Elephant Whisperer's rhino orphanage closure a blow for anti-poaching in SA

2017-05-02 06:30 -
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Cape Town -  A brutal attack against the Findimvelo Thula Thula Rhino Orphanage (FTTRO) in KwaZulu-Natal in February has resulted in far more than just the loss of two baby rhino. 

A heavily armed gang hit the orphanage on the night of 21 February, tying up staff and killing the two rhino and dehorning them, as staff watched in horror. 

Despite attempts to move and stabilise operations since the incident, the FTTRO  confirmed on Monday, 1 May that the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation (LAEO), who administers the facility, has taken the "heart wrenching decision to permanently close" it down.  

"It is LAEO's responsibility to ensure that we meticulously weigh up all the factors of the investigation and security reports. Our focus is ensuring that the facility is safe for both people and animals, managed according to best practice animal rehabilitation protocols, and is sustainable," says Yvette Taylor from LAEO.

Taylor says security assessments have highlighted critical issues that LAEO management felt it could not mitigate, "and these factors would have directly compromised the ongoing safety of everyone on-site".  

She says the decision was taken as a direct result of advice from security experts, anti-poaching professionals and senior police officers.

SEE: Anti-poaching community outraged: Donations flood in for attacked rhino orphanage

Funds to be channeled to facilities taking over care of rhino calves

LAEO previously put an interim plan in place to move the animals and staff off-site to give their team a chance to recover from the trauma and allow management time to conduct the independent security assessments and review the findings of the criminal investigation.

Taylor says the remainder of their donated funds will now be channeled to the facilities who have taken over the care of the rhino calves.  After the brutal attack, heartfelt messages of hope and well-wishes flooding in for the establishment - with an estimated R400 000 raised for the rhino orphanage in less than 24 hours, at the time. 

"The animals have now all been moved together with their handlers to ensure continuity of care, and all the rhino calves, as well as Charlie, the hippo, are doing well and have settled in their new surroundings. The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organisation wishes to thank the public for their overwhelming support during this challenging time," says Taylor.

READ: Postcode Meerkat: Saving Kruger's primary rhino stronghold

Desperate times for rhino  

Poaching in KwaZulu-Natal has certainly seen an assault in poach activity over the last year.  Most recently, the province's 96 000 hectare flagship Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park - often referred to as the “cradle” of African rhino conservation - has had to institute dehorning measures in order to protect its rhino.

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

SEE: Poaching and budget crises spur dehorning move in Africa’s “rhino conservation cradle”

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

Not only have poachers shifted their sights to KZN, but the provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has also been hit by massive budget cuts for the new financial year – including a cut of nearly 30% to the operational budget. 

Overall the illicit trace in rhino horn was given a legal caveat in March, as SA’s 2009 moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn was lifted by the Constitutional Court.

Private rhino owners can now buy and sell rhino horn within South Africa and while pro-trader are rejoicing, Department of Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa says, “It should be noted that the court’s decision should not be construed to mean that the domestic trade in rhino horn may take place in an unregulated fashion.”

SEE: New trade ruling spells end for rhinos say conservationists

However conservationists believe trade could mean disaster for rhinos and are in fact questioning if the government has, “the funding, capacity or expertise to regulate a legal domestic trade and continue to police an illegal one". 

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