15 January 2012

South Africa: Rhino Poaching, Time for Government to Treat Poaching With the Priority It Deserves

Photo: International Rhino Foundation
Conservators in Zimbabwe remove rhino horns to make them less attractive to poachers: Ministers are accused of taking part in the illegal trade in horns.

press release

The South African National Parks (SANParks) on Friday issued a call for help to end South Africa's rhino poaching scourge, after 11 rhinos had been killed by poachers in the Kruger Park since the start of the year. When the guardian of our national resources is this desperate, we know the situation is out of control. Poachers have become increasingly sophisticated - to the point where the police and ordinary rangers are simply unable to win the war alone. It would be fair to say there is an epidemic of rhino poaching. Nothing suggests that interventions already made by the Department of Environmental Affairs are working.

Rhino poaching has accelerated alarmingly in the last few years. We lost 448 rhinos in 2011 alone, compared to 333 the previous year; triple the number killed in 2009.

While the birth rate of rhinos still exceeds natural deaths, legal hunting and poaching, unless poaching is significantly reduced, the rhino population could head into decline in the next few years. The situation could be exacerbated if private rhino owners, who felt a disproportionate brunt of the rhino poaching last year, choose to stop breeding rhinos.

South Africa, being home to most of the world's rhinos, has become the epicentre of global poaching. This issue seriously affects our reputation in global conservation circles. The Democratic Alliance (DA) therefore calls on the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs to up her game. She must, in conjunction with her relevant Cabinet colleagues, treat poaching as the priority crime that it surely is. Among other things:

Government must immediately deploy the best and brightest in its crime fighting intelligence network. It is a justified call since these sophisticated international criminal networks are almost certainly involved in other types of crime as well. We need high-profile arrests in the next month. Fighting poaching is more than on-the-ground enforcement by rangers; it must focus on apprehending the ringleaders.

The police must introduce a dedicated wildlife crime unit. At the moment there are police personnel who are exclusively working on poaching, but they need the backing of a dedicated institution which allows for focused initiatives and ring-fenced financial resources.

The South African government must overcome its internal silo-induced coordination failures and work more closely with other governments, especially Mozambique, to create a dynamic regional crime intelligence network. This network should involve the respective Departments of Environmental Affairs, the Police, and all specialised units designed to deal with organised crime.

We must use our current position as chair of the United Nations Security Council to explore whether the trafficking of wildlife products can be deemed a threat to international security, and whether we can use this platform to exert pressure on destination countries in the Far East. Countries like Vietnam need to demonstrate progress in curtailing the illegal trade.

Poachers themselves are effectively drug mules - for meagre compensation, they put themselves at risk of death. A lasting solution must therefore tackle the syndicates (not merely arrest poachers). There will always be more poachers; they are the bottom of the food chain that constitutes rhino poaching.

There is no silver bullet to eradicate rhino poaching. It requires a dynamic range of policy interventions, some of which still need further investigation, and some which may take considerable time to implement. But we need some positive results now while we explore long-term solutions. These must be carefully constructed incentives and institutional designs to produce meaningful regional and international cooperation. Without such dynamism, we will lose our unique position as a rhino hotspot destination.

Gareth Morgan, DA Spokesperson on Water and Environmental Affairs

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