The good rains in the Okavango Delta region have become a curse for rhinos, as the denser thickets provide cover for poachers, who are picking off their targets almost at leisure. While anti-poaching rangers and their vehicles struggle for access, heavily armed poachers are spending months surveying their prey while using plastic mattresses to navigate the waters. Staff Writer MBONGENI MGUNI writes
One night recently, a suspected Zambian poacher was nabbed while four others escaped after law enforcement in Namibia caught them crossing into the Okavango Delta in Botswana to carry out their illegal activities.
According to reports of the incident, the group had two hunting rifles, five inflatable mattresses to cross the waterways, handsaws to hack off rhino horns and elephant tusks, knives, axes, solar panels, torches and their personal effects.
The group also had a 12.5-kilogramme bag of maize meal, five litres of cooking oil, rice and samp packets, dried elephant meat and fish.
The five men were planning on an extended stay in the Delta, spotting, tracking and killing their targets in the dense wetlands, hacking off the ‘trophies’ and slipping back across the border to connect with syndicates believed to be based in east Asia.
The price of the rhino horn today is worth more per kilogramme than gold or cocaine and poor villagers in neighbouring countries, many of them veterans of liberation struggles, are paid by the syndicates to risk their lives and apply their knowledge of the wetlands in search of rhino horns and elephant tusks.
The pay is poor, reportedly less than $5 per day, the risks are high as anti-poaching rangers and the Botswana Defence Force patrol the area, but the poachers drifting in from Namibia and Zambia into Botswana to kill in the Delta, have little other economic activity back home.
As rhino populations in the region have declined, the wetlands around the world-famous Okavango Delta are by comparison teeming, which is a magnet for tourists. However, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) reducing the numbers of visitors, the safari vehicles that sometimes scare away poachers, have declined.
Local wildlife management expert, Eric Verreynne says on top of this, the strong rains in the Delta this season have meant that as the waters rise and the wetlands become denser, anti-poaching patrols have found themselves unable to access all the corners of the Delta, allowing the poachers more room to thrive.
The Delta, the pride of the country, has become difficult to defend and the rising numbers of rhino poaching incidents, as acknowledged by the government, show that the low-tech, mattress, axe and maize meal-carrying groups have the upper hand for now over the high-tech, vehicle and boat-riding rangers.
“The poachers know the area very well and they have the ability to move even where it’s difficult, wet and very dense,” he says.
“It’s very, very difficult to spot anything there. It’s almost impossible to get into certain areas with vehicles.
“The Delta is a very difficult place to defend and you have to push in a lot of resources to defend it.”
The question of how severe the poaching crisis depends on who you talk to. Former president, Ian Khama recently said the situation was an existential crisis for rhinos, a statement roundly condemned by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). DWNP director, Kabelo Senyatso says poaching and other wildlife-related incidents have declined by 70% when the COVID-19 period between March 2020 and February 2021 is compared with the corresponding period in 2019.
Using the numbers of mortalities or the population remaining in the Delta is also a challenge. Traditionally, government closely guards the number of rhinos in the country to disincentivise poachers, which allows speculation by other commentators, such as Khama who said 120 rhinos had been killed within 18 months.
Whatever the numbers, the situation has invoked fears of the crisis of 1992-1993 when poaching drove rhinos to the brink of extinction in Botswana. At that time, the number of white rhino dwindled to just 27 while black rhino ceased to exist in the wild.
The response, at the time, included relocating the remaining rhinos to the safer Khama Rhino Sanctuary where breeding programmes and later translocations
“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,” renowned conservationist, Map Ives said previously, citing other researchers.
The BDF joined the DWNP 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.
This time around, government’s response has been to dehorn rhinos in the Delta, but conservationists and others say poachers are still targeting the dehorned rhinos.
According to reports, when poachers track a rhino for days and find it is dehorned, they slaughter it anyway for the nub left and also to make sure one less rhino is left that they may potentially track again by mistake in future and find dehorned.
For Verreynne, a three-decade veteran of wildlife management, one option is revisiting the strategy employed after the 1992 crisis.
“We need to employ the same process.
“We need to take them out of the Delta and get them to safety until the population returns to better numbers and then we return them to the Delta if we can protect them.
“We previously suggested that they can be taken to areas like the Makgadikgadi and Jwana Game Park in Jwaneng.
“Let’s also distribute them to the private sector who can defend them in smaller lots and also the communities like Sankoyo who have a 10 hectare reserve, which can be protected by BDF and rangers.
“South Africa has had success with this because it is much easier to defend smaller populations in private properties, than larger populations in the wilderness.”
Government, according to Environment, National Resources, Conservation and Tourism minister Philda Kereng, has already relocated black rhinos to safety, as their numbers are lower than the white and thus more sensitive.
The dilemma for government, analysts say, is that relocating white rhinos out of the Delta removes a key species desired by tourists at a time when efforts are being made to resuscitate the COVID-19 hit industry. While tourists enjoy the Delta’s waterways and elephants, spotting a rhino in the wilderness is a once in a lifetime experience. Depopulating the Delta of rhinos would be a blow to the tourism sector’s revival plans, analysts say.
The minister, meanwhile, says efforts are being made to arrest the situation around rhinos in the Delta.
“Rhino poaching continues to pose a challenge in efforts to conserve these iconic species in Botswana,” she told Parliament recently.
“To address this escalating threat, a decision was taken to dehorn rhinos in the Okavango Delta.
“In addition, efforts were also made to relocate the remaining highly endangered black rhinos to places of safety.
“The Ministry is in the process of reviewing the Rhino Conservation and Management Strategy in order to boost efforts to increase rhino numbers, improve the community and private sector participation in rhino management as well as develop measures to combat poaching.
“The strategy is expected to start in April 2021.”
Verreynne, who is the coordinator of the Rhino Working Group within the Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, says their members have been feeding into the Rhino Conservation and Management Strategy.
“Our members are looking after many rhinos already at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Orapa Game Park and Jwana, who are members. “We would love to have these partnerships and also see the communities involved.
“It is also very important to incentivise those who take up the rhinos because there are costs involved and investment required.”
All the voices in conservation and tourism agree that rhinos need stronger protection, as the poachers make their presence felt.
It is hoped that the upcoming strategy will map out a way to achieve this and protect the country’s iconic species.