Moving target: From negligible southern white rhino poaching rates 10 years ago, killings rose sharply in KwaZulu-Natal to 100 animals in 2014 and more than doubled to 222 killings in 2017. That is while killings in the Kruger National Park dropped significantly in the past three years. Picture: SUPPLIED
Moving target: From negligible southern white rhino poaching rates 10 years ago, killings rose sharply in KwaZulu-Natal to 100 animals in 2014 and more than doubled to 222 killings in 2017. That is while killings in the Kruger National Park dropped significantly in the past three years. Picture: SUPPLIED

Screened behind security fences and a curtain of Zululand thorn bush, a cluster of new buildings and high-tech surveillance equipment has sprung up at SA’s most famous rhino sanctuary.

Officially, it is called the Nerve Centre. But there is a smaller signboard outside one of the prefabricated buildings with another name: The Midden.

A midden is a heap of dung where rhinos defecate, with dominant males stomping, snorting and flinging the dung around with their feet to mark their territory boundaries. "This is where all the cr*p happens when it comes to antipoaching operations, so we figured The Midden was as good a name as any," says a staff member.

Established with funding from the Peace Parks Foundation, the US State Department and other donors, the centre is the new tactical joint operations centre for antipoaching operations in KwaZulu-Natal.

For security reasons, a small group of journalists visiting the centre in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park recently was cautioned that photographing the main complex and allied infrastructure is forbidden.

Drawing a line: The Nerve Centre in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where poaching has been intensifying. Picture: SUPPLIED
Drawing a line: The Nerve Centre in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where poaching has been intensifying. Picture: SUPPLIED

Judging from the information displayed on banks of computer screens at the centre, a wide array of fancy surveillance gizmos has been harnessed to help track down poachers — even before they enter the park.

This includes a combination of aerial imagery gathered from satellites, patrol aircraft and drones, and motion-triggered camera traps scattered around the 96,000ha park, one of the major hotspots in the national horn-poaching crisis that exploded almost a decade ago.

The new security network also incorporates better equipment and communication devices for rangers out in the field, microchips, DNA sampling kits for rhino horn and the Cmore software technology platform developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

"One of the risks with advanced technology is that you can get drowned in information. To simplify things, the volume of information has to be sifted down to make it practical," an official says.

"For example, our camera traps generated more than 15,000 images last month [January]. Most were triggered by animals, trees or wind, but Cmore filtered this down to just 758 images for further investigation," the official says.

It turned out to be one of the world’s most successful conservation initiatives and 10 years ago, SA’s white rhino population had multiplied to almost 20,000 – with about 10,000 of them thought secure in the Kruger Park

Although Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is about 20 times smaller than the 2-million-hectare Kruger National Park, crime syndicates have shifted much of their attention to the KwaZulu-Natal reserve known as the "cradle of rhino conservation" — it is from where all the world’s remaining wild white rhinos originated.

Southern white rhinos were all but exterminated by hunters more than a century ago, so when a tiny remnant population of fewer than 100 was discovered near the Mfolozi River in the mid 1890s, a new game reserve was established to safeguard them from extinction.

Gradually, over several decades, the population multiplied and in the early 1960s a major undertaking, Operation Rhino, was launched by the former Natal Parks Board to relocate hundreds of white rhinos into the Kruger National Park and other local reserves, neighbouring nations and zoos and safari parks across the world.

The aim was to shift these valuable eggs out of a single basket, to spread the extinction risk and provide rhinos with more living and breeding space.

White rhinos

It turned out to be one of the world’s most successful conservation initiatives and 10 years ago, SA’s white rhino population had multiplied to almost 20,000 – with about 10,000 of them thought secure in the Kruger Park. But in 2008, horn poachers began to target Kruger’s rich larder of horns.

Peace Parks Foundation CE Werner Myburgh says that initially 80% of the poachers were from Mozambique. Now, less than 30% of Kruger poaching originates from Mozambique. Most poachers are now thought to operate from Mpumalanga.

Myburgh says that while killings in Kruger have dropped significantly in the past three years, horn gangs have shifted their focus to KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces.

"Right now Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is feeling the pressure. It is relentless; it is every day."

Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife CE Bheki Khoza likens it to an "avalanche". The pressure on the park is higher than anywhere else in the country.

From negligible poaching rates 10 years ago, killings rose sharply in KwaZulu-Natal to 100 animals in 2014 and more than doubled to 222 killings in 2017.

"I am hopeful that the new integrated joint operational plan that we are now embarking on will be a game changer," Khoza says. "I am not saying it will totally eradicate rhino poaching‚ but I know it will form a critical component of efforts to reduce illegal wildlife crime."

Myburgh says that if rhino horn consumers in China, Vietnam and other eastern nations can be persuaded to change their ways, there would be no poaching problem.

"But we are not there yet," he says, leaving conservation authorities with ever-mounting security bills and risks.

Sherry Sykes, US consul-general in Durban, says wildlife crimes have to be deterred in every way possible. "Wildlife crime is a crime and it needs to be treated just like any other crime. This is why the US government has provided millions of dollars to SA and other nations to engage with wildlife crime," she says.

Wildlife crime is a crime and it needs to be treated just like any other crime. This is why the US government has provided millions of dollars to SA and other nations to engage with wildlife crime
Sherry Sykes

The cost of the centre has not been disclosed, but it is understood that the Peace Parks Foundation provided a substantial contribution, with further funding from the US Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

While the new security advances in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi have been welcomed by conservation groups, some observers remain sceptical.

Peter Hartley, a veteran iMfolozi park ranger who now lives in Australia, says technology will not save the rhino.

"Going back to the basics and getting this right is more important," Hartley says.

"Employing all the components and fundamentals of good counter-and antipoaching is the key. Once you have these functioning, then complement your security operations with technology," he says.

"If you throw technology in without a sound security management base you have nothing. Protected area security is not rocket science, but it requires experience, training and committed staff with resources commensurate with the tasks at hand and government/political support," Hartley says.

Ezemvelo rhino security co-ordinator Cedric Coetzee agrees that technology alone will not halt the poaching crisis.

"This is not just about sitting in an office and looking at computer screens, but also about how security works on the ground," Coetzee says.

"This why we are working closely with the South African Police Service, the State Security Agency and private sector groups," he says.

Coetzee and Myburgh are confident that rhino poaching in KwaZulu-Natal will start to slow down and eventually decrease.

"We have the building blocks in place now. Turning the graph downwards won’t happen overnight," Myburgh says. "It could take 12-18 months to turn.

"Unfortunately, when the poaching heat is reduced in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, the problem will be displaced to other parks elsewhere in the country."

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