Ezemvelo – passionately protecting our rhinos

18 December 2015

As part of a new state-of-the-art communication system, Ezemvelo rangers have been equipped with encrypted digital communication devices
As part of a new state-of-the-art communication system, Ezemvelo rangers have been equipped with encrypted digital communication devices
As the region that possesses the rhino population with the farthest reaching genetic pool, the protection of rhino in KwaZulu-Natal is of critical importance to ensure the viability of future rhino population growth efforts in South Africa. This, coupled with an unabashed passion for conservation and the protection of our country’s natural heritage, is what drives the men and women of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (Ezemvelo) to take on the battle against wildlife crime with unwavering dedication.
In 2014, Ezemvelo received approximately R26.8 million (€1.7 million) from Peace Parks Foundation’s (PPF) Rhino Protection Programme (RPP) in support of developing relevant resources and skills, and finding innovative and sustainable counter-poaching solutions over a 5-year period. The RPP is implemented under the auspices of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) in partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks) and Ezemvelo, and is made possible through funding from the Dutch and Swedish postcode lotteries as well as other private donors.
Rhino poaching is a criminal act perpetrated by well-organised international syndicates, who are well-resourced and run established illegal wildlife, human and drug trafficking networks across the world. Gaining ground against the onslaughts of such syndicates, requires well-planned, multi-faceted strategies that will keep conservation agencies one step ahead of the poachers, and be operationally sustainable, so as to deliver results over the long term.
With this approach in mind, Ezemvelo has, only 18-months into receiving the initial funds, already forged ahead with the testing and roll-out of a comprehensive suite of projects aimed at enhancing staff capacity and capabilities; improving protected area security and support; implementing effective rhino asset management; as well as augmenting rhino veterinary support and rhino orphan care.
According to acting CEO of Ezemvelo, Dr David Mabunda, coordinated efforts across all of Ezemvelo’s rhino reserves are critical to avoid merely displacing criminal activity from one protected area to another: “The projects initiated through the Rhino Protection Programme are assisting Ezemvelo in standardizing and upgrading our counter-poaching efforts at a provincial level, in line with our broader strategy to manage the rhino population for the region in partnership with both private and government entities – building a unified line of defense against the onslaught of wildlife criminals in our protected areas.”

Training and skills development

Surveillance towers are being erected at strategic high-risk locations
Surveillance towers are being erected at strategic high-risk locations
  • In collaboration with the South African Police Services (SAPS) and local authorities, detectives and prosecutors have been trained in wildlife crime scene management and processing;
  • Key field staff, who rely on such skills to counter-track illegal entries in rhino reserves, attended micro-tracking and counter-insurgency tracking courses.
  • Ezemvelo is collaborating with the Southern African Wildlife College on a comprehensive training programme for field rangers and patrol leaders, to be commenced early in 2016.

Security and Protection

  • Improved gate access control is being rolled-out that will increase surveillance and identification capacity at reserve gates. This information will be used to assist investigations, as well as provide alerts on high risk visitors and vehicles, thus increasing the chance of known suspects being apprehended when attempting to enter the park.
  • New guard observation towers are being placed at strategic positions in Ezemvelo rhino reserves to allow for more effective monitoring of high risk entry points and monitoring of wildlife.

Veterinary and Rhino Orphan Care

  • Resources have been provided to strengthen the capacity of Ezemvelo wildlife veterinary teams to treat the rhino that survive the brutal attacks by poachers. These resources also assist veterinary staff in processing crime scenes for the purposes of evidence collection and tactical research.
  • New capacity and facilities have been put in place to rescue, care for, rehabilitate and release the increased number of rhino orphans.


  • Management and law enforcement staff throughout all Ezemvelo rhino reserves have been equipped with new digital two-way radios that allow for encrypted, secure communication with much improved sound and legibility. With advanced repeaters and radio systems being deployed throughout the reserves, it is anticipated that the new digital communications system will in most instances overcome problems with poor signal or so-called “dead-zones” that currently hamper alert and rapid response capabilities as well as ensure that important conversations are not able to be intercepted by poachers.
  • A test group of rhinos have been fitted with sensors and the relevant reserves equipped with tracking systems, in order to provide staff with enhanced capability to monitor the daily movement of rhino throughout these areas. This new tracking, early warning and rapid response systems will assist in improving response times to incidents of poaching - hopefully leading to more rhinos saved, as well as more arrests and convictions. The technology will be thoroughly tested so as to identify successes or shortcomings, and then to adapt methodology and practices accordingly before rolling it out to the larger rhino populations. Throughout the process, the well-being of the animals remain the first priority, and all of the rhinos fitted with sensors will be individually supervised so as ensure the absence of any adverse effects on their health and daily activities. This project also involves research into various rapid response and tracking systems so as to develop a system best suited for the environment within which Ezemvelo has to work, and the challenges faced by staff.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were deployed on a trial basis to test the capability of an assortment of UAV technologies as instruments to support Ezemvelo’s conservation, law enforcement and anti-poaching operations in varying environmental and operational conditions. The use of UAVs is specifically intended to provide law enforcement officers with aerial support at night and thus reduce the risk faced by ground staff. Following positive feedback from the initial test period, processes are being put in place to continue operating such aerial support and response systems in selected rhino reserves.
A park manager monitors rhino movement with one of the tracking and early warning systems currently being tested.
A park manager monitors rhino movement with one of the tracking and early warning systems currently being tested.
Said Werner Myburgh, CEO of PPF: “Developing innovative technology solutions to help conservation agencies stay one step ahead of poaching syndicates, is one of the primary focus areas of the multi-faceted Rhino Protection Programme. In rhino reserves with large numbers of known rhino populations, such as those managed by Ezemvelo, early warning and rapid response tracking systems can offer comprehensive protection capabilities, augmenting the abilities of well-trained staff on the ground, and making it almost impossible for poachers to successfully strike as incident alerts are triggered and can be responded to instantly.”
There is much still to be done, but this is not a battle that will be won overnight, nor through the quick deployment of critical resources to gain short-lived successes. Ezemvelo treasures every one of its rhinos – not only for their role in maintaining biodiversity, or their contribution to viable ecotourism, but because the people of Ezemvelo believe in the intrinsic value of animal life and their hearts break at the cruelty with which these gentle prehistoric giants are being eradicated. Ezemvelo is committed to finding effective and sustainable solutions to counter illegal poaching – to the benefit not only of the survival of the rhino population, but also to protect all other species suffering under the threat of wildlife crime, for the foreseeable future.

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