A legal market in rhino horn continues to be stubbornly opposed by the South African Government, CITES, the animal rights movement and well-meaning but misguided people all around the world. But demand for rhino horns continues unabated, and the people who want this product have plenty of money. In the absence of a legal market, the horns are simply obtained illegally. And because money is involved, those tasked with protecting the rhino are sometimes themselves sufficiently corrupted to get involved in the illegal trade.

Such betrayal of trust by those who are employed to protect these magnificent creatures is the most nauseating behaviour imaginable on the part of the perpetrators. In September 2020 three SANParks employees were apprehended for rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park (KNP) on the eve of World Rhino Day. Two were caught in the act of dehorning the animal they had just killed. The third suspect is none other than the section ranger of Lower Sabie, who allegedly supplied his two accomplices with the rifle they had used to slaughter the animal. This was reported by Nicolene Smalman in The Lowvelder newspaper.

These fortuitous arrests happened because police and SANParks officials were in the right place at the right time. They were busy with routine operations in the park – visiting old poaching scenes in the Lower Sabie area – collecting DNA and other evidence, when they heard two shots being fired. They immediately went to investigate and made a gruesome discovery. A field guide and the gardener of the section ranger were allegedly busy dehorning a white rhino when the officials stumbled upon them.

They were immediately arrested and a hunting rifle, ammunition, vehicle and poaching equipment were seized. It later emerged that the rifle (a .458 calibre) apparently belonged to the section ranger, who was also arrested. The men were detained in the holding cells at Skukuza Police Station.

Mr Abe Sibiya, acting CEO of SANParks, congratulated the officials who effected the arrests “These send a strong message that officials alleged to be involved in poaching will be arrested and face the full might of the law,” he said. “It is unfortunate that those trusted with the well-being of these animals are alleged to have become the destroyers of the same heritage they have a mandate to protect.”

Even more concerning is that this betrayal of trust seems to extend to members of the South African Police Service (SAPS). Legal Brief Environmental of 4 November 2020 published the following report:

“A Mpumalanga police constable with links to a syndicate allegedly behind ‘massive trafficking’ of poached rhino horns was arrested last week. A News24 report notes that six other suspects, mostly current and former police officers, were arrested in Mpumalanga two days previously. Phenias Lubisi, a former station commander in Skukuza now working at Calcutta; Xolani Lubisi, a former officer at Calcutta; Constable Thembisile Mhlanga, from Skukuza SAPS; Clyde Mnisi, the alleged ‘right hand man’; Petrus Mabuza Mshengu, and former White River SAPS officer Joe Nyalunga, appeared in the White River Magistrate’s Court on charges of theft, conspiracy, illegal buying and selling of rhino horns, corruption and money laundering. The case was postponed.

“The officer arrested last, who works at the Acornhoek Stock Theft Unit, was expected to appear in the Hazyview Magistrate’s Court later in the day. She will face similar charges as her co-accused, Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said. Luxury vehicles, motorbikes, trucks, trailers, generators and equipment worth millions of Rands were seized during the multi-agency swoop. It is alleged that the syndicate operated with almost military precision around the Kruger National Park (KNP), as well as in private and state-owned reserves in KZN and Gauteng. Mulaudzi alleged: ‘These are the guys who organised the snipers. These are the guys who were making millions.’”

When park officials and police officers are themselves involved in the illegal trade in rhino horns, it seems clear that the efforts to prevent the extinction of these beleaguered animals are being completely undermined from within. When will we realise that this war is being lost, and that we need to implement a different strategy? When all the rhinos have been killed? Surely there must be another way to prevent this from happening!

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.