As the Rhino poaching crisis in South Africa reaches new heights with a Rhino now lost every day, on Friday 3rd June Swaziland fell victim to her first Rhino loss in over 20 years. An impressive record now consigned to history as the Rhino War threatens one of the few remaining stabilised breeding environments in the world.
The young two-ton White Rhino cow, mother to a calf and instrumental to Swaziland’s future generations of Rhinos, was found de-horned at Big Game Parks’ Hlane Royal National Park on National Environment Day, and now serves as a sad symbol of the encroaching threat to this endangered species. The Rhino’s calf, suffering from the absence of its mother’s milk and stress, was also found dead two weeks later.
While South African Rhinos are protected by the South African Constitution – one of the most lenient in the world, which has prompted much debate over poachers being granted bail, low bail conditions, lengthy investigation time and poor convictions. In Swaziland, poachers undertake a massive risk by crossing one of the strictest and most respected poaching laws in the conservation world; The Game Act – a risk which has to date never reaped any rewards for Swazis who have participated. Indeed, during Swaziland’s Rhino War of 1988-92 when the Kingdom lost almost 80% of its Rhino to poaching, not a single poacher was paid the promised reward.
Poaching has many guises; Subsistence Poaching, where people often from poor communities surrounding a reserve snare wildlife for food, Structured/Commercial Poaching, in which skilled hunters, ex-military men or local impoverished people with a knowledge of the animals’ habitat are used as middlemen for an end buyer, and Professional Poaching, conducted by a cross-section ranging from the rural poor to townsfolk who provide the illegal commercial bush meat or Rhino horn market, and may involve the use of a helicopter.
This incident falls under the Structured Poaching category, in which local men, one of whom was an ex-Cadet Ranger at Hlane Royal National Park with knowledge of the Rhino’s habitat, were being used as middlemen for an end-buyer of the Rhino’s two horns. Not a single scrap of meat was removed from the animal for consumption yet the unemployed ex-Cadet Ranger, having chosen a life of illegal poaching over legal protecting, may still pull at the heartstrings of some who’d mistakenly class him as one of the ‘hungry rural poor’.
The eco-tourism industry provides a vital source of employment opportunities within Swaziland. The multiplier effect of a single Big Game Parks wage, for example, results in the sustenance of over fifteen people and with over three hundred Swazis employed by the park, this represents approximately 4,500 Swazis who rely directly on the parks for sustenance. In fact, when one of Big Game Parks’ Conservation Wardens was asked how he puts his wages to use, Mr Mbuso Shiba stated ‘Big Game Parks not only provides for my immediate family and I. The wages I earn directly support over 30 people’ demonstrating the figure of fifteen-to-one to be a conservative estimate.
Ironically, the brutalised Rhino carcass was discovered on Saturday 4th June; World Environment Day and the date of Big Game Parks’ annual Imvelo Mountain Bike Competition held at Hlane’s sister reserve, Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary. This event was organised by Big Game Parks in order to support local businesses and raise money to provide a reservoir and clean drinking water for local community school, Hlabazonke Primary school.
As a law enforcement entity mandated to safeguard the Kingdom’s animals, Big Game Parks continues to follow its mission of preserving the biodiversity of Swaziland’s rich natural heritage for the future enjoyment of its people. It strives to build sustainable relationships with local communities through the provision of subsidised meat during culling season, local events such as Imvelo where all profits are fed back into the community, and subsidised entry fees for all Swazis. With no state funding, Big Game Parks relies on its kind sponsors and the support of the Swazi public to stay in operation.
In South Africa Rhino poaching has been hitting the headlines on a such a regular basis, that the general public have become accustomed to gory pictures of yet another dead rhino. This desensitization, coupled with the fact that there are so many organisations now collecting funds for Rhinos, means that the majority of people feel that they have already done their bit.
Swaziland may have lost her proud record of Rhino protection but Big Game Parks is determined to break that record again. Big Game Parks would like to wholeheartly thank everybody who has already conveyed their kind words, letters of support and condolence.