Cape Town - 2017 saw a small decrease in number of rhinos poached, with the total standing at 1 028, only 26 less than 2016.
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa gave an update on rhino poaching in South Africa and what successes have been made in 2017.
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The Department of Environmental Affairs partnered with the Departments of Defence, Justice and Constitutional Developments, Correctional Services, State Security, Hawks and the SA Police Service to tackle rhino poaching as a multidisciplinary approach.
In 2017, 502 alleged rhino poachers and 16 alleged rhino horn traffickers were arrested in South Africa. This saw a marked decrease from 2016, which saw a total of 680 people arrested in connection with poaching. Although the numbers are down, Molewa says there has been increase in arrests of high-level syndicate members.
Authorities have also seized 220 weapons from poachers, while 8 rhino horn seizures at OR Tambo were made.
"The Green Scorpions also play an important role in court proceedings where they regularly testify in aggravation of sentence in rhino related cases," says Molewa.
She adds that as a result harsher sentences are being handed down. Rhino poaching convictions doubled from the previous year, with 111 sentences handed out. This is thanks to the success of Operation Rhino 8.
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Out of those arrested last year, 446 were arrested in and around Kruger National Park, which shows an increase in numbers for the park from 2016. The park lost 504 rhinos in 2017, half of the national total, but 24% less than the previous year.
This reduction had been partly attributed to the relocation of three of eight villages in Mozambique that bordered Kruger
Hawks has confiscated 168,46kg of rhino horn between April and December in 2017, and the nationality of their 16 high level arrests have been South-East Asian, South Africa, Mozambican, Zimbabwean and Kenyan. They were a mix of couriers, local buyers and exporters.
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Molewa emphasised the importance of coordination between different spheres of national and international authorities, and highlighted this when she referred to a case last year where the cooperation between Hawks, the Royal Swaziland Police, the Green Scorpions and SARS led to the arrest and conviction of two Taiwanese traffickers.
The government also continues to request DNA samples from rhino horn confiscated overseas in order to link to ongoing poaching investigations in SA.
In regards to the controversial rhino horn auction that took place last year, effectively lifting the ban on rhino horn sales, Molewa revealed that seven permits were issued for buying of rhino horn, with three permits issued for selling. Two permits were refused as they did not meet the regulatory requirements. The minister also announced that more restrictions will be placed on domestic trade following a call for comments from the public on the current measures.
Other measure put in place
The Patrol Optimisation Programme has been rolled out to six other rhino reserves after its first implementation of an all female team in Balule Game Reserve.
"The use of game-changing technological interventions remain key in the fight against poaching. The new technology system is at the cutting edge of integrating real-time technology, intelligence, situational awareness and analysis, and is operational in Kruger National Park."
Environmental Affairs also embarked on an awareness campaign among SANDF soldiers about illegal movement of wildlife and related goods across borders.
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Intensive Protection Zones (IPZ), which aim to allocate limited resources to specific areas, has been well established in certain KZN reserves, and last year one was established in the Eastern Cape, with more to be implemented in other provinces.
Other new measures include 'Integrity Testing' of SANParks employees, Green Scorpions' involvement in court proceedings and translocating rhinos from high risk areas. 1 345 environmental monitors was also deployed last year in rhino poaching hotspots. The rhino guardian programme was also implemented in Kruger, with a planned rollout to other parts of the country. The programme includes the surrogacy of orphaned rhinos and the monitoring of black rhinos.
Funds from international donors were given to the development of the RhODIS database, which tracks poached rhino horns in court cases.
"It is clear from what we have reported to you as a team this morning that we continue to register successes in our fight against rhino poaching, but we are equally aware that the battle is far from won."
"We will in 2018 continue to draw on our achievements, learn from our mistakes, and adapt international best practice. It is only through a collaborative approach that we have come this far, which is a long way from where we were a few years ago."
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Molewa also drew attention to the efforts of rangers and law enforcement agencies, who "without their efforts we would surely be seeing more losses than we have." She also gave thanks to the Global Environment Facility, Peace Parks Foundation, WWF, US government agencies and other international funders for their help in the fight.
Besides rhino, 67 elephants were also poached in Kruger, and one in KZN. Measures have been put in place to target areas of high risk.
The public is urged to report any suspicious activities around wildlife to the environmental crime hotline which is 0800 205 005 or the SAPS number 10111.
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