Helicopters: Just one tool in the fight against poaching

Rhino1Rhino poaching is a complex issue and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is implementing the necessary multipronged approach.

The front­page article titled “Helicopters down — rhino poaching up” (The Witness, February 23) refers. It will be wrong for the current biodiversity leadership in our province, country and continent to remain silent and allow unscientific and untested artificial conjecture to be paraded as fact in the public domain and mislead the unsuspecting public.

I have experienced poaching of all species, rhino included, in my previous roles as director of the Kruger National Park and CEO of Sanparks and currently as CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. This long history of service to my country qualifies me to speak with authority when it comes to the subject of rhino poaching specifically and biodiversity conservation in general. The notion that helicopters can stop rhino poaching trivialises and makes a complex subject simplistic. There is no empirical evidence that shows the existence of a correlation between rhino poaching and operating helicopters as a tool to stop the scourge. If I’m mistaken, please provide me the reference.

There are many more variables that influence the increase of rhino­poaching incidents in KZN than the helicopter tender (which is already awarded). We all know that the Kruger National Park is the epicentre of rhino poaching in South Africa because of the porous long border with Mozambique, which is the main launching pad of incursions into the Kruger. Recently, the Kruger has established a ring of steel named the Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ) in the south of the park to protect 80% of its rhino population with modern ground and aerial technology, which has repelled poachers with great success. Unfortunately, this fortification has diverted the poachers to KZN, which is seen as a soft target. We are aware that rhino poaching has attracted criminals who were previously involved in vehicle hijacking, bank robberies, cash­in­transit heists and ATM­bombing crimes, because of the low risks and high returns to the criminals. Well­known syndicates from other provinces have also turned to KZN and are working with local criminal networks in the province.

In previous years, arrests were mainly against Mozambicans, Vietnamese, Chinese and other foreign nationalities. Lately, the trend has changed and we are arresting many South Africans at both level one and two categories. The situation is compounded by the increasing levels of corruption among our ranks, the police, immigration officials and other law­enforcement and professional services such as veterinarians. The number of corruption cases in wildlife management is making our efforts to achieve success more difficult.

There are also ecological factors not related to helicopters that have played a significant role in the increase of rhino­poaching incidents in the past few months. In the past six months, we have experienced a brighter moonlight period than usual. Poachers hunt at night, although they enter the reserves when nobody is watching and perch themselves at high points where they can survey their target areas. A bright moonlight is a poacher’s paradise. Unfortunately, none of our helicopters can fly at night or during bad weather, which is another reason why one cannot be
100% reliant on helicopters.

The effect of the drought has had devastating consequences for the fight against rhino poaching. The grass and forest vegetation that provided rhinos with cover is very thin and low. Some parts of our rhino reserves have literally been transformed into deserts and the rhinos are sitting ducks. The lack of water has channelled rhino and other species to the few watering holes left and to fenceline areas, making it easy for poachers to shoot at them from the edge of the reserves. Helicopters are not a panacea to the rhino­poaching epidemic. They are part of the total solution or tool box. We are following a multi­pronged approach, which includes, among others, the following elements:

• equipping our rangers with para­military tactics and approach to ensure that they have a range of skills set, equipment and attributes to face aggressive and well­armed poachers;
• the establishment of a competent central command control for co­ordination;
• creating a network of informers and co­operate with intelligence structures;
• collaboration with law­enforcement agencies, the NPA and the courts;
• deployment of state­of­the­art technology with early warning and tracking technology;
• the creation of alliances with private land owners in our province and neighbouring countries;
• the IPZ concept is key, to focus on where most of our assets are and deploy the bulk of our resources there; and
• establishing firm and mutually beneficial relations with our communities surrounding the reserves to be the eyes and ears of EKZNW.

It is also not true that there has been a void of aerial surveillance since the lapse of the helicopter contract. This is a convenient fabrication of a perception by those with a vested interest and personal agenda in the helicopter tender. We have always had access to the game­capture helicopter for hot pursuits, evacuation and intelligence­driven deployments. We are also fortunate to have a national deployment of the police under Operation Rhino 6, which comes with a helicopter from time to time. We cannot use the helicopter to conduct daily patrol in the reserves as such an approach would be prohibitingly expensive. The SAPS and SANDF also don’t use their helicopters for daily patrols but on specific interventions. Each of our helicopters is allocated 35 hours per month and it would exhaust its allocation in two days if it were to be used for patrols. Helicopters spring into action after a rhino has been shot, to pursue suspects. We should not confuse the public by creating false expectations that helicopters will stop rhino poach­ ing. It hasn’t happened in Kruger with four state­of­the­art helicopters. It won’t happen in our back yard either. EKZNW is considering establishing its own airwing with a larger helicopter like the Squirrel or equivalent, and a Cesna 182 fixed­wing aircraft to strengthen the tool box to fight poaching and perform other conservation work such as population monitoring and surveys.

Dr David Mabunda is chief executive officer of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and writes in his official capacity.