Up until 2007, the number of rhino slaughtered in KZN for their horns was in single digits per year. It all changed in 2008 when 14 rhino were killed, heralding the start of the rhino poaching crisis. Fuelled by a growing demand for rhino horn namely in China and Vietnam, and driven by international criminal syndicates, rhinos around the world are under threat of extinction. South Africa is now one of the last countries to have a significant population of rhino left in the wild. It is precisely because of this that South Africa is bearing the brunt of what can be described as one of the worst global wildlife conservation crisis of the past 100 years.
I met with Lawrence Munro-Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Rhino Operations Manager and Coordinator of the Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing (ZAP-Wing). ZAP-Wing was the first integrated aerial anti-poaching programme in South Africa to combat wildlife crime from the air, combining both state and private resources. I also spent time with the very dynamic and passionate Sheelagh Antrobus, Co-ordinator of Project Rhino KZN. It was an enlightening two days at the ‘coal-face’ of the rhino poaching war.
Northern KwaZulu-Natal hosts the province’s biggest rhino populations, spread out across a vast area on state, private and community-owned game reserves. However, its proximity to Mozambique, from where the greatest rhino poaching threats originate, make it extremely vulnerable.
When I asked both Munro and Antrobus what triggered the sudden attack on rhino, they both had a fairly similar response: “There are many theories and who knows exactly what the answer is,” says Munro. “The hunting laws in South Africa, until 2008, were extremely lax. Also many Vietnamese companies won concrete and cement tenders in 2008 to build the infrastructures for the
2010 Soccer World Cup, bringing with it vast numbers of Vietnamese into the country.” Antrobus comments, “There is a rising middle class in Vietnam, China and other Asian countries, emerging from years of living under a communist regime.
This is bringing with it a desire to own rhino horn, a symbol of wealth and status for the new super elite.” This, combined with traditional beliefs in its non-existent medicinal properties, has made rhino horn one of the most expensive commodities in the world, outstripping gold, platinum and even cocaine in value. Whatever the reasons, rhino horn has become a much sought after commodity. The link between poverty and poaching is also strong. The growing demand for rhino horn for both aspirational and medicinal value in China and Vietnam is fuelling the raging war on rhino. “The poaching syndicates slaughtering rhinos are clandestine, well resourced, fluid and able to move freely; the theatres of war keep changing and we constantly have to adapt, improve and innovate,” says Antrobus.
Project Rhino KZN and Zululand Anti-Poaching Wing (ZAP Wing)
The province is fighting back both on the ground and from the air. Project Rhino KZN was launched on World Rhino Day, 22 September 2011. It is a province-wide rhino-focused association that brings together a provincial government conservation body, private and community owned reserves, rhino owners, leading conservation NGOs and anti-poaching security specialists who have a strong, united belief that collaboration is key to gaining the upper-hand on the poaching syndicates targeting KZN’s game reserves. Currently, there are 19 members.
ZAP-Wing is a partnership between the provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Project Rhino KZN, and was formally launched in November 2012. ZAP-Wing provides three levels of support: surveillance, reaction and security operations to 26 state and private game reserves in northern KZN. They have also recently started aerial surveillance for two game reserves in the KZN midlands region. Over 3,000 rhino are under the ZAP-Wing watch. ZAP-Wing also assists rhino security operations that take place outside of game reserves, such as SAPS roadblocks.
ZAP-Wing are a support function to the rangers in the field. The fixed-wings have a flying capacity of five hours at any one time and the helicopters can fly non-stop for three hours. This has resulted in field rangers now being deployed in ad hoc locations with ease, hopefully creating the desired element of surprise and unpredictability to the poachers.
“Field rangers have, before ZAP Wing, traditionally defended their areas to the hilt,” explains Munro. “Having aircraft in the form of two fixed-wing aircraft and the two helicopters has meant a change in mind-set. No longer does the field ranger cover his ‘turf’ only, it means that vast tracts of land can be surveyed and monitored in a single day, without the poachers knowing the predictable routes of the rangers.”
“The ultimate goal” Munro explains, “is to be one step ahead of the poachers, no longer being on the back foot and acting in defense, but rather being well-informed.” The threat of armed engagement is strong and there is a need for an upgrade in the rangers’ understanding of potentially dangerous situations and what the law states. Rhino poaching has been elevated to a Priority Crime Status, meaning the police can utilize existing crime structures to arrest and prosecute poachers. Building a circle of influence to generate support and put pressure on judicial systems, therefore improving conviction rates, is fundamental.
ZAP-Wing is unique, in that it is also used by all bodies which comprise SAPS Joint Committee (JOCOM), namely Police/Crime Intelligence; Army/Military Intelligence; State Security Agency; private reserves and Ezemvelo rangers. It is a collaboration and it is working. In order to combat poaching gangs that can strike more than one game reserve at a time, ZAP-Wing, with canine assistance, the Rhino Intervention Unit and a fully manned Operational Room need to function at full force.
Munro states clearly “Our aim is to fly strategically on a continual basis.” Until the beginning of this year, 80% of ZAP-Wing’s flying time was spent on surveillance and 20% was spent on reaction. In 2015 this has been completely reversed, with the bulk of the flying time spent on reaction, the definition of which is seeing fresh spoor, audible gunshots or a visual of poachers.
Raising funds for rhino conservation became vital, and in 2011-2012 there was an explosion of appeals, with many charities popping up in show of public support. This was one of the reasons why KwaZulu-Natal’s conservation sector formed Project Rhino KZN, to give the public a reputable, experienced platform to support, with the knowledge that charitable funds would be directed to strategic, bona-fide anti-poaching interventions such as ZAP-Wing.
Project Rhino KZN recognises the war can only be won if private, state and NGO members work together. Added to this is the massive need for community involvement. “A more long-term approach in the form of community engagement is vital”, says Antrobus. “If we don’t have a constantly growing groundswell of support and recognition of wildlife conservation in relation to ourculture, tourism, economy and ecosystems, then no matter what we do, we will not win this war.”
KwaZulu-Natal has the second largest remaining rhino population in the world after the Kruger National Park. It is the province that saved the southern white rhino from certain extinction in the late 1800s, and reintroduced this rhino species to game reserves throughout Southern Africa in the 1960’s ‘Operation Rhino’. Today, there is much international hope and pressure riding on the efforts of the province’s conservation community, to continue to play a leading role in rhino conservation.
Kingsley Holgate Foundation
In April 2013, Project Rhino KZN partnered with the Kingsley Holgate Foundation in the Izintaba Zobombo Expedition. Kingsley Holgate and his expedition team travelled through a rectangle encompassing the Lubombo Range of Mountains, including the Kruger National Park and its nearby private reserves, across its fence line to the ‘Rhino War Zone’ along the border with Mozambique, including Parc Nacional do Limpopo and the private reserves down to Komati Poort, then South through the nature reserves of Swaziland and into Northern KZN.
This block has the largest concentration of wild rhino populations in the world and the
Izintaba Zobombo Expedition was able to undertake the most comprehensive children’s education survey ever carried out through Rhino Conservation Art and soccer matches. Never before have so many thousands of school children been given the opportunity to have a voice on how they feel about the rhino poaching crisis.
The Rhino Art campaign has received over 150 000 heartfelt messages from children calling for an end to rhino poaching. The campaign continues to gain strength across South Africa and neighbouring countries affected.
The objective of the project is to gather the largest number of children’s voices ever recorded in support of rhino protection and to use these ‘Hearts and Minds’ messages from the children of Africa as a worldwide call to action against rhino poaching.