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Drought pushes rhino-burdened reserves over the edge

Nov 11 2015 07:11
Matthew le Cordeur

Cape Town – A confluence of severe drought, greedy rhino poachers and fatigued conservationists does not bode well for the future of South Africa’s private game reserves and the rhinos they protect. However, all is not lost.

With KwaZulu-Natal experiencing a deadly drought, game reserves in northern Zululand are feeling the summer heat in more ways than one.

Poachers are increasing their thirst for rhino horn – to feed the craving in Vietnam and China – and figures show a scary increase in rhino deaths at the hands of illegal horn traders: from 333 deaths in 2010 to over 1 500 in 2015. Over 4 000 rhinos have been poached since the crisis started in 2008.  

In just two years, South Africa has lost 70 properties due to rhino poaching, removing 200 000 ha of land for rhinos to live on, according to Pelham Jones, chairperson of the Private Rhino Owners Association.

Since 2008, poaching has resulted in the loss of R1.4bn in direct costs for game farms, while security upgrades have cost an additional R1.2bn (it cost private reserves R300m annually), Jones told Fin24 on Tuesday.

In September, News24 reported that eight rhinos had been killed in three separate incidents that occurred in different areas of the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. The Witness said up to 75 rhinos had been killed in KZN this year.

Just north of this famous provincial wildlife zone lies Zululand Rhino Reserve, a private area that brought 16 South African game farm owners together 10 years ago. They dropped their fences to help drive up the black rhino population, but now their mission is being thwarted on many fronts.

Shrinking budgets to combat poaching

Now, a combination of shrinking budgets, an escalation in poaching and a severe drought is making life hard.

Zululand Rhino Reserve general manager Karen Holmes told Fin24 on Tuesday that the drought had a huge impact on rhino poaching.

“The drought has caused a concentration of rhinos in small areas, which creates a much easier target for poachers,” she said.

A new rhino calf born on the reserve this week was named Isomiso, the isiZulu word for drought. Explaining the name, Holmes said that “even in the worst conditions, when everything is under pressure, these animals are producing calves. The decline is because of humans, not the drought.”


A passionate conservationist who loves the outdoors, Holmes said she now remains office bound by day, juggling budgets and studying risk assessments and doing rhino security work at night to keep the rhino dream alive.

“The only water available is from a pipeline or through boreholes,” she said. “We have spent a lot more money buying animal feed to help the animals pull through.”

Disinvesting in rhinos

More and more private rhino owners are disinvesting in rhinos which has slowed the demand for live rhino, so money earned from auctioning these animals has remained flat, while the cost to protect them from poachers has skyrocketed, said Holmes.

The drought has now had a major impact on the mortality rate of other game, like nyala, impala and wildebeest, which also impacts on the income raised from auctioning off these animals.

“Next year we will see the effect (of game we harvest for auctions),” said Holmes. “There will be far less game to auction and budgets will be smaller.”

Private game farming is big business in South Africa. A report shows that it in 2013 it contributed R9bn to SA’s gross domestic product and took up nearly 17% of agricultural land.

Holmes questioned how private game farms – void of any government funding – will fill the gap to budget for fences, equipment and the upskilling of foot soldiers in the fight against poachers.

“Our team on the ground fighting rhino poachers are getting battle fatigue, while politicians are procrastinating” she said. “We need politicians to come to the table.”

They hold the key to turning the table on this dire situation, said Holmes. The key, many in her sector believe, would be the legalised trade of rhino horn to international markets.

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) created a committee of inquiry into the possibility of a legal rhino horn trade this year, a contentious move that will be steeped in controversy.


Zululand Rhino Reserve general manager Karen Holmes checking on one of the reserve's precious rhinos.

Answer in legalised trade

However, private game investors and reserve owners believe the controlled legal trade in rhino horns will end the rampage of poachers, increase investor confidence and reverse the slippery slope towards rhino extinction.

Time is running out ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) of Wild Fauna and Flora in Johannesburg next year.

The last Cites meeting in Bangkok in 2013 called for domestic measures to curtail rhino poaching, from stiff prison sentences to community awareness.

DEA spokesperson Albi Modise told Fin24 on Tuesday that an announcement giving an update on the inquiry would be made soon, and Jones said he expects a decision by the DEA before the end of the year.

Jones said 85% of his members support the need to legalise the trade in rhino horn and said if South Africa does not take this proposal to Cites, it would spell disaster for private game farms.

“If they do not take this proposal to Cites, it will be hugely detrimental for the future of rhino conservation,” he said.

Once at Cites, which will be held in Johannesburg from September 24 to October 5, 2016, SA would still need to find a trading partner and convince a two-thirds majority to vote in favour of the proposal.

“Legalised trade could bring in much-needed money and then rhino could become the most valued and protected animal in Africa,” said Jones.

* People interested in donating money to support the Zululand Rhino Reserve's rhino protection programme can use this payfast account.


One of Zululand Rhino Reserve's rhinos that was killed by a poacher. 

rhino  |  poaching  |  drought
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