Sea Rangers Show Passion (2)

Londiwa at sea 1YYYWeb

EZEMVELO’S EMERGING ‘SEA RANGERS’


Nothing suggested it would be so, but the sea came alive. Grey skies and smooth, swollen seas provided a calm backdrop to what opened up before us.

Anything up to 12 whales were seen breeching; two hawksbill turtles poked above the surface, three ragged tooth sharks glided past our boat and schools of dolphin cut through our wake in the two hours we were out there.

Perhaps it was ordained because this eye-opening trip gave such meaning to the growing recognition that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Marine Compliance Unit is an outstandingly visible and active group of some 55 staff responsible for monitoring 380 km of our coastline. It’s a vast, tough and often confrontational responsibility, where 11 teams of five people each patrol 15 kilometres of coastline from Mapelane in the north to Port Edward in the south.


They work 24-hour shifts to cover both spring and neap tide fishing activities, day and night. (And poachers favour poor weather conditions). To say nothing of the abuse they field from fishermen, either arresting them and / or transporting them to the nearest police station. On this particular occasion the focus was trained on a team with a growing reputation; the monitoring of our internationally-prized Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area (MPA), stretching from Umkomaas River mouth some 18 kms south of Scottburgh to the Mzimayi River mouth.It was a special day. The gutsy professionalism and transformative nature of an emerging black staff embracing marine conservation was worth the trip on its own. Here was Londiwe Mbuyisa, Ezemvelo’s Manager for Marine Districts and Projects. She’s worked her way through the ranks from being a trails officer, Protected Area Manager and Marine Off-Shore Compliance Officer. She’s the senior conduit between Ezemvelo and such government departments as Fisheries and Forestry and Environmental Affairs. This day she dropped everything to get back to the coalface of her responsibilities. Amongst these, Londiwe now commands the tricky task of overseeing the expansion and re-zoning of the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area (MPA). This is a complex process of encouraging all user groups to support this initiative.“With conservation, it often appears to be the carrot and stick, not so? But I try to impress on people the growing need to protect and manage the limited resources available to us all. And the expansion of this Aliwal MPA is part of a larger governmental initiative to secure a greater share of our overall marine resource. Yes, it’s a tough process as various users could lose some of the benefits they enjoy. But, it’s for the greater good, not so?”
Our boat pulled up against a small fishing vessel and later on a scuba diving outfit. Both operators clearly knew Sam Ndlovu, Ezemvelo’s Marine Compliance Officer. Now, here’s a no-nonsense, battle-hardened type. Whatever the familiarity amongst them, the fishing operator had forgotten his licence and Sam made no bones of the fact that he present it when he got back to Rocky Bay. Ezemvelo’s manager for the East Region Ken Morty described Sam a beacon of commitment and discipline: “The public should really raise their hats to all members of this unit. But he has an unwavering compliance ethic; a ferocious commitment to protecting our oceans. For 24 years he’s been largely responsible for the respect that Ezemvelo commands amongst recreational and commercial fishermen”.  A renowned conservation manager and administrator, Ken spoke of the unit’s dedication and success; of 7000 patrols carried out last year with more than 50 000 inspections done. Amongst this 247 arrests were made as well as numerous successful prosecutions for a variety of permit and fishing irregularities. Some R240 000 worth of fines were paid, too. 

 

Yet Sam is not just a policeman. He has a wise and appreciative head on his shoulders. "I’d prefer to be understood for the lessons I’m trying to give others. I want to share my knowledge. I want to make the seagoing public my larger surveillance team. Many people care but you know that it only takes a few to disrupt everything.” He was proud to highlight some of his unit’s recent successes: A R4 000 fine paid for the illegal capture of four east coast rock lobster during the closed season and catching a fisherman for having 67 shad (you’re only allowed four!) resulting in a house arrest. He arrested someone for having 37 geelbek (only two allowed) – and caught him again and this time was fined R5 000.Boat fishing and diving are predominantly sports enjoyed and operated by whites. In this respect it was invigorating to be skippered by Themba Luthuli. Here ‘Ezemvelo’ has a boat skipper of real skill and experience. Trained by the Sharks Board, Themba moved to Ezemvelo some two years back. Knowledgeable and highly assured, he provides an outstanding role-model for future black interest and advancement in marine conservation. “My greatest wish is for my people to learn this trade and break their fear of the sea. It will happen, I am sure of that. And there are a few – perhaps four I know of – that are doing their Skippers Course. Slowly we are moving forward.”

 

At a time of real financial stress with all focus given over to Rhino poaching, few pay attention to such marine efforts. And yet here we have some ‘sea rangers’ who should make us all proud.

 

 

The Beauty and the Beast - Ozabeni and Karl Bentley (2)

ozabeni web

Some call it the Achilles Heel of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Others see it as the Gorongoza of South Africa. The truth is it’s both!


The Park’s exceptional, distinctive beauty is well known, acknowledged by its World Heritage Site status. But what lies beyond the reach of tourism is its northern section, the 42km long, loosely-shaped, rectangular Ozabeni Park that largely serves as a flat wetland draining from Sodwana Bay south into the lake.
It is here that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is currently experiencing its most focussed rhino poaching threat – and casualties. Of the 67 rhino that the organisation has lost this year, 17 have gone down in Ozabeni.

Conservation Manager Karl Bentley is big; in size, passion and vision. His wording is short, expletive-minced! He curses the park’s porous borders and thunders loudly with frustration. He’s your proverbial character. He’d only been in the job a few months when he ‘bust’ a syndicate stealing cycads from the Coastal Forest Reserve; red-handed, he caught the thieves in the process of transporting 92 of them away! He’s well known for a long story where he eventually had to front up to a charging black rhino, standing his ground when, against the odds, it veered away at the last moment.
There are many gung-ho, legendary stories about Karl Bentley, a number of which stem from his years working in Ezemvelo’s Marine Compliance unit. Here he hooked more illegal shad and crayfish “shlenterers” than were in the ocean, or so he put it! But this is only half the story.
For all the bluster, Karl is a bird-watcher, an admirer of landscape, bio-diversity and wildlife. He’s as sharp as a button and surprisingly gentle and insightful. It’s hardly surprising he’s such a valued member of Ezemvelo’s field staff.
Ozabeni is as huge as the poaching threat is real. Out of frustration, he speaks of driving into the park at the dead of night, flashing the lights of his bakkie to create a law enforcement presence, hoping to deflect some of the many syndicates that target Ozabeni. Rhino in vulnerable areas of Ozabeni are frequently corralled by his bakkie into safer areas. He is renowned for the phrase; “Rhinos aint saved in the office”.
He might hate them but he’s able to hold an almost perverse admiration for the poacher’s feats of endurance and athleticism.

“Listen, some of these guys are super-human. They are rugged like you can’t believe. They can walk and hide and jog for 30-40kms in a day. We’ve followed them to the point of capture and then when you think you’ve got them cornered, they break out of their hideout, flick their antelope prey off their shoulders and they’re gone; like that.”
To patrol this park borders on the nightmarish. Its overall 64 000ha expanse has only 50 kms of boundary fencing, though much of the park reveals natural obstacles. The entire eastern section comprises a line of large sand dunes bordering the Indian Ocean while a smaller section of its north-western boundary comprises the vast Muzi Pan. So, while the sea and beach form a barrier of sorts on the one hand, Muzi Pan and the lower Mkhuze swamps act as inhospitable swamp land on the other, a buffer from the KwaJobe and Mnqobokazi communities.
“Man, its one thing to even think of crossing these reed beds and wade through that swamp. But these poachers not only do that they even hide out there; I mean for a whole two or three nights, if needs be. These are soldiers of another kind”.
The obstacles mount. There’s Ozabeni’s open corridor road that leads to Sodwana Bay and passes through the north-western part of the park; then a slice of its northern section is given over to the community’s cattle and their herders who could well be the eyes and ears for poachers. And his scarce resources have still to deal with the illegal crafts and gillnetters on the western boundary of Muzi Pan who cross into Ozabeni.
And, he’s bedevilled by his own staff shortages, a familiar deprivation that Ezemvelo is trying to overcome, despite the stringent financial climate. (Plans are well advanced to beef up Ezemvelo’s presence here with new field rangers being brought in).
Despite all this, Karl Bentley is able to see beyond. And in Ozabeni he sees future greatness for bio-diversity and tourism.
“This is an incredible region. I really believe it will one day be one of KZN’s greatest game reserves. You know Gorongoza in Mozambique? Well, this place reminds me of it. It also holds so much diversity; coastal forests, pans, small lakes and outcrops of wetland forest.”
We travel south down the only dirt road. He points out this landscape, identifying some of its abundant birdlife; Secretary birds and Stanley Bustards, for example. We head south to the border of the 15 000ha Wilderness section.
His appreciation for its potential reflects the priority that the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority places on Ozabeni’s future. The ‘Authority’ is now in the process of erecting wooden viewing towers at strategic sites within the Park. And there is real talk about fencing out the cattle and their herders that wander so freely inside Ozabeni’s northern areas.
Future plans include introducing elephant, buffalo, cheetah, wild dog, eland, waterbuck etc. But for now it’s all about security.





Pay for this war if you want to keep debating

Dr Bandile Mkhize CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
JUNE 2014 COLUMN

How long must this slaughter continue?

When I called out in 2012 to the world’s conservation lobby to implement a controlled trade in rhino horn on the open market I did so for very sound reasons.

We were facing highly financed poaching syndicates who commanded overwhelming advantages on this battlefield; huge open spaces in regions populated by poverty and unemployment and prices for this commodity that would entice any number of people to succumb to the temptation of rhino poaching.

And what of our financial resources? I considered the priority human demands that our Treasury would have to meet in our emerging democracy. How were we going to dampen the financial incentive to poach our Rhinos and thereby decrease this devastating onslaught?

Relying on some of the most knowledgeable and experienced rhino minds in the country, we agreed. Let’s try and use the huge stockpiles of horn we keep in our stockades and sell the commodity through a controlled central selling organisation to meet this demand sustainably. No guarantees, of course, but it might very well do the trick through careful and very strict protocols. After all, we worked out that we could meet this international demand for the next 20 years or so.

Now, nearly three years later, nothing has changed! Our Rhinos keep getting butchered. Our green heritage gets redder! And all the while international conservation lobbyists talk, write and argue amongst themselves. What do you call it; paralysis of analysis!

Despite investing millions more onto this battlefield, the war has escalated. We have very brave and dedicated people doing a remarkable job to stem this bloodshed but we just don’t have the funding to fight these syndicates off. How could we when a poacher gets paid R100 000 or more for his filthy work.

To be quite honest, the biggest effect my call for trading horn has had on our international stakeholders, (those lobbies and signatories who decide whether we can trade this horn or not) is to split them into two camps; those in favour of our trading proposal and those opposed to it. Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say it has sponsored one of the most ferocious and divisive debates in rhino conservation history; and, as I said, paralysed any proactive approach to combating this war. So I have come to a decision. To all those who are against trying out this trade and who appear to command the majority vote in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) I say to you; fine, keep arguing and debating. And while you do so, understand that this species is dying. As you don’t want this to happen then, in the meantime, please engage us and provide the finance we desperately need to fight this war at the level that will deter these poaching syndicates.

Believe me; our ‘wish list’ is long. It demands far greater investment than international NGO’s and Government are presently providing! In making this appeal, I need to comment on some of the naive thinking behind these naysayers. There are those more academic, suggesting it might open up an even greater demand for the commodity that we would not be able to meet. I suppose that’s a possibility. Yet, as with any new business, who’s to know every vagary of the international market place?

But my most serious concern lies with those who say trading Rhino horn would signal an acceptance of the commercialisation of wildlife and this would be unethical. This baffles me. It flies in the face of the commercial dynamics that underpin how conservation is conducted in the real world. Have such people not yet grasped the overwhelming impact that wildlife auctions, sport hunting, the meat trade and eco-tourism has had on our greater conservation estate in South Africa, let alone KZN? It was these game auctions that effectively gave a financial value to wildlife. They provided the single greatest commercial springboard for the huge expansion of land under conservation in South Africa today. When farmers turned away from beef farming on marginal land throughout the country, they opted for the wildlife game business as a profitable and viable alternative.

Have these people not understood that some 70% of the total 6.2% land mass given over to conservation in South Africa is owned by such private landowners whose livelihoods depend on the successful commercial use of their wildlife? Friends, conservation is a business. Approach it as something operating outside of supply and demand and you stand to be accused of extreme idealism!

Here we have a commodity (rhino horn) that has exploded the animals’ worth. Instead of trying to meet this business demand sustainably, we are accused by this lobby of being unethical. Instead, we are asked to explore ways of discouraging consumers from buying the commodity they want. I find this very ambitious!

It’s also indefensible for people to put the rights of animals above humans. If South Africa can initiate a trial period of trading rhino horn, that is horn accumulated from natural mortalities, just think of the sustainable business incentives this trade would provide local people to keep rhino. They could herd them, trade them and yes, provide hunting concessions, too. This would springboard our wish to set up satellite community reserves as wildlife buffer areas around game reserves such as Mkhuze, Ndumo and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP).

To wish away the business side of conservation ignores the damage caused by such ethical considerations. I note Kenya has lost some 80% of their wildlife since they banned any trade in wildlife as well as stopping hunting in 1977. 80%! South Africa’s wildlife populations have expanded by this amount since the legalisation of sport hunting and game auctions since the 1970’s.

What place do ethics fill when a Texan hunter earlier this year was stopped from hunting a single, ageing rhino bull in Namibia? He offered to pay a million dollars and have this entire amounted invested in conservation practices in that country. All he got for his wishes were death threats from people saying it would be unethical to shoot it!

Let there be no doubting Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s overall commercial slant towards conservation, either. We lie at the heart of a national initiative to place a financial value on other forms of natural resources, too; such as water! We are looking for funding to pay disadvantaged farmers and landowners to farm it! In other words, by providing a monetary incentive, they will care for soils, grasslands, wetlands and the like, in order to ensure a greater and cleaner supply of water.

If the decimation of this species is not enough to hurry your deliberations, then let me identify another consequence of your inertia surrounding this war. There are signs of people starting to disinvest from owning rhino. Latest reports show that in 2011 KZN had 44 private wildlife owners who invested in rhino on their private game farms. Today I see this figure has dropped to 38; six owners in KZN have effectively said this rhino poaching epidemic is simply proving too costly to keep them. And I understand the same scenario is reflected elsewhere in the country. Believe me, this is a big red flag! My final word to the international conservation lobby comes from the battlefield we are engulfed in: ‘Never reinforce a failed strategy’.  

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