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Rhino on the run
Conservation efforts succeeded in increasing the rhino population in South Africa from 100 in the 1960s to 18, 000 a few years ago. But the numbers are dwindling once again with poachers, equipped with the latest weapons, stepping up operations.
As a boy, South African ranger Fritz Breytenbach read a story about a child who walked 1, 000 km to save some ship-wrecked men. The story stuck with him and when he decided to raise awareness about rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, he decided to walk the same distance through the bush, blog about it, educate the villagers near the park, and make a film.
"Filmmaker Steven Lyon and I are making a film about rhino poaching, which is a crisis. We cover between 12 and 20km a day, " says the 30-year-old, who is head guide at Tintswalo Safari Lodge, a private reserve on the border of the government-run Kruger National Park. He started his walk on May 1, and finished 100km in six days before taking a break to come to Durban for INDABA 2013, South Africa's travel and trade fair. He'll be back in the bush on May 15, to complete the rest of the 900 km within six to eight weeks.
South Africa is home to about 75 per cent of the world's rhinoceros population, according to World Wildlife Fund, but poaching has escalated since 2008, driven by demand for rhino horn in traditional medicine from Vietnam, China and other East Asian countries. "We are bleeding right now, "says Reynold Thakhuli, general manager at South African National Parks, the government body that administers the country's 22 national parks, including the two million hectare Kruger National Park, the largest game reserve in the world.
Last year, 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa. Since this January, the country has lost 200 to poachers, 196 of which were killed in Kruger. One kilo of rhino horn fetches between $25, 000 and $40, 000 in the international market. African rhinos have two horns - the smaller one weighs about 2 kg and the larger one in front can weigh up to 8 kg. In South Africa, the rhino is a huge tourist draw, one of the Big Five - lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard - that people want to spot on safari. Tourism contributes about 10 per cent to the GDP, and is the third largest sector of the economy.
"Poaching is easy money, and since there are no tigers left in India, the traditional medicine market is looking to South Africa, " says Thakhuli. Most of the poaching takes place on the eastern side of Kruger, which shares a 350 km unfenced border with Mozambique. "Most of the poachers cross over from Mozambique. South Africa has very strict anti-poaching laws, treating it on a par with rape or child molestation. Courts award sentences of 20 to 40 years, but Mozambique lets poachers off with a fine, " says Thakhuli. Other initiatives include signing an agreement with Vietnam in December 2012 to curb sale of traditional medicines using rhino horn. South Africa has also started work on a DNA database to track rhino poaching, and do lifestyle audits on park staff to ensure that none of them are aiding poachers.
"If someone's throwing money around, we check the source. We recently fired four staff for helping poachers. The size of Kruger is the main challenge - it's bigger than Poland. The other is that the poachers have money and technology. Our rangers are trained to conserve wildlife, not fight a war, " he says. Poachers, many of whom are former mercenaries from the civil war in Mozambique, have highcalibre rifles, helicopters, GPS devices and bundles of cash.
"Poachers have enough money to check into lodges for weeks, go on safaris and send the coordinates of a rhino sighting to their colleagues just outside, who come in with helicopters and the best weapons, " says Joe Cloete, group general manager of Shamwari Reserve, which also runs a non-profit to collect funds for rhino conservation. "We tip off the authorities about such people but our rangers need better equipment and weapons. "
The government has hired a retired army major-general to re-train their staff in combat and militarise the rangers. In the 1960s, South Africa had less than 100 rhino;careful conservation programmes raised the numbers to about 18, 000 a few years ago. "It's on the decline again, " says Thakuli. "We know we're in for a long intense war but we don't intend to lose, " he says.
The reporter is in Durban for Indaba 2013 at the invitation of South African Tourism.
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