Under the title Progress, SANParcs 2022 Annual Report has a deeply disturbing and immensely sad target claimed as a success: only 195 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2021 – an average of one every two days. The success, it seems, is that the year before it was a rhino every 36 hours.
In its reports and statements, SANParks acknowledges poaching issues, but the general tone is “don’t panic, we have it under control.” They did not do it. Kruger is bleeding rhinos and needs sutures – fast.
The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) revealed that in the first six months of this year, 82 rhinos were killed in the park. If the trend continues, the year will end with a death rate equal to 2021.
The truth is that unless Kruger does something quick, the rhinos could be gone from the park within four years. That’s far shorter than the lifespan of most Kruger rhinos.
Since 2009 – just 13 years ago – the number of rhinos has fallen from 11,420 to 2,458 and this year it will continue to fall. During this period, the number of poached rhinos was double the existing population.
The aggregate numbers are shocking. Chances are Kruger’s rhinos are on the verge of functional extinction, as these charts clearly show.
Where are the problems?
What will it take to bend the curve upward away from zero? The answer can only come from understanding the reasons for the decline.
SANParks will indicate forces beyond its control – and they are considerable.
Like a snake eating its own tail, the problem begins and ends with a seemingly insatiable appetite in Asia for rhino horn, which is considered both a status symbol and a cure for various ailments (it’s not the case).
This has led to a situation where highly organized international crime syndicates supply weapons and logistics to local intermediaries who entice poor young men from communities on both sides of the park to poach rhinos.
The park is sandwiched between millions of mostly poor people – Mozambicans and South Africans – with few job prospects. It is fertile ground for the recruitment of poachers.
Kruger Park also has unfenced borders with a parallel park in Mozambique, but rangers following poachers cannot cross the line.
In his book, Rhino Warswritten with Tony Park, General Johan Jooste – who was chief of the Kruger rangers from 2013 to 2016 – was told by a ranger: “They laughed at us, general. As soon as they crossed the border, they stopped and started greeting us, shouting insults. They know we can’t run after them.
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However, these problems alone cannot be the only reason for the precipitous decline of rhinos. There are also serious internal problems, mainly, says Jooste, related to aptitude, capacity, integrity and vision.
A retired military officer, Jooste was appointed chief ranger in 2013 as rhino poaching began to escalate. Donations formed the backbone of his development strategy and with them he created a highly trained paramilitary force out of the ranger corps. He also brought high-tech surveillance equipment.
Jooste negotiated a R225m anti-poaching grant from a billionaire Howard Buffetusing it to create an effective joint command center to gather and coordinate intelligence against poachers.
Then, in 2016, Buffett canceled more than half of the grant, citing the lack of a reporting structure with clearly defined roles and lack of internal project management capacity. Millions were wasted on internal investigations into this loss.
The collapse of the Intensive Protection Areas for rhinos – set up by Jooste during his tenure and funded by Buffett – began to crumble after he left. They did it, he says, because Kruger and ranger leaders failed “to see them through and find a way to make them work or come up with viable alternatives.”
It was “an abdication of duty and a lack of courage.”
Buffett’s legacy had been received with great fanfare, though obviously not universally within the ranks of SANParks’ leadership.
Buffett’s generosity was based on his personal esteem for Jooste and, according to the book, Rhino Warsit angered those who resented being beholden to a wealthy American who had made it clear that his largesse would only be in place as long as Jooste – the white ex-apartheid general – remained at the helm.
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Jooste resigned under circumstances he is unwilling to discuss; details of which are largely absent from his book. It refers to “problems”. The park has clearly not only lost necessary funding, but also a key strategist in the rhino war. One of the issues, it seems, was the integrity test.
“Exco members feel you are acting outside of your mandate in pursuing corruption after integrity testing,” he was told. Integrity testing was the euphemism for Kruger’s staff polygraph testing. From the start, Jooste had insisted on this intervention and was the first to submit to the process.
Integrity testing was not popular, but Jooste felt it was necessary.
Poachers paid rangers to locate rhinos and some were even involved in poaching. These included Rodney Landela, whom Jooste had promoted to regional ranger.
Unions were also opposed to the polygraph test and it was suspended during the Covid pandemic. SANParks has committed to renewing it, but has not yet done so. It is unclear whether an integrity testing proposal was finally submitted to the SANParks board in November.
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In his book, Jooste says that testing without measuring the results is pointless. Although Kruger management knows that the leaks at rhino sites are coming from staff, they seem to be dragging their feet for integrity testing to happen.
Kruger also has a shortage of rangers. More than 80 vacancies have not been filled this year despite a commitment to do so obtained by DA Shadow Minister David Bryant.
They had not been filled for several years. SANParks explained the problem as a budget issue, despite spending millions on anti-poaching initiatives.
It is unclear and counter-intuitive that these positions are not budgeted for and filled as a fundamental step in the war on poaching.
The overworked Kruger rangers – who are the heroes of this story – must have felt underappreciated, seeing the millions spent by SANParks sending 39 delegates to the CITES Congress in Panama this year – and likely more to the climate change talks in Egypt .
Beyond Kruger Park, rhino conservation is a different story and is in an intensive planning phase. Although the park has the largest population of black and white rhinos, around 60% of the national species are in private hands and many more are found in national and provincial parks other than Kruger.
According to SANParks’ annual report, strongholds beyond Kruger are being built, though it doesn’t say how far along it is or quite how this program will work. It is clearly not in the rhinos’ safety interest to say where they are or will be.
There will be a reaction from environmentalists. They point out that entrusting rhinos to individuals has led to the crisis in the farming of rhinos for their horns, which continue to “leak” to the black market. This fuels both Asian demand and poaching. The line between conservation and commercialization is thin.
In Rhino Wars, Jooste writes about Kruger: “A decade after the start of the campaign against the rhinos, I have realized that we cannot afford another 10 years like this, even with our successes. We must avoid another “crazy train” situation at all costs.
If statistics are to be believed, this train without brakes has already left Kruger Park station. DM/OBP
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