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Crisis Persists Despite Slight Decline in South African Rhino Poaching

Shannon Benson

South Africa’s Minister for Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, announced Thursday that 1,175 rhinos were poached in the country during 2015. This is a slight drop from 2014, when a record 1,215 poached rhinos were officially tallied, and marks the first year since 2007 that has not shown an increase over the previous year. Kruger National Park, the epicenter of poaching in the region, recorded 826 rhinos illegally killed in 2015, one fewer than 2014’s total of 827.

Minister Molewa hailed the reduction as “very, very good news” and said it “offers great cause for optimism”. She attributed it particularly to the efforts of law enforcement and security agencies who, she said, had managed to avert the spike in poaching that normally occurs around December as poachers seek extra money for the Christmas holiday season. She said that South Africa’s rhino population “continues to be stable” according to the most recent census data.

However positive any indication of “peak poaching” may seem, it’s important to look at these latest figures in context. Minister Molewa did not provide poaching figures by province (as has previously been done), but WildAid’s sources within the province of KwaZulu-Natal — a major rhino region — confirm that at least 116 rhinos were poached there in 2015, an increase over the 100 poached in 2014 (the province’s official figures will be released at the end of January).

Our sources also say that the province was “absolutely hammered” by poachers in December — in other words, that the normal December spike was not averted there. Poachers seem to have strategically shifted their efforts during the year to subvert anti-poaching operations, staying away from certain areas for months at a time and returning to strike hard when anti-poaching forces were least expecting them.

Many experts caution against reading too much into short-term declines. “You might find a syndicate puts in a big order for horns in January, and then suddenly poaching goes up again,” said a WildAid source in a private anti-poaching company. “Show me a steady reduction over a whole year and then I’ll start to believe that we’ve got a handle on poaching.”

Poaching also increased dramatically last year in Namibia and Zimbabwe compared with 2014. These neighbors of South Africa contain important rhino populations. Zimbabwe officially lost 50 rhinos in 2015 (more than the number of babies born) compared to only 20 in 2014. Namibia lost 80 rhinos in 2015 compared to only 24 in 2014, some of these from desert-adapted rhino populations in areas that were recently considered too remote to be vulnerable to poaching.

In other words, the southern African region as a whole experienced record poaching in 2015.

The South African government also claimed during today’s press conference to have achieved an 88.8% conviction rate of rhino poachers between April 2015 and the present. Forty-eight people were accused of poaching and poaching-related crimes, of which six were acquitted or had their charges withdrawn.

However, hundreds of alleged poachers have been arrested in recent years — 343 in 2013 and 386 in 2014, for example — and there’s no sign that anything like these numbers have actually been forcefully prosecuted. It seems that that the vast majority of alleged poachers have been released without charge or have not yet had their cases finalized — hardly a prosecutorial success story. WildAid has heard many first-hand accounts from wildlife rangers of poachers being arrested and released from custody only to be caught poaching again a few days later.

Regarding the recent setbacks for the government in its court battles with would-be rhino horn traders, Minister Molewa today said that her department would be applying to the Supreme Court of Appeal (the second highest court in South Africa) for special leave to appeal against yesterday’s decision by the North Gauteng High Court, which effectively opened the way for in-country trade in rhino horn. Once the Minister applies for special leave to appeal, the domestic rhino horn trade will, once again, be suspended.

Molewa said that although her lawyers were not yet privy to the reasons for the High Court’s decision, she had already decided to pursue the matter further in the Supreme Court of Appeal “because it is in the public interest”. She declined to provide any further rationale and gave no indication that she would attempt to reinstate a moratorium on the domestic horn trade within the regular legal framework already available to her — a decision that has left many conservationists mystified. Why pursue a risky process through ever-higher courts instead of simply following established procedure to reinstate a moratorium?

Despite being committed to reducing consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia, it seems that the South African government has done very little in this respect in 2015. Minister Molewa provided only a single example of demand reduction efforts last year: visits by small groups of Vietnamese schoolchildren to South Africa. 

Clearly, a lot more could be done by the South African government in this sphere.