Furious Kruger Park officials say a mountain of money has done little to fight rhino poaching because efforts are failing on the ground, writes Pearlie Joubert
Almost half a billion rand in donor funds pumped into the Kruger National Park has done little to slow the slaughter of its rhinos.
In the 2014/15 financial year, national parks authority SANParks – with the department of environmental affairs (DEA), the Green Scorpions and other organisations concerned with rhino protection – received more than R437.7 million to halt the devastating rhino-poaching scourge in the country. The Kruger Park, where most rhino poaching occurs, received most of the money.
Yet SANParks is losing on average three rhinos a day in the park, home to 82% of Africa’s remaining rhino population. Between 2013 and last year, poaching in the park increased by 21%.
Where the cash came from
SANParks, the DEA, Ezemvelo in KwaZulu-Natal and the Peace Parks Foundation received:
. R175.9 million from the Dutch postcode lottery;
. R134.4 million – including R129.6 million from Howard Buffett’s foundation – ring-fenced for the Kruger Park. Buffett is an American businessman, farmer, philanthropist and conservationist, and the son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett;
. R110 million from the US department of state, which was given to SANParks for equipment;
. R46.9 million from the Global Environment Facility, a partnership between 183 countries to address global environmental issues;
. R31.7 million in private donations;
. R27.5 million from the US department of state to nongovernmental organisations to run anti-rhino-poaching programmes;
. R12.7 million from the Swedish postcode lottery; and
. R3.1 million from Bavaria Breweries, the Adopt a Rhino campaign and other small donors.
This amount excludes R21.38 million worth of “in kind” donations – usually goods and services instead of money – which was made to various institutions, including the DEA, the Green Scorpions, the World Wide Fund for Nature and research body the CSIR.
36 rhinos poached in one weekend
Despite creating a security cordon, called the “Berlin wall of security”, around the Kruger Park’s intensive protection zone in the south of the reserve, the park is still losing record numbers of rhinos to poachers – who feed highly lucrative markets mainly in Vietnam and China.
On Monday last week, 10 rhino carcasses were found in the park, and two weeks ago 36 were found after a particularly bloody weekend.
Officially, the country lost 1 215 rhinos last year – 827 in the Kruger Park.
In April, Environment Minister Edna Molewa told a press briefing the country had lost 212 Kruger rhinos and a further 331 countrywide in the first four months of this year. SANParks is no longer releasing weekly rhino poaching figures.
“Criminals ... are also consumers of the information we release,” Molewa said at the time. Figures should not be given as “fodder to organised criminal syndicates”.
However, City Press was told by two senior SANParks officials, who asked not to be named, that Molewa’s figures were “inaccurate” and the “real figure is closer to 500 [Kruger] rhinos shot and killed this year already”.
Despite the minister claiming that the birth rates of rhinos have increased, the rhino population runs a real risk of not surviving the relentless poaching despite the millions of rands being thrown at the problem.
Two years ago, scientists warned that the Kruger’s black rhinos would reach a “tipping point” – when the death rate exceeded the birth rate – next year and white rhinos would face the same in 2020 given the current poaching trajectory.
Molewa said in April that there were between 8 000 and 9 000 white rhinos left in the Kruger Park. But a senior scientist working for SANParks told City Press this figure “is the best-case scenario and likely inflated by about 2 000 rhinos”.
Rhino expert, biologist and wildlife veterinarian Kobus du Toit said Molewa’s count was “impossible”, telling investigative wildlife site Oxpeckers there were only between 1 500 and 3 000 white rhinos left in the Kruger Park.
Losing the war on poachers
A year ago, rhino poaching was declared a national priority crime when Molewa, national police commissioner General Riah Phiyega and head of detectives Lieutenant General Vinesh Moonoo announced a range of measures, including targeting syndicates, relocating rhinos to safer areas in the Kruger Park and other parks, selling rhinos for their own safety to private owners to develop other growth nodes, and training prosecutors and making magistrates aware of the problem.
By that time, a joint task force of rangers and a large group of defence force soldiers had been trained and deployed in the park under command of retired Major General Johan Jooste.
The national rhino operations centre in the Kruger Park was built and set up to centralise and strengthen the coordination of antipoaching operations and activities.
In February this year, the Hawks’ new head, Major General Mthandazo Ntlemeza, told the parliamentary portfolio committee on police that he had sent a team of investigators – the national intervention unit – to the Kruger Park. “We are going after the kingpins ... and to break the backs of syndicates,” he said at the time.
However, City Press was told by three officials working directly on poaching in the Kruger that not a single rhino-horn poaching syndicate had been uncovered in which the poachers were convicted and jailed.
A police operation on a Chinese syndicate working in Johannesburg, dubbed Operation Shotgun, ended with one Chinese national having charges withdrawn against him and the other two, Gongchen Chen and Hunghai Ma, paying fines of R30 000. All three were arrested when they bought rhino horn from the police at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg during a sting operation in May last year.
Three cellphones, R60 000 in cash, a scanner for microchips, a camera as well as a VW Polo were seized.
The Chinese embassy did not respond to emails or telephone calls requesting comment.
‘We’re fighting blind’
Last month, Molewa hailed Phiyega “for the vital role the SA Police Service is playing to combat rhino poaching”.
But a national task team of top police officers and officials from crime intelligence, state security, the national prosecuting authority (NPA), the defence force and specially trained rangers and dogs, helicopters and drones have been unable in more than a year to give rangers sufficient actionable intelligence on poachers.
A furious SANParks official told City Press: “We’re fighting blind. Every day, about 15 poachers climb over the fence with high-calibre rifles and silencers and pangas. Every day we’re losing rhinos ... where’s the intelligence?
“The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers in the park are worth nothing. They’re uninterested. They’re undisciplined and are leaving a massive human footprint [in the park]. The police running the operational room in Skukuza are doing what they can but we’re getting no intelligence,” he said. “We’re losing rhinos ... in front of our very eyes.”
SANDF troops inside the park has been “disastrous” say scores of SANParks personnel City Press interviewed. Last year, a poacher who was shot and injured inside the park told this journalist “the poachers laugh at the SANDF troops”.
NPA spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said by email “no offence-specific statistics” were kept regarding prosecution rates in rhino-poaching cases.
Mfaku sent a long list of cases, saying the NPA had a 51% conviction rate of rhino-related cases; 106 people were in court at present in various cases; four poachers had been acquitted and 34 cases withdrawn. He said 45 cases had been finalised, meaning either there were convictions, people were sentenced or acquitted or cases had been withdrawn or struck off the roll.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant General Solomon Makgale did not respond to questions.