Hidden government report exposes security gaps amid surging KZN rhino bloodbath
Tony Carnie

As the slaughter rate of KwaZulu-Natal’s rhinos soars to record levels, a buried government report has brought to light some major weaknesses in anti-poaching measures by the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife provincial conservation agency.

Apart from evidence that some Ezemvelo board members tried to slip untrained ANC “military vets” into positions as game rangers, the report also raises concern about outdated weapons for rangers, uncontrolled access points to parks, cases of indiscipline, low morale and post-traumatic stress among anti-poaching staff, and an exodus of skilled staff from key posts.

Some of the information in it might be dated, but the first part of the provincial government task team report has nevertheless highlighted several weaknesses in anti-poaching tactics in the flagship Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. 

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is one of the oldest game reserves in Africa, famous for its role in saving the white rhino species from extinction during the 1890s. Under the leadership of legendary ranger Dr Ian Player, this reserve provided the entire global foundation stock for the reintroduction of white rhinos to the Kruger National Park and other reserves across the continent from the 1960s.

But in the first five months of 2022, at least 118 rhinos were killed by poachers in KZN, most of them in this 96,000ha Big Five reserve. This is the highest daily killing rate recorded in the park and unless the trend is reversed soon, the year-end losses will almost certainly exceed the previous record from 2017 when at least 222 of these animals were poached.

Now, following a successful Promotion of Access to Information Act request by the DA and its KZN legislature member, Heinz de Boer, the first 53 pages of a hitherto unpublished government report have come to light.

Under wraps

The task team was appointed in late 2016 to conduct a detailed threat assessment on rhino poaching in KZN, including the ability of the criminal justice system to control poaching. It is understood that the report was finally presented to the government more than two years ago – but kept under wraps thereafter. 

Rangers patrol in the 96,000ha Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. (Photo: Project Rhino)

De Boer, the party’s provincial spokesperson on the environment and tourism, has welcomed disclosure of the first section of the report, but noted that the government had not committed to public disclosure of the second part because it allegedly contains sensitive information linked to ongoing anti-poaching investigations.

De Boer is pushing to have the “classified” second part tabled in the provincial parliament for urgent in-committee consideration.

“We should have sat down two years ago as members of the provincial legislature to discuss this damning report and to take immediate action,” he said, adding that a separate forensic investigation into the conduct of Ezemvelo board members seemed to have gone nowhere.

“The premier and his cabinet cannot be allowed to sweep the apparent forensic investigation under the carpet. To date, however, this seems to be the case. According to sources, no findings have been made, while the probe is yet to begin. This inaction smacks of political dithering in the hopes that public focus will shift from the issue and that ANC members – who served on the former board – will be spared the consequences.”

He appears to be referring to allegations that certain board members meddled in the day-to-day running of Ezemvelo operations. The entire board was suspended in April 2020 after “prima facie allegations against the Board as a collective”.  

One example of “overreach” reported to the task team concerned “certain board members with vested interests in employment issues, apparently attempting to fill scarce ranger posts with military veterans, who had little or no conservation experience or qualifications”. 

“The impact of this endeavour reportedly delayed the filling of these critical posts for a significant period, delaying much-needed ‘feet on the ground’ personnel necessary to address the increasing poaching activities… In our view it is essential that… any person employed by Ezemvelo in the conservation or law enforcement field must either have a recognised conservation background or be trained in conservation, preferably in Ezemvelo’s established training facilities.”

It is possible that the situation has changed after the report was written, but the task team questioned whether Ezemvelo was prepared adequately for the new phase of “low-intensity warfare” financed by international poaching syndicates.

‘More militaristic’

The team noted that Ezemvelo’s traditional law-enforcement model had not changed substantially in 60 years, when it was established to control subsistence bushmeat poaching. But poachers were now well armed and organised and rangers had to adapt to meet this new threat.

A wildlife manager collects evidence from the carcass of a dehorned rhino in Ezemvelo’s Weenen Nature Reserve. (Photo: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife)

“In consequence their roles have had to become more militaristic. In many respects rhino poaching has forced management to adopt intelligence-based counterinsurgency tactics to combat poaching, which has involved rangers performing duties akin to those of soldiers.”

The task team was concerned that some anti-poaching personnel were already showing signs of post-traumatic stress owing to the excessive demands made on them.

Returning to the role and mandate of the board, the task team questioned whether certain board members had the requisite “deep interest” in nature conservation.

One top official confided that his working relationship with the board was poor, with some members “meddling” in management decisions.

“The Board met too frequently and ran up excessive expenditure unnecessarily and, in one case, held 40 meetings in the space of six months.

“If correct, this appeared to the task team as excessive, particularly in the light of the need to reduce costs… This unhealthy state of affairs, in our view, did not only weaken the organisation, but it indirectly caused a breakdown in senior leadership morale, thus adversely affecting all programmes including the anti-rhino poaching initiatives.

The prosecution of poachers after they have killed an animal creates a false sense of achievement in operational objectives. In reality it is a failure, as the rhino is dead!

“A startling example of the Board exceeding its mandate was its involvement in a potential agreement between The Royal Rhino and Elephant Reserves of Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd. Effectively, this agreement would have outsourced nature conservation in the KZN reserves to the abovementioned corporation. The Board would have abdicated its statutory obligations to protect and manage protected areas within the province, to a private company with vested financial interests. This process got as far as agreements being signed, but fortunately it was stopped by the urgent intervention of the then responsible MEC after he considered a report on the matter received from the Ian Player/Magqubu Ntombela Foundation.

“In current parlance this agreement would have led to ‘State Capture’ in that the State’s responsibilities would have been ceded to a private organisation for financial gain.”

Back on the ground, however, some rangers on the frontline were carrying outdated weapons, “some of which are more than 60 years old, having been donated to the organisation by the then South African Defence Force… It was reported that in any event there was a shortage of rifles available for anti-poaching operations. This is obviously unacceptable.”

The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park is one of the oldest game reserves in Africa. Under the leadership of legendary ranger Dr Ian Player, it provided the entire global foundation stock for the reintroduction of white rhinos to the Kruger National Park and other reserves across the continent from the 1960s. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

There was also a need to adapt tactics to confront sophisticated poaching gangs. Over recent years the more effective counterpoaching response in the Kruger Park has forced poaching gangs to look for softer targets.

According to the task team, Ezemvelo reserves are much smaller than Kruger, which meant poachers struck faster and spent less time in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi – hours as opposed to the days they sometimes spent in Kruger.

“It is therefore essential to deploy operatives rapidly to have any chance of preventing a kill… In KZN, in order to prevent kills, time is of the essence. Tactics must be developed where rangers are deployed in a much shorter period than currently is the case.

“It is essential that air support and deployment by helicopter is available at all times, day and night, given the short time poachers take to reach their prey. The focus should be on preventative measures, as in most cases in KZN, once an incursion is detected there is often too little time to prevent the poachers from killing the rhino. 

“While the poacher may be caught later, the damage is already done. While every arrest and conviction is important, the prosecution of poachers after they have killed an animal creates a false sense of achievement in operational objectives. In reality it is a failure, as the rhino is dead! Poachers must be intercepted before they are able to kill the animal.”

Gate security loopholes also needed to be closed urgently. 

One example was the Ophathe Game Reserve, which had lost its entire population of 48 rhino due to inadequate perimeter monitoring and control.

“A disturbing feature of our investigations showed that there are a number of completely unmanaged gates on the borders of the (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi) park through which persons can enter without being seen, recorded or monitored in any way. 

“While these gates were originally established for the convenience of staff to enter from their homes in the adjacent area, the level of poaching is such that this whole system needs to be revisited. People should only be allowed to enter the reserves through manned gates where security measures are applied.”

There should also be better use of sniffer dogs at park entrances. All vehicles should be checked to ensure that the number of car occupants leaving the park matched the number who entered in that vehicle. The Corridor Road, a public tar road running through the centre of the park, was another major risk area.

“The road has a relatively high traffic volume day and night and the only form of control is a cattle grid on the exit and entrance. In order to not restrict game movement, there is no fence on either side of this road. 

“Unfortunately, the area that it passes through is a sought-after area for wildlife. Rhino can often be seen grazing right next to the road, thus making easy prey for the poaching gangs. A large number of rhino have unfortunately been lost to poachers along the Corridor Road.”

The task team therefore recommended that security booms be installed on both sides of the Corridor Road and manned 24/7 (or at least during the hours of darkness).

Vehicles should be stopped and searched at regular intervals to create a deterrence factor. During full moon and other high threat periods, there should be regular vehicle patrols, along with number plate and licence-recognition camera systems.

Alleged failures by top-level leadership were another disturbing feature mentioned by the task team.

“Until recently the Park Manager of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Reserve did not reside in the reserve but in fact lived in Durban, some 300km away from his area of responsibility. This anomaly was allowed to continue even though this was contrary to policy which required that the Park Manager resided in the park.”

An armed ranger on night patrol along a dry river bank in the Kruger National Park. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

There were similar reports about other senior managers spending much time outside the reserve.

“As a result of this vacuum in leadership, some of the responsibilities of running the reserve fell upon the section rangers who are already stretched in their attempts to curb poaching. A further consequence of management not residing within the park has been the adverse impact on morale. The field ranger corps cannot be expected to place their lives in danger when their managers are absent from the park at critical periods.”

‘Compromised’ discipline

Another red flag was raised over alleged indiscipline and an exodus of demoralised anti-poaching staff. 

“Operations against poachers are essentially paramilitary in nature. It is thus important that strict discipline applies. The Task Team was concerned that the required levels of discipline were being compromised as opposed to the Kruger National Park, which placed a strong emphasis on discipline and professionalism.

“It was reported that lines of reporting were blurred in that frequently junior staff contacted senior management directly, to question decisions made by middle management. This, it was reported, had the effect of undermining middle management and created a climate where middle management became insecure and unable to exercise proper control over their subordinates.

“Furthermore, it was reported that there was a general lack of consequence management in that disciplinary hearings and processes were performed rarely and persons accused of disciplinary infractions were rarely charged. It was reported that disciplinary matters were sometimes reduced to racial spats, disguising the underlying infraction. In our diverse democracy it is important that racial tensions are properly managed and understood and interventions are put in place to build partnerships and trust within teams.

“Almost every member of field staff that we interviewed cited the lack of discipline as one of their major concerns. If urgent steps are not taken to reinstate discipline and accountability, no amount of financial or other assistance will save the organisation from an inevitable demise. This will compromise all efforts to conserve the rhino species. 

“The breakdown of morale and lack of proper diversity management, we were informed, has directly contributed to an exodus of experienced and skilled managers whose experience is a great loss to the organisation and the anti-poaching drive. Former staff members with vast experience in KZN reserves now occupy senior conservation positions in reserves in other parts of Africa. We cannot afford the loss of this expertise.”

There is indeed suspicion of collusion between criminal syndicates and those tasked with conservation

These are merely excerpts from the first part of the report. What else is there in the second part?

De Boer is adamant that the rhino task team report, and the investigation into the former board, cannot be allowed to “to fade into the sunset”. 

In his initial response to the report, provincial environment MEC Ravi Pillay acknowledged that current levels of rhino poaching point to a “severe syndicated operation and brazenness level”.

“While the security forces are responding and the increased number of rangers deployed, we are mindful that it is only provincial, national and international coordinated responses that will have a long-term effect,” he said in a statement on 14 May.

“The Premier has tasked my department with processing and implementing recommendations of the report by the Task Team on Rhino Poaching in KwaZulu-Natal and this is a work in progress.

“It is my considered opinion that it will not be in the public interest to release the report into the public domain at this stage. Indeed, the authors specifically classify important parts of the report because of the sensitive nature concerning its impact on further investigations. 

“The broad thrust of the report is receiving attention and will require a multidisciplinary approach between Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the national Department of Environmental Affairs, SAPS, NPA and State Security.

“There is indeed suspicion of collusion between criminal syndicates and those tasked with conservation… We recognise that the starting point in the anti-rhino poaching effort in KZN is within Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. This entity has been in a poor state of affairs for some time, leading to the former board’s dissolution.

“The appointment of the new Board of Directors is imminent. The process would have been concluded last month, but it was interrupted due to the recent floods. The appointment of the new Board will be a critical milestone in the institutional recovery of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as a whole and our anti-rhino poaching efforts as well,” Pillay concluded. DM/OBP

Original text: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-05-31-kzn-rhino-bloodbath-hidden-report-exposes-security-gaps/