Poachers killed 24 rhinos in South Africa during the first two weeks of December after a lull in killings during the pandemic.
South Africa’s environment ministry said on Tuesday that carcasses had been discovered in four provinces across the country since the beginning of the month, with seven rhinos found dead in Kruger National Park, six in KwaZulu-Natal and seven in Mpumalanga. Four, including a pregnant woman, were shot dead by poachers at a game reserve in the Western Cape last week while a fifth was being treated for gunshot wounds.
Nine people have been arrested in connection with the rhino murders, which have been condemned by South Africa’s environment ministry after poaching declined during the pandemic.
In 2020, 394 rhinos were hunted for their horns in South Africa, home to the majority of Africa’s population, compared to 594 the previous year, according to official figures. Nearly two-thirds were killed in national parks. A record 1,215 were killed in 2014, up from just 13 in 2007, driven by demand in Asia that made the century more valuable than gold.
Poverty drives many people who have been recruited as poachers to go to parks. “If there are economic difficulties, it is clear that it will be exacerbated,” said Richard Emsley, a former scientific officer of the IUCN group that specializes in African rhinos. “One of the challenges is to economically empower the people who live in these rural communities…not just think about strict law enforcement and the fight against poaching in parks.”
Coronavirus lockdowns, travel restrictions and the Omicron variable have devastated the country’s tourism industry, a major source of funding for conservation, which contributed about 4.5% of all jobs and 3% of South Africa’s GDP before the pandemic.
While increases in rhino killings are common before Christmas and Chinese New Year, experts said arresting poachers won’t break the cycle, and more work is needed to crack down on criminal gangs and claimants in Vietnam and China.
Kevin Petersen, a former England cricket captain and prominent rhino conservation activist, said visiting some of the 3 million people who live on the edge of Kruger National Park opened his eyes to the challenges many face.
“I started to hate it at all. But I taught myself,” Petersen, who recently hosted a National Geographic show about rhino conservation, told The Guardian.
“These are people who just want to feed their families. There is human greed in all of us. But there is a lot of desperation that unfortunately lives beside these national parks. And when you are desperate and I know as a parent you would do anything for your children, to feed your children,” he said. You are winning this war by taking care of the people. That’s what they do in India.”
The collapse in ecotourism revenues may be linked to the killings, said Cathy Dean, CEO of Save the Rhino International who is also a member of the IUCN’s subgroup of African rhinos.
“[The pandemic] It was a disaster. It is clear that the lack of tourist income has completely destroyed the parks and reserves. “I completely destroyed the income,” she said. “We don’t directly hire staff but a lot of the processes had to make staff redundant.”