History is littered with extinctions where human neglect, recklessness or ignorance resulted in the complete erasure of a species. For three decades in Botswana, specially trained armed forces, wildlife officers and conservationists have been holding hands as a human shield around the handful of rhinos still in the wild. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports on a week in which the country’s success in this regard was revealed as globally phenomenal.
Tshekedi Khama, the minister of environment, wildlife and tourism, is aware that the country’s three-decade long fight against rhino poachers carries a historical significance he has to shoulder.
“We owe it to our future generations for them to be able to see what rhinos looked like and not just imagine them as prehistoric beasts.”
This visionary tenet has underwritten government efforts to preserve rhino species in the last 30 or so years, as numbers of the ecologically sensitive, but high value target animals have drastically declined.
According to a brief compiled by national rhino coordinator, Martin “Map” Ives, Botswana used to boast both black and white rhinos at one point in its history, although the former were in lower numbers than the latter.
Unrestricted trophy hunting in the early 20th century and the emergency of poaching syndicates in the 21st slashed numbers of the beasts and in 1992, black rhinos were regarded as extinct in Botswana.
Ives’ research, however, shows even before this – at the end of the 19th century in fact – white rhinos were “probably extinct,” the victims of rampant hunting by trigger-happy adventurers of the day. Where their contemporaries hunted out of a sense of adventure in the 19th and 20th centuries, the rhino’s enemy of the 21st century is a more commercially minded hunter, driven by a profit motive. In Asia, rhino horns are viewed as miracle drugs for all forms of ailments, including cancer, and centuries of beliefs have ensured that demand remains high in countries such as China and Vietnam.
Experts say thanks to the growing middle class in China, which is eager to show off its wealth, the price of the rhino horn today is worth more per kilogramme than gold or cocaine! Taking advantage of the massive surveillance required for the large swathes of savannah these beasts call home, poachers snare, shoot and hack away to feed the syndicates operating in western and eastern Africa as routes to Asia. According to Ives, white rhino numbers rose to 190 in 1984 thanks in part to translocation and breeding programmes in association with South Africa. By 1992, poachers had cut the number of white rhino to just 27 and black rhino to extinct.
“The Botswana Defence Force was given a tough mandate to end commercial poaching, and the remaining white rhinos were captured and translocated to small, secure sanctuaries elsewhere in Botswana,” Ives says, citing other researchers. The BDF joined the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and other law enforcement officers in weighing into the effort to ring-fence white rhinos, their black counterparts only existing as a handful of animals regionally translocated into specific sanctuaries.
The Department’s efforts are particularly close to heart for Khama.
“They were the first department to fight and it is not fair that other departments have been allowed to surpass them.
“They have not been capacitated enough,” he says.
The armed response, including the now world famous “shoot to kill” policy on weaponised poachers tackled the illegal hunting of rhinos, while the end of trophy hunting, also called time on the centuries old “adventurism”.
Seeing the commitment, South Africa, which lost more than 1, 200 rhinos last year alone, stepped up its translocation efforts, moving at least 14 beasts to Botswana’s human shield in 2014. This year, 100 rhinos are in the process of being moved. It was always suspected that the radical policies and the inter-agency cooperation were having phenomenal success, judging by snapshot surveys and other data.
Rhino population figures are infrequently released, as authorities are wary of inadvertently stoking the attentions of sophisticated poaching syndicates.
However, a report this week by Statistics Botswana brought the success into sharp relief, indicating the strides the country has taken in responding to the centuries old decimation of rhinos. According to the report, Botswana had 26 white rhinos in 2005, which rose to 74 in 2010 and 153 in 2014 – the highest number since 1984. The rise is directly linked to higher births, acquisition and relocations as well as lower deaths and removals.
Between 2010 and 2011, the rhino population shot up from 74 to 116, before again rising to 131 in 2012 and 133 in 2013.
“The increase in white rhino population is attributable to the government’s management efforts which include translocation to secure sanctuaries, and engaging the BDF in combating the escalating poaching incidences,” the report reads. This year, the fight to save rhinos kicks up a gear with P48 million set aside for a Rhino Squad, which will comprise an elite unit of specially trained law enforcement officers using the latest technology and weapons.
“Of this figure, P2 million is for training and the balance is for equipment,” says Khama, clearly pleased that the Department is finally receiving justice.
“We are going to take the anti-poaching unit to another level. “All the requirements have been processed and going forward into the financial year, we will put up the structures. Our officers are undergoing training because conservation does not wait for anyone.
“The world expects us to go from zero to hero in no time.” Going from zero to hero is what Botswana has been doing for decades, leading the world in the fight against poaching and preserving the last refuge for rhinos in southern Africa.
National rhino coordinator, Ives, shows no signs of letting up the fight. The veteran conservationist was appointed to the post by government in May last year.
“Our rhinos are very well looked after and we have a large contingent of anti-poaching and BDF guarding them around the clock,” he says.
“I have the support of the armed forces, wildlife department and the private sector is also a partner.
“We have advanced intelligence at work and if any threat comes here, they will be in danger.
“We have not lost any rhinos this year and everything is getting stronger. We are putting more defences in place and while we have no doubt that the syndicates are highly organised, we are too.”
Ives adds: “Our rhinos are absolutely safe. We are bringing them back to where they were historically.” History will judge Botswana kindly in its valiant attempts to save rhinos from becoming for future generations: “that prehistoric looking creature”.