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Rhino Protection Programme, Wildlife Crime

Wildlife Zones to protect all of South Africa’s rhino

South Africa’s multitude of public and private rhino custodians are coming together like never before in an initiative that will see all of the country’s rhino protected as a single national herd. 

As people across the globe celebrate World Rhino Day today, South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has announced the launch of the Wildlife Zones initiative that brings together proven anti-poaching strategies and technologies on a national level to protect the country’s rhino herd – the largest population of white and black wild rhino in the world- collectively.  This project is supported by Peace Parks Foundation with funding from the US Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), as well as the Dutch, Swedish and UK People’s Postcode Lotteries.

Through the Rhino Protection Programme, Peace Parks has, since 2014, worked closely with the South African government and its conservation management authorities to develop and implement practical, well-considered methods through which to address issues at various critical points along the so-called ‘poaching supply chain’.

For the first time in many years, South Africa is showing a downward trend in rhino poaching. A major contributing factor is the decline in the number of rhinos lost in Kruger National Park, which reported a 61% drop in rhino poaching since 2015. The park, which faced unprecedented poaching pressure over the last decade, now stands tall amongst South Africa’s rhino strongholds.

For the first time in many years, South Africa is showing a downward trend in rhino poaching

Unfortunately, wildlife crime networks are as resourceful as they are adaptable and where we closed entry points in certain strongholds, they found their way into areas that were not as secure. This motivated us to move from suppressing the threat only in certain areas, to putting in place the Wildlife Zones initiative that will finally drive them out on a national level.

The intensified response to countering rhino poaching in South Africa radically expanded the understanding of the illegal wildlife trade. South African National Parks (SANParks), Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Ezemvelo) and other state and non-state stakeholders have explored countless solutions over the past decade, and many of these have been instrumental in slowing poaching in the country. This included developing robust strategies, training and equipping rangers on the ground, and developing and deploying effective technology force multipliers. One technology solution is the Intelligent (AI) Camera Trap system deployed in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, which allows for the proactive prevention of poaching incidents in its intensive protection zone. Another is the Postcode Meerkat, a wide-area surveillance system that has been instrumental in achieving the significant decline in rhino poaching in Kruger National Park. These, as well as several other solutions, are now ready to be scaled for adoption by multiple state and private rhino reserves on a national level.

The Postcode Meerkat comprises a suite of radar and electro-optic sensors that will detect, classify, monitor and track humans moving in the park over a wide area. In addition, the system has been designed to be mobile so that it can be rapidly deployed to prevent poaching crisis zones from developing.

Seven Wildlife Zones

The Wildlife Zones initiative will see such proven solutions consolidated and strategically deployed to close capacity gaps and eliminate weaknesses that are currently perpetuating wildlife crime across the country, by aggregating rhino reserves into seven integrated wildlife zones.

Doug Gillings, who heads up Peace Parks’ Combatting Wildlife Crime department, says “the new Wildlife Zones concept is aimed at promoting and facilitating cooperation between public, private sector and local communities in and around key rhino landscapes.”

Four interventions – encompassing strategies, technologies, and people

The Wildlife Zones initiative will roll out in three phases, focusing specifically on four areas of intervention. 

  • The first is to promote national coordination by establishing the Environmental Enforcement Fusion Centre (EEFC) from which industry leading wildlife crime experts within the national government will drive the initiative. This centre of excellence will initially coordinate tactical engagement between the government, rhino owners and NGOs in South Africa, and eventually coordinate national efforts within the wildlife zones. A major component of this will be the monitoring, evaluation and adaptation of joint protection interventions and trafficking disruptions.
  • The second pillar of intervention will look at encouraging the sharing of knowledge gained through lessons learnt to promote both best practices and optimal resource allocation. As the project evolves, new information will become available which will be shared between the various initiatives within the zones.
  • The third intervention will focus on the joint protection of the national rhino herd by implementing strategies, closing gaps and establishing core, fit-for-purpose rhino protection capabilities and solutions within each zone. Initially private, public and non-governmental organisations will be engaged through the National Rhino Anti-Poaching Committee to formalise the seven wildlife zones. Within this third intervention, the Wildlife Zones initiative aims to identify, formalise and establish participative stakeholder and community engagement structures.
  • The fourth intervention will further strengthen the national intelligence picture on wildlife crime in South Africa by bringing together the best wildlife crime analysts from government conservation and environmental departments and agencies. Their collective knowledge and understanding of this incredibly complex situation will guide national joint intelligence-led operations and investigations that will ultimately disrupt rhino horn trafficking supply chains.

Until a different approach is adopted to rhino protection in South Africa, authorities will not gain the necessary advantage to drive out wildlife crime networks and will continue bearing costs that are not sustainable. I believe that the Wildlife Zones initiative will set in motion an innovative mechanism that, while giving authorities the much-needed edge over crime networks in the country, will cultivate sustainability in rhino protection in South Africa and the region.

Werner Myburgh, CEO of Peace Parks Foundation

Correcting the fragmented response to rhino crimes in South Africa, the Wildlife Zone initiative centres around bringing together the people, strategies and technologies from the public and private sectors that have been successfully developed over the last decade. It is grounded in adopting a participatory, holistic approach to combatting wildlife crime that includes all levels of stakeholders; and is aligned to the objectives of South Africa’s National Integrated Strategy to Combat Wildlife Trafficking.

The war on poaching is raging on, but hope is no longer out of reach.

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