A trio of young Mozambicans have been sentenced to 25-year prison sentences after being found in possession of two rhino horns in Kruger National Park nearly two years ago. Aselmo Baloyi, Jawaki Nkuna and Ismael Baloyi pleaded guilty. A fourth suspect died while attempting to escape from custody.
But, while conservationists welcomed the harshest sentences handed down to poachers in history, the slaughter continues unabated. In the 20 months since the trio’s arrest approximately 750 more rhinos have been killed.
It emerged during public hearings at parliament last week that a total of 232 rhino poaching related arrests were made in South Africa last year – but only a handful of criminals have been convicted and sentenced for their role in the multi-billion rand trade. And most of those arrested were impoverished foot soldiers of the illegal trade, not the organisers and planners.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, an average of 15 rhinos per year were poached between 2000 and 2007. In 2008, the number spiked to 83, rising to 122 in 2009, 333 in 2010 and 448 last year. Twelve rhinos were poached in the first two weeks of 2012.
South Africa is home to about 70% of the world’s rhino population. The current South African population stands at approximately 18 800 white and 1 900 black rhinos.
Department of Environmental Affairs deputy director-general for biodiversity and conservation, Mr Fundisile Mketeni, told the parliamentary hearing that the value of the rhino horn trade has surpassed illegal arms trafficking and become the third most lucrative illegal industry after the drug trade and human trafficking.
“We are incredibly worried at the moment. We are actually facing the worst rhino poaching crisis for decades,” said Lucy Boddam-Whetham, deputy director of the United Kingdom-based organization, Save the Rhino International.
The dramatic spike in rhino killings feeds the Asian traditional medicine market, despite scientific evidence that the horns have no medicinal value. They are made of the same substance as human fingernails.
Meanwhile, the two white Rhinos drugged and dehorned by poachers in Worcester, in the Western Cape, in December are back on their feet and generally “doing very well”.
SANParks has appointed additional conservators in the Kruger Park, while the South African National Defence Force has indicated it is to play much closer attention to the problem.
Owner of the Fairy Glen private game reserve in Worcester Mr Pieter De Jager reported that the male rhino dehorned on the reserve last month had lost most of his eyesight, which he ascribed to shock. He was confident that the condition was reversible if treated by the appropriate vet at the appropriate time. The animal will have to be darted, and De Jager wanted to avoid further trauma to the animal until it has well and truly recovered its strength.
“His eyesight is improving. Initially, he was walking around in circles, but he is now walking in a straight line. Both of the animals are leading relatively ‘normal’ Rhino lives again, enjoying their mud baths; it’s just that they don’t have horns.”
The Rhinos were darted with an overdose of a morphine derivative, known as M99, before having their horns hacked off with pangas or machetes. De Jager has called for access to veterinarian drugs and dart guns to be regulated in the same way as the state regulated access to assault rifles and ammunition.
Police have reported no breakthroughs in their investigation into the Fairy Glen poaching incident.