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A virus-induced sanctuary: The pandemic saves rhinos but corruption remains

By Breanna Lu and Pavana Upadhyaya Mar. 17, 2021

Quincy Han Art

Since 2019, the poaching of South African rhinos has declined by 33 percent due to strict lockdown regulations during COVID-19 that made it difficult for poachers to access rhino habitats, according to BBC. However, staff members from South African National Parks have claimed the reported decrease as inaccurate, insisting that the numbers were fabricated to cover up administrative corruption. Protection efforts against rhino poaching in South Africa have been consistently undermined by suspected instances of illegal collaboration between government officials, regional administrators and criminal syndicates.


Protection efforts against rhino poaching in South Africa have been consistently undermined by suspected instances of illegal collaboration between government officials, regional administrators and criminal syndicates.

Rhino horns, which are sometimes used in Asian herbal medicines as grounded up powders and pills to treat various illnesses despite no medical evidence, are trafficked to countries like China and Vietnam, where large rhino horn black markets exist. This product is incredibly expensive—rhino horn powder can cost up to $60,000 per kilo on the black market. While rhinos can survive without their horns, poachers kill the animals before removing their horns in order to avoid being injured. To deter poachers and save rhinos’ lives, reserves across South Africa have even cut off rhinos’ horns.


Aside from external threats, internal corruption within the South African government, judicial courts, ranger force and police have further endangered the rhinos. The wealthy and well-connected crime organizations often offer hefty bribes to law enforcement, who turn a blind eye if the price is right.


“Government corruption is rampant. Since there will always be the temptation of money, the best way to hinder corruption is to expose it. Journalists who document government corruption should be better protected,” Junior Brandon Kwon said.


Possible instances of syndicate influence on the South African government include the Skukuza Regional Court’s closure, which previously succeeded in convicting over 90 poachers. Despite the court’s achievements, Naomi Engelbrecht, an administrator for the Mpumalanga province in Kruger, ordered the Skukuza’s closure in 2019. More recently, Engelbrecht has repeatedly ignored requests to reopen the court and hired a personal defense attorney, which led some to suspect she was in cahoots with criminals. Other criminal indications include delayed poacher convictions, court rescheduling and wildlife bureaucracy corruption, specifically pertaining to Kruger rangers. The government’s dismissal of useful DNA testing in June 2019 for no specified reason also sparked backlash from prosecutors who insisted the testing was essential for identifying poachers.


After the Skukuza Regional Court’s closure, Kruger rangers had to travel over 50 miles to attend a hearing, leaving more time for poachers to attack. Furthermore, Kruger rangers report low pay, poor training, fear and stress, which could make them more susceptible to bribery. According to Saving the Wild, a nonprofit that advocates for endangered African wildlife, two Kruger rangers were arrested for alleged association with poachers in 2019. In another instance, a Kruger ranger accused of poaching made unproven allegations towards Don English, an official, of torturing him, which resulted in English’s suspension and more rhinos being killed during his absence.


Aside from ranger corruption, some South African police have also colluded with the poachers. Several South African police have been implicated in poaching cases, states BBC. Also, the police have compromised effective methods to identify poachers for unclear reasons. The University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, which identifies poachers by matching rhino carcass DNA to recovered horns, was denied a contract renewal by the police.


In efforts to ensure integrity, the South African government has arrested 21 officials during 2017 and over 12 rangers since 2012.

In efforts to ensure integrity, the South African government has arrested 21 officials during 2017 and over 12 rangers since 2012. Also, BBC claims that South African parks are testing all potential officials using questionnaires and lie detector tests.


“Rhinos are essential to the ecosystem because they are important grazers and keep vegetation in check. To better protect them, non-profit organizations could spread awareness by hosting fundraisers and partnering with national organizations,” Sophomore Sanjana Subramanyan said.


Rhinos’ frequent grazing limits overpopulation of select vegetation and allows for a greater diversity of plants, which provides food to more animals. This maintains ecological balance in places where rhinos reside. Consequently, the disappearance of African rhinos could result in the overcrowding of some species and extinction of others. There are about 18,000 wild rhinos left, says National Geographic, with 30 percent living in Kruger.


The populations of rhinos are increasing slowly: the black rhino population has grown 2.5 percent between 2012 and 2018. Unfortunately, the threat of rhino extinction remains. Because of this, governmental officials must create new measures in order to control corruption and foster law enforcement fidelity—before it is too late.

 

About the Contributors

Breanna Lu

Staff Writer


Breanna Lu is a freshman and a new staff writer. She enjoys binge watching sci-fi movies and her favorite book genre is murder mysteries/crime fiction. In her free time, you will most likely find her asleep or chatting with her friends.







Pavana Upadhyaya

Staff Writer


Pavana Upadhyaya is a sophomore at Leland High School and is a staff writer. She likes to read nonfiction in her free time.

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