Over 50% decrease in rhino poaching, despite ‘Covid-parole’, says conservationist

A rhino carcass being investigated. Photo: Adam Cruise / Conservation Action Trust

The decrease has been largely attributed to lockdown movement restrictions and the NPA’s 100% conviction rate, but the latest statistics are lulling the public into a false sense of security, and gradual lifting of restrictions have seen an increase in poaching.

For the first time in almost a decade, not a single rhino was poached in the Kruger National Park’s Intensive Protection Zone in April. 

According to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (Deff) latest rhino poaching statistics from January to June, rhino poaching as decreased by roughly 53%, with a total of 166 rhino killed for their horns since January. 

During the same time period last year, 316 rhinos had already been poached. 

But for founding director of Stop Rhino Poaching, Elise Serfontein, the recent statistics should not be celebrated just yet. 

Rhino poaching statistics from January to June 2020. Image: Supplied

The decrease has been largely attributed to lockdown movement restrictions, which prevent inter-provincial, nationwide, and international travel. Deff reported that as lockdown restrictions have gradually been lifted, rhino poaching incidents have steadily increased.

In light of this, Serfontein argued that “the threat has not changed, poachers simply do not have access to move around to shoot rhinos. 

“Kruger [Park] remains the epicentre for rhino killings in South Africa, with most rhinos being shot by poachers driving straight through the gates. Fundamental issues such as known internal collusion and access control for drop-off poaching remain a systematic threat,” she explained. 

Photo: Conservation Action Trust

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) also achieved a 100% conviction rate for 15 cases, convicting 23 rhino poachers. 

A number of high-profile cases are expected to be heard in court in the next few months and next year. 

38 suspected rhino poachers were arrested in the Kruger Park between January and June,  with 23 firearms confiscated. Outside the Kruger, joint operations saw 57 suspects arrested and 18 firearms recovered.

Attempts to smuggle rhino horn valued at R115 million through OR Tambo International Airport was also thwarted by SARS custom officials, the Green Scorpions and the Hawks in the first two weeks of July.

Many poachers, according to Serfontein, “have been released by the Presidential pardon process, and the Covid parole.”

Serfontein emphasised that despite the accomplishments of the NPA and authorities, the Skukuza Regional Court is still closed, and the rhino DNA index system known as the RhODIS is still on ice. 

RhODIS was developed at the University of Pretoria’s Onderstepoort Veterinary Genetics Laboratory in 2016. The database stores DNA of every sample collected from rhino or horn which can later be traced to poachers or crime scenes. The system is intended to be used as evidence in court.

“After a decade of implementing various strategies, and campaigning against ever increasing rhino poaching by local poachers recruited and managed by crime syndicates, efforts are paying off,” Deff minister Barbara Creecy said.  

“We have been able to arrest the escalation of rhino losses.”

Creecy and Deff’s enthusiasm was not shared by Serfontein, who lamented that State operational budgets have been severely cut, in some cases between 80% and 100%. 

“Painting a rosier picture does not help our rangers in any way – they bare the brunt and hard truth of this onslaught.” 

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