Official figures have begun to show a positive trend and importantly a year-on-year decline in the greater Kruger conservancy area, which is South Africa’s stronghold for White and Black Rhinos.
Kruger National Park, South Africa – South Africa’s megafauna, including the magnificent but critically endangered White and Black Rhinos, is a key driver of the country’s tourism industry.
Unlocking value through Game viewing, tourism has long been prioritised by government and the private sector as vital to the country’s economic growth. With its well-developed national parks and advanced private safari infrastructure, South Africa is today, renowned as a world-class destination for exceptional African wildlife experiences.
Sparking concerns over lawlessness and visitor safety, the rhino poaching crisis that dramatically escalated over the past decade has cast its shadow over the tourism industry.
2019 commenced with the interception of 36 rhino horns – worth about R23 million – at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. These horns were destined for Dubai and were discovered hidden underneath decorative items in various boxes.
According to Kruger Booking Specialists who provide travel services to a portfolio of many of South Africa’s best private game reserves, responsible rhino tourism is actually vital to support the conservation efforts that are starting to turn the tide against poaching syndicates. Rhino poaching peaked in 2014 with the violent deaths of 1215 animals. Since then, thanks to ever-increasing anti-poaching efforts, the number of deaths has declined slightly. The 2018 official stats which cover from 1 January to 13 August have tallied 508 killings in South Africa, 183 less than the same period in 2017.
But Steven van der Merwe believes that the figures are showing a more positive trend year on year.
“Official figures have begun to show a positive trend, importantly a year-on-year decline in the greater Kruger conservancy area, which is South Africa’s stronghold for White and Black Rhinos. While the multi-pronged approach is definitely starting to bear fruit, we are still a long way from having poaching under control. The current dip in the number of rhinos poached, is certainly a step in the right direction.”
A number of studies have been undertaken to gauge visitor perceptions and the impact of the rhino poaching crisis on tourism. Van der Merwe believes that the possibility of a ‘last chance to see’ one of Africa’s most iconic species may have motivated some to book their South African safari sooner rather than later. However, there can be little doubt that perceptions of the situation being out of control and the widespread awareness of the high level of violence involved are off-putting. “The fact that both local and foreign tourists are well-aware of the problem is a major battle that has been won,” Van der Merwe says. “Public awareness is crucial in addressing the problem, and that the plight of the rhino has become such a public issue has also done a world of good.”
It is this heightened awareness of the importance of saving rhinos that can underpin the responsible tourism that is essential to the rhino conservation efforts. As Van der Merwe points out, “The privately-owned game reserves in the greater Kruger conservancy area, which play a vital role in providing safe habitats for the rhinos, are bearing the major brunt of the financial burden of protecting the animals on their lands.
“It is a war out there – an unofficial war,” says Louis Ebersohn of African Wildlife Services, based in Limpopo. He says their counter-poaching operations are not allowed to function according to a war zone’s rules of engagement – they are subject to civil society’s rules regarding the escalation of force. Ebersohn says in 2017, 150 counter-poaching rangers lost their lives in Africa, 55 of these in South Africa.
He adds if you compare these mortality figures to those of official war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the mortality rate in the poaching war is higher than that of these war zones. He states that during counter-poaching operations their rangers use tools such as helicopters, night vision equipment, specially trained K9 units and electronic communication systems, to name but a few.
“But these are all useless without feet on the ground, information and intelligence. Reaction to intelligence must be proactive and not reactive.”
A proactive approach which many private game lodges take seriously is their involvement in economic and social development with communities close to their reserves.
“Poverty and unemployment in local communities create ideal conditions for poaching syndicates to recruit what are ultimately, to them, disposable foot soldiers,” Van der Merwe adds.
“To combat this, many game lodges and reserves actively focus on creating viable employment and development opportunities to provide people with opportunities to improve their living conditions and opportunities in life, thus reducing their incentive to turn to poaching.”
Responsible rhino tourism then includes choosing safari operators and destinations which are uplifting local communities and involving locals in making rhino protection a priority.
Critical to responsible rhino tourism is that visitors have not just an awareness of the poaching crisis, but an accurate understanding of what it entails and how they can make a difference.