Image (c) Junior Blom
On the 27th of March 2020, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country on full lockdown as an urgent and immediate reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. For our game reserves, lodges and accompanying ecotourism industries this has devastated daily operations. No visitors mean no associated conservation levies for our game reserves, whilst the thousands of people living in impoverished rural communities adjacent to these game reserves have lost their jobs and income. Food insecurity is growing daily, as is the threat of poaching for bush meat as people become increasingly desperate.
At the same time, serious wildlife criminals are seeking to take advantage of the empty lodges and quiet roads, leaving our rangers and technical personnel stretched to the limit. Without the tourists, hunters and associated guides to deter poachers, our wildlife are left increasingly vulnerable and poaching attempts have increased in many reserves across southern Africa since the announcement of the lockdown.
Fortunately, Project Rhino applied for and successfully had approved an “essential services” permit to operate our K9 and aerial patrol units and our core support teams on the ground. Whilst movements have been a little more restricted during the lockdown, the K9-Unit has been incredibly busy with road blocks, call outs and patrols. All five of our handlers have been working with local police (SAPS) and security companies manning three road blocks. The teams work on shifts, meaning that each road block is monitored 24 hours a day.
The team has worked closely with local law enforcement over the lockdown period, assisting in the arrest of 17 people in April in the Hluhluwe region. Whilst in February and March, the K9-Unit conducted training and patrols in some of our member reserves, which included the successful location and removal of more than 60 bush snares.
The K9-Unit is on call 24/7 and responded to a number of incidents over the quarter, for example where gunshots were heard, camera traps were triggered, or a tip-off was made. One of these reactions was to Thula-Thula Private Game Reserve, where two groups of poachers entered the reserve on the same day. This was reported on in the local press and the story was also picked up by our local conservation programme, 50-50, who interviewed some of our K9-Unit members. We look forward to seeing them on TV shortly and hopefully gaining increased funding and awareness for the project.
Due to the pandemic, Project Rhino has had to cancel three major fundraising events in the April-June period, which has a significant impact on keeping Project Rhino operational. Last month, we launched our ‘HomeRun 4 Rhinos’ event, in which participants walked or ran a specified distance around their gardens. We had a phenomenal response, with participants from South Africa, Germany, USA and the UK. Elize Wethmar was our first place champion, running a spectacular 117.29 km during the challenge (on a treadmill) and raising a whopping R 3000 for the cause.
The African Conservation Trust / Project Rhino team is also working with Nkombe Rhino and a number of NGOs in the delivery of food parcels to help feed families, rangers and wildlife communities across South Africa. Together we have delivered almost 75,000 meals and are hoping to reach 100,000 by the end of the month.
We would like to extend our heartfelt thank you to our GlobalGiving donors, as well as One Plan, Sudie Rakusin, Duncan Paul, Jeremy Anderson and Wessa Lowveld, you have been lifelines for our K9 team and we would not be able to function without your support and generosity. Thank you also to Dr Ryan van Deventer from Wildlife Solutions Africa who sponsored all our K9’s Bravecto, deworming and 5 in 1 treatments this quarter.
Image (c) Junior Blom