatory eyes across the dense thickets of the Eastern Cape. Do we now hope for an immediate response, or are we, a couple of years from now, going to be seeing the hard lessons experience in Kruger and KwaZulu-Natal still yet to be learned.

Furthermore, for any objective, meaningful assessment of rhino poaching in South Africa, we need transparency. The massacre of rhinos in the field is only one aspect of the war. Only when we can put up-to-the-minute poaching stats together with an honest audit of rhino-horn stocks in government and private hands and an accurate census of the country’s rhino numbers will we really be able to assess the appalling damage inflicted on one of the country’s priceless natural assets.

Make no mistake, in the best of circumstances, fighting any element of wildlife crime is a hard job, but add corruption, obfuscation, and incompetence into the mix, and it becomes nigh on impossible.