Rhino poaching is on the rise again in SA since the government loosened coronavirus restrictions, following a year-long lull due to the pandemic, wildlife parks say.

The strict limits on travel, including international travel, imposed in March 2020 had the happy side-effect of keeping poachers at bay. In 2020, 394 rhino were poached, 30% fewer than the year before and the lowest yearly tally since 2011.

But then the government began easing international travel restrictions in November.

“Since November, December last year and into 2021, this landscape and particularly Kruger National Park has been experiencing serious numbers of rhino poaching incidents,” said Jo Shaw, the Africa rhino lead for the WWF International Network.

She declined to say how many incidents had occurred.

“There is a very real and realised threat as poaching pressure has increased since the lockdown, perhaps to meet the demand from the international markets,” she said.

Rhino poaching often involves both local poachers and international criminal syndicates that smuggle the high-value commodity across borders, often to Asia where demand is high.

Their methods are cruel: the rhinos are usually shot with a tranquiliser gun before the horn is hacked off, resulting in the animal being left to bleed to death.

Reserves, which have been battling tighter budgets amid a coronavirus-induced lull in tourism, have also been forced to cut back on anti-poaching patrols, compounding the threat to rhinos.

Some reserves use dehorning as one of the methods to prevent armed poachers from taking advantage of easier cross-border travel. Veterinarians cut the horn at the stub, rather than removing it all, which prevents the rhino from bleeding to death. Balule Nature Reserve, in the greater Kruger system has dehorned 100 rhinos since April 2019.

The department of environmental affairs is expected to release its 2021 half-year poaching figures at the end of June.

“As restrictions have become less over time, there has been an uptick in poaching as a result,” said Julian Rademeyer, director of the organised crime observatory for East and Southern Africa at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

SA has about 16,000 rhino within its borders, Frances Craigie, chief director of enforcement at the department said. But relentless poaching and a drought in the northeast region has hit the rhino population hard.

In the Kruger National Park, the number of rhino has plummeted about two thirds in the past decade to about 3,800 in 2019 from 11,800 rhino in 2008, a SA National Parks report showed.


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