Africa > Southern Africa > South Africa > To save famous park’s rhino, dehorning being considered

South Africa: To save famous park’s rhino, dehorning being considered

2017/04/26

 IT WOULD have been unthinkable just a few years ago that rhinos would be dehorned for their own protection in a park as large and famous as the HluhluweiMfolozi Park in KwaZuluNatal.

The 96 000ha park is the province’s flagship Large Five reserve and is often referred to as the “cradle” of African rhino conservation.

This is the park where a tiny remnant people of Africa’s southern white rhino species was rescued from world extinction just over a century ago. From a people of just 50 or so survivors in the 1890s, these animals were guarded carefully by the former Natal Parks Board and multiplied slowly to reach just over 20 000 a decade ago.

POACHERS RESORT TO ANYTHING: Rhino horns hidden in the engine compartment of a car by poachers, poaching dropped in the Kruger National Park by almost 20% last year while the killing rate in KZN shot up by 38% in 2016.

All the white rhinos in Kruger National Park – and all other major parks across the country and Africa – are descended from that hitherto tiny people in HluhluweiMfolozi.

And presently, nearly 120 years later, the KZN people is under siege once additional – with rhino security experts confirming that an emergency operation is under critical consideration, to dehorn hundreds of rhinos in the majority vulnerable sections of the park.

For security reasons, the exact rhino numbers in the park are not advertised, but it is known that HluhluweiMfolozi Park (HiP) has one of the densest populations in the world. Half for this reason, several horn-poaching syndicates have diverted operations from the Kruger killing fields to the historic KZN rhino sanctuary.

Whereas horn poaching in the Kruger dipped by almost 20% last year, the killing rate in KZN shot up by 38% in 2016. And, judging by poaching statistics for the initial few months of this year, 2017 may prove to be the worst ever for the province.

Sadly, there is a double-blow for rhinos. Not only have poachers shifted their sights to KZN, but the provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has as well been hit by massive budget cuts for the new financial time– inclunding a cut of nearly 30% to the operational budget.

Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo has confirmed the organisation is considering radical measures – inclunding dehorning.

“Ezemvelo is prepared to do everything possible to stop the carnage that we are seeing in our province. If dehorning is a method that can stop rhino poaching, Ezemvelo will definitely consider it. Instantly the organisation has not taken a decision to dehorn HiP rhinos. This may change should the current methods prove to be ineffective.”

Last month, provincial economic affairs MEC Belinda Scott announced a subsidy reduction of nearly R300m for Ezemvelo. The subsidy is used mostly to fund salaries, but Mntambo said the cuts translated into a R50m (28%) cut in the organisation’s operational budget.

Provincial DA spokesperson on finance, Francois Rodgers, says Ezemvelo’s recent budget presentation has “disaster written all over it”, he said, warning: “It does not take a genius to realise that this budget is not sustainable and that, from presently on, Ezemvelo could slip into a national of paralysis”, noting a 25% decline in revenue and a 32% decline in operational revenue.

Questioned on the impacts for rhino security, Mntambo said the cuts would not have a measurable impact in the next six months or so, but the conservation agency would have to go on a fund-raising drive.

“Both private and the government institutions will be solicited to assist. Fortunately we by presently work jointly with a number of different government departments and this partnership will continue throughout the financial year.”

He said it was fortunate that Ezemvelo was still supported by SAPS, SANDF, Hawks and other security agencies, while several NGOs continued to fund anti-poaching initiatives in Ezemvelo reserves.

What about the vacant posts, overtime for anti-poaching units, informer payments and other security measures?

“If we had additional money we would definitely fill all the vacant positions and pay higher incentives to our field rangers inclunding our informers. Unfortunately we do not have a huge budget but we will continue doing all necessary patrols, be it at times that we may have to focus in areas that have additional rhinos, rather than just doing ordinary patrols.”

Project Rhino coordinator Chris Galliers said that, even before the new provincial government funding cutbacks for most departments, Ezemvelo had placed a moratorium on filling vacant posts and this was placing major challenges on the organisation.

Galliers said the unfilled posts in Ezemvelo reserves were an opportunity for the government to create desperatelyneeded jobs in rural areas where they were needed most.

The new cutbacks would have an impact on rhino poaching, staff morale and conservation in general – inclunding Ezemvelo’s tourism products and the province’s tourism offering.

Rhinopoaching deaths in KZN rarely exceeded 10 a year prior to 2008. But by 2015, this figure rose to 116. Last year 162 rhinos were killed and – as of mid-April 2017 – the death toll in KZN was by presently 65.

Kifaru Wildlife Veterinary Services chief Mike Toft has by presently dehorned dozens of rhinos on large, privately-owned reserves in KZN.

He says there was a 98% poaching decline in the last 18 months in dehorned reserves. Toft estimates that wildlife vets can each dehorn between 14 and 20 rhinos a day, so even in a large park like HiP it was possible to dehorn a significant number completely quickly if enough vets were brought in.

“A quantum change in thinking is needed – and dehorning is one such option. It is expensive, but will reduce poaching, and you as well have to consider the in general savings in security costs.”

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