A rhino with her calf at a watering home in a South African game reserve. Thanks to continued conservation efforts since the 1960s, South Africa is the last stronghold of significant rhino populations in the world. (Image: South African Tourism)
The US-based Howard G Buffet Foundation, a philanthropic trust headed by the elder son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, has pledged a massive R255-million (US$23.7-million) for a high-tech three-year initiative to fight rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park and test tactics that could be used against armed militia elsewhere in Africa.
The project, announced in Johannesburg on Friday 14 March, will be run by the Nature Conservation Trust in partnership with South African National Parks (SANParks), the state body in charge of the country’s system of natural reserves.
The funds will go towards creating an “intensive protection zone” in the Kruger National Park, which will use sophisticated detection and tracking equipment on the ground and in the air, elite dog units, highly trained ranger teams, and improved intelligence gathering and surveillance systems to keep poachers at bay.
At 1.9-million hectares, the Kruger is South Africa’s flagship national park, and home to over 40% of the world’s remaining rhinos – the largest single population in the world. But a massive increase in the global demand for rhino horn has seen 1 383 of the animals poached from Kruger since January 2010, part of a larger assault in which 2 368 rhinos have been slaughtered in South Africa over the past few years. In some areas of Africa, entire populations of rhino have been eliminated.
Criminal networks and armed militias
Rhino poaching in Kruger is driven mainly by criminal networks in Mozambique, South Africa and East Asia, but there is evidence that militant armed groups elsewhere in Africa get significant funding from the illegal trade in rhino horn. The new protection zone in Kruger will be a testing ground for tactics to fight poaching in these other African regions.
“As the world opens its borders and travel between countries becomes easier, cross-border crimes increase,” Edna Molewa, South Africa’s environment minister, said at the announcement. “It is a sad reality that increases in certain crimes, such as the illicit wildlife trade, can be partly attributed to modern development and growing economies.
“In this world of illicit trade in wildlife the biggest resource, as with many other natural resources, happens to be found in Africa.” The illegal trade in wildlife, Molewa said, is today the fourth-largest syndicated criminal activity in the world after drug trafficking, human trafficking and arms smuggling.
The Howard G Buffett Foundation is a private family foundation working in food and water security, conflict mitigation and conservation in some of the poorest regions of the world.
‘Africa’s best national parks system’
A farmer, businessman, philanthropist, conservationist and photographer, Howard G Buffett heads both his foundation and the South African Nature Conservation Trust. “This effort joins our foundation’s historic support for conservation,” he said on Friday, “with our current focus on conflict mitigation in Africa, particularly in the Great Lakes region.”
His foundation has committed an additional R1.9-billion ($175-million) to its Africa Great Lakes Peace Initiative, which includes funding for anti-poaching efforts intended to interrupt the flow of money to armed groups.
The Kruger Park project will be directed by retired Major General Johan Jooste, a decorated army veteran hired by SANParks CEO David Mabunda in 2012 to run the national parks’ anti-poaching efforts. SANParks, Buffett said, was “the best operating national parks system on the continent”, providing a “unique opportunity to test new technology and new ideas” to curb poaching.
Mabunda said the Buffett Foundation intervention would transform SANParks’ continued work to curb the assault on rhino populations. “The scale, complexity, and strategic value of this initiative is truly unprecedented for SANParks,” he said. “We believe it will be transformative in our ongoing efforts to address poaching and the decimation of the rhino population in Kruger National Park.
“More importantly, the lessons we hope to learn and share across SANParks and the continent will, we believe, develop new and more effective ways to combat illicit wildlife trade, particularly where it is financing armed groups.”
Poachers’ eyes on Africa
The demand for rhino horn, a folk remedy attributed with powerful curative properties in many Asian countries, has decimated rhino populations across the world. With the three South Asian rhino species close to extinction, poachers’ attention has recently turned to Africa as the last source of the horn.
“Having completely destroyed rhino populations throughout the world the criminals have in the last seven years set their sights on Africa, specifically South Africa,” Molewa said.
With few natural enemies, rhino were once abundant throughout Africa and Asia. Today there are fewer than 30 000 left in the world, only 4 000 of them outside Africa, which has an estimated population of 25 000 rhino.
And as rhino numbers continue to dwindle, their horn has become arguably the most expensive commodity on earth today, according to research by a number of non-governmental organisations.
“South Africa is home to more than 80% of the world’s rhino population, a testament to our country’s successful conservation practices,” Molewa said. “It is this successful restoration of the rhino population since the 1960s that makes South Africa the single-most important country in the fight for the survival of the rhino.”