Balule Nature Reserve achieves the magic milestone of zero rhinos poached for two consecutive years!
Limpopo, South Africa (09 November 2022) – Before 2020, Balule Nature Reserve (“Balule”) experienced an unprecedented number of rhino deaths due to the poaching epidemic that has plagued the big five reserves across South Africa.
However, on the 9th of October 2022, Balule achieved a remarkable triumph: two years of zero rhino deaths. This is particularly astonishing given that in 2017 Balule had the worst rhino poaching statistics in the Open System of the Greater Kruger, with 17 deaths for their then 54 rhinos counted for the year.
Balule turned things around in November 2018 when Sharon Haussmann, the then-chairperson of Balule, called the wardens together to discuss how they needed to change their anti-poaching approach. Ian Nowak was then appointed as the general manager of Balule. By adopting top-down collective strategies and implementing effective anti-poaching teams on the ground, Balule were able to start moving in the right direction.
The agreed strategies included:
- Militarizing anti-poaching teams
- Dehorning rhinos
- The introduction of stringent integrity testing
- Bringing instate-of-the-art technology and canine units.
What went above and beyond these strategies was the need to work cohesively and collectively to protect the rhinos.
The poaching landscape in big five reserves has changed drastically over the last decade. This meant that to be effective anti-poaching units (APUs) needed to adapt. Balule decided to stop outsourcing its security to NGOs and third-party contractors. This was because Balule needed to be able to hold people accountable for rhino deaths, and who better than themselves?
Vince Ryan, the current chairman of Balule, describes the shift in the mentality of the wardens, “We needed to take responsibility of our own backyard and not see every reserve as an island”.
The APU training became more vigorous, and they needed to have the right equipment to be able to protect themselves, as well as the rhinos. As a result, the APUs became militarized with a vested interest in looking after their own land.
Stringent integrity testing was introduced when Balule started insourcing its APUs. Integrity testing involves implementing controversial polygraph testing, commonly known as a lie detector test. Balule needed a method to “clean out the rotten eggs”. With the demand for wild rhino horns skyrocketing across Asia, the pressure on APUs to stay on the side of the rhino war is immense. Vince Ryan describes that the “money just got too big”, and it is inevitable that some would turn to the side of the poachers as it is proving to be more and more lucrative. Random integrity tests coupled with lifestyle tests have been a successful method of identifying those who may have strayed to the poachers.
In 2019 Balule, along with some of the other Associated Private Reserves of the Greater Kruger, took the hard and then controversial decision to dehorn its rhinos. The bottom line is that a dehorned rhino is preferable to a dead rhino. Vince Ryan and the Balule board believe that dehorning rhinos has been a major deterrent for poachers. Dehorning is seen as a proactive strategy.
Balule started to dig deep to fund some of the latest and greatest information systems and technology. The technology introduced was pivotal – adding the advantages of early detection and it has also contributed to the collection of evidence in prosecuting cases. Along with the technology, detection and tracking dogs were added to the APU teams. The canine capabilities have brought a new dimension as the dogs provide a speed to track poachers that technology and human beings are just not capable of. Without these canines and their tracking capabilities, the number of arrests would not have been possible. Many of these dogs can pick up scents that are over twelve hours old. Canines also provide detection capabilities for weapons and horns, and in the sad case, help to locate orphaned rhino calves and injured animals.
However, what went beyond these new strategies for Balule was the need to work collectively and to start taking responsibility for this rhino crisis. Without the dedication and passion of the teams on the ground, the two years of zeros rhino deaths would not have been possible.
What has made Balule successful is its ability to decide collectively on strategies for all its member reserves and have its anti-poaching teams buy in and effectively put their boots on the ground. The APUs and wardens’ resilience has been second to none during this all-consuming battle to save a key species.
In celebration of the 2-year mark of zero rhinos down, Ian Nowak arranged a braai for all those involved – nothing fancy, just boerewors rolls and cooldrinks before night patrol. And even though this milestone has been met, these determined and passionate teams will wake up tomorrow morning to do it all again.