Rhino poachers are back after South Africa eases lockdown restrictions

Rhino poaching has been on the rise again in South Africa since the government eased restrictions on coronaviruses, after a year-long lull due to the pandemic, according to animal parks.

Strict travel restrictions, including international travel, imposed in March of last year had the happy side effect of keeping poachers at bay. In 2020, 394 rhinos were poached, 30% less than the previous year and the lowest annual toll since 2011.

But then South Africa started easing restrictions on international travel in November.

“Since November, December of last year and until 2021, this landscape, and in particular Kruger National Park, has seen a significant number of rhino poaching incidents,” said Jo Shaw, rhino manager for Africa from WWF International Network.

She declined to say how many incidents had occurred.

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

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

Their methods are cruel: Rhinos are sometimes shot with a tranquilizer gun before the horn is cut, leaving the animal to bleed to death, Save the Rhino said on its website.

A towel is used to cover the eyes of a tranquilized rhino before it is dehorned in an attempt to deter poaching, amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the game reserve of Pilanesberg in the North West Province, South Africa, May 12 January 2020. REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko

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More rhinos are killed with powerful shotguns before the horn is removed, said Julian Rademeyer, director of the Organized Crime Observatory for East and Southern Africa at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime .

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

Some reserves use dehorning to prevent armed poachers from taking advantage of easier cross-border travel.

Vets cut the horn off at the heel, rather than removing it all, preventing the rhino from bleeding to death. Balule Nature Reserve, located in the Great Kruger System, has dehorned 100 rhinos since April 2019.

The country’s environment ministry is expected to release its 2021 half-yearly poaching figures at the end of June.

“As [lockdown] the restrictions over time have become less, there has been an increase in poaching as a result, ”Rademeyer said.

South Africa has around 16,000 rhinos located within its borders, Frances Craigie, chief law enforcement director at the Department of the Environment, told Reuters.

But relentless poaching and drought in the northeastern region have hit the rhino population hard. In Kruger National Park, rhino numbers have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the past decade to around 3,800 in 2019 from 11,800 rhinos in 2008, according to a report from South African National Parks.

(This story is renewed to clarify the methods of the poachers)

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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