Poaching of South Africa’s biodiversity; Annual Rhino Plan; Update on Elephant Master Plan; wild life economy; with Minister and Deputy Minister

Environment, Forestry and Fisheries

23 February 2021
Chairperson: Mr F Xasa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Audio: Poaching of South Africa’s biodiversity; Annual Rhino Plan; Update on Elephant Master Plan; wild life economy 

The Portfolio Committee on Environment, Forestry and Fisheries was joined by the South African National Parks (SANParks) in a virtual meeting for a briefing on the state of the wildlife economy and the poaching of South Africa’s biodiversity.

Statistics were presented on the illegal killing and poaching of animals in the wild. The illegal killing of elephants occurred mostly in the Kruger National Park (KNP), and no one had been prosecuted for the poaching of elephants. There had been about 72 seizures of ivory in the form of products, tusks and pieces between 2015 and 2019. About 154 lions were killed between 2016 and 2020 for traditional and medicinal purpose, while leopards were mostly killed for traditional attire. There had been about 233 convictions for rhino poaching during this period, and there had been a decline in rhino poaching over the last six years, which was a positive sign, indicating that some of the strategies implemented by the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) and SANParks had been successful. Succulent plants were an emerging threat for poaching, but convicted plant harvesters were only fined.

The elephant management plan initiated in 2013 would be active until 2022 at all SANParks. The population of white rhinos (3 549) was higher in the Kruger National Park compared to black rhinos (268). SANParks stressed that there had to be investment in rhino security, and extra care and protection provided for female rhinos.

Specialised courts to deal with wildlife poaching and trafficking were deemed necessary by the Committee in order to fast track convictions. Formal engagements between the DEFF, SANParks and communities were strongly encouraged by the Committee. Members questioned whether lifestyle audits for staff members were being carried out, and if modern technology was being employed to enhance security searches at SANParks.  

Members were told that the mandate of the Wildlife Economy was to introduce previously marginalised groups to game farming through donations and loans. This had led to nearly 3 500 animals of different species, with a value of over R20 million, being transferred to emerging game farmers and local communities. Challenges had included a weak governance structure, a lack of technical and management skills, fronting of loan requests for wildlife by individuals, regulatory health restrictions relating to translocation, and biases towards charismatic species such as buffalo, roan and sable.

Meeting report

Opening Remarks

Ms Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, apologised for the late submission of documents the previous week. The Department recognised that there had been ongoing difficulties with regard to the receipt of documentation by the Committee. The Minister, the Deputy Minister and the newly appointed Director-General had agreed that it was completely unacceptable that Committee Members did not receive documentation in good time, which interfered with meeting preparations. She said the Department would restructure its own internal deadlines so that the documentation was put before herself and the Deputy Minister for approval. In future, the documents would be dispatched to the Committee on Fridays, before Tuesday meetings. If this process was not adhered to, there would be consequence management. She asked the Chairperson to report back should any difficulties arise.

The Chairperson asked for any comments from the Committee.

Mr D Bryant (DA) thanked the Minister for the apology, and said he was hopeful that their documentation would be received on time next time.

Mr N Singh (IFP) asked the Minister to comment on the allegation in the “Daily Maverick.”

Minister Creecy responded that it was disgraceful that the Department could have this level of irregular, unauthorised and wasteful expenditure. As a matter of urgency, she had written to the Head of the Department and the chairperson of the boards of all entities and instructed them that they needed to implement the necessary regulatory processes to investigate those expenditures, and to implement the appropriate consequences.

However, she had received an update on the irregular expenditure of R2.5 billion from the previous financial year. The Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and internal auditors were conducting an analysis of all of the irregular expenditure. The Minister said that as a long serving Member of the Committee, Mr Singh would know that the expenditure of about R300 million had already been investigated and criminal charges had been laid, which had resulted in six officials facing serious disciplinary charges, and letters being issued to another 70 officials. She assured the Committee that they would have no hesitation in dealing with this matter. This was an ongoing process, and she would be happy to update the Committee on a regular basis.

The Minister asked to be excused from the meeting, and was replaced by Ms Maggie Sotyu, the Deputy Minister.

Poaching of SA’s diversity

The first presentation on the poaching of South Africa’s biodiversity was given by Ms Frances Craigie, Chief Director: Sector Enforcement, DEFF, and Dr Sam Ferreira, Large Mammal Ecologist, South African National Parks (SANParks).

The statistics for illegal killing and poaching were summarised as follows:

-Elephants: Ivory was in great demand in the East, especially in China. Illegal killing of elephants mostly occurred in the Kruger National Park (KNP), and no one had been prosecuted for the poaching of elephants. There had been about 72 seizures of ivory in the form of products, tusks and pieces between 2015 and 2019.The highest sentence of the illegal trade in ivory was a fine of R100 000.

-Lions: Mostly teeth, bones, and claws were harvested mainly for traditional and medicinal purposes to wear in East Asian countries. There were approximately 154 killings between 2016 and 2020. In Limpopo, an accused was sentenced to two years in prison, while in the Free State an accused was fined R1 million or five years’ imprisonment.

-Leopards: These were killed for cultural purposes and religious attire across South Africa. An accused in the Free State had been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment after attempting to sell a leopard skin and raw ivory tusks.

-Rhinos: There had been about 233 convictions between 2016 and 2020, which represented a 95.5% conviction rate of the 362 poachers accused. There had been a decline in rhino poaching over the last six years, which was a positive sign, indicating that some of the strategies implemented by the DEFF and SANParks had been successful. During 2020, there had been a significant decline during the hard lockdown months, but poachers had increased their efforts in November and December. Most of the poaching occurred within SANParks. The South Africa Police Service (SAPS) held all the dockets relating to rhino poaching. Initially it was the Hawks, but the increase in the stock theft had result in the transfer of the responsibility from the Hawks to the SAPS.

-Pangolins: These were illegally harvested for trading, rather than for poaching purposes. Gauteng was the central point for transactions, while many pangolins were harvested from Limpopo.

Succulent plants were a new emerging threat, usually because when one thought of poaching, one did not think of plants. Fines were more popular than prison sentences on this specific issue.

The main challenge encountered by the DEFF and SANParks on poaching was the recycling of criminals, slow criminal procedures, unemployment contributing to criminality, insufficient resources, lack of capacity and funding.

The DEFF’s areas of focus for the financial year would be on continued implementation of the Rhino Lab initiative, the strengthening of capabilities relating to international investigations (INTERPOL), and support for the anti-poaching teams by strengthening information management and analysis capability.

Rhino and Elephant Management Plans

The second presentation -- on the SANParks rhino and elephant management plans -- was delivered by Mr Fundisile Mketeni, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), SANParks.

He highlighted that the initiation of the 2013 Elephant Management Plan (EMP) across the Addo Elephant Park, the Garden Route, and the Kruger, Mapungubwe and Marakele National Parks, had been approved by the Minister and would be active until the end of 2022. He added that in the KNP in 2019, the population of black rhino was 268 versus 3 549 white rhinos.

The challenges mentioned by the CEO and his team were as follows:

-Lack of a national elephant strategy informed by all stakeholders to guide a common purpose for elephant management;

-Climate changes affect on habits;

-Elephants accentuating conflicts with people;

-Fast changing social context and outdated restorative justice plans.

Mr Mketini said there needed to be a re-think on the SANParks rhino strategy. There needed to be an increased focus on investment into rhino assets, such as intensive monitoring, the habitat and biological management, and balancing security with other conservation initiatives.

He closed the presentation by highlighting that killing a female rhino was a more serious crime than killing a male, because the female produced the offspring. Some of the initiatives on the female rhino killing issue included the rehabilitation of orphans, implementation of veterinary care, introducing integrated dehorning of cows, and the short-term translocation of sub-adult males from cow hotspots.

Discussion

Mr N Paulsen (EFF) asked for clarity on the strategies used to reduce the poaching of rhinos and the recruitment of game rangers from the surrounding community. Since there was a distinction between white and black rhinos, what additional measures were in place to increase the lifespan of the almost extinct black rhinos?

Ms C Phillips (DA) said she had numerous questions, and if they could not be replied to at this meeting, she would be happy to receive them in a written format.

She asked whether the DNA of the killed elephants was linked to confiscated tusks. With regard to the bones from lions that were illegally killed, how did SANPaks arrive at the conclusion that the lions were illegally killed? Were farmers educated on other applicable methods, such as using dogs, instead of killing leopards? What was the annual percentage of the poached rhinos in relation to the existing rhinos? What was the average trial length of rhino poachers? How many arrests and convictions had resulted from the South African Development Community (SADC) collaboration? Why was there a paralysis on the apparent existing increasing numbers of elephants -- why wait for the issue to spiral out of control?

Ms Phillips asked what had happened to the money SANParks had received for upgrading elephant abattoirs, while elephants were not culled. Beside population control, why was SANParks using lethal and fear-based methods, such as the shooting of elephants? What type of sustainable consumption use was being considered for elephants? She said that should call it what it was -- it was not harvesting it was slaughtering! “When we kill cows and sheep, we say we are slaughtering, so please let us not dance around -- could we use the correct terminology here!” she said. What was the position on live trade and cross-border translocations? How did the elephant strategy, the outcomes and recommendations feed into existing approved elephant management plans?

Mr Bryant asked if any steps had been taken towards engaging all three spheres of government in terms of local operations with local law enforcement. For instance, the City of Cape Town had very effective marine enforcement units working in conjunction with the SAPS and other provincial and national authorities -- were there similar intentions to work with local law enforcement agencies? If so, how did it work? On the SADC collaboration, he asked for the current feedback on working relations on rhino poaching in Botswana and South Africa. Why was it so difficult to trace the poachers once they left the park? He understood that this was a fast process, but he needed clarity on why it was difficult to track them. Where were the lion bones coming from? Had an investigation been launched to understand the origin of these bones?

Mr Bryant said he was under the impression that there was a lack of commitment from SANParks to deal with their internal issues related to allegations of corruption and poaching, compared to dealing with external threats. Where were the two convicted rangers named in the February 2020 report, who had been involved in poaching activities and granted bail of R5 000 each under the conditions of not leaving their village? Had they been re-employed? Where were they now? What had been the final judgment? Where was the urgency in terms of deadlines for policy and new guidelines, such as the strategy for combating wildlife crime?

He highlighted that there had been a 70% drop in the rhino populations since 2010, and pointed out a discrepancy in rhino population numbers, as there appeared to be missing rhinos. He asked if the unaccounted rhinos had perhaps been poached, died, gone missing or were unreported. He also requested SANParks to give a report on the rhinos translocated from the KNP between 2016 and 2020. The report should highlight the sales, loans, and any other reasons for rhino translocations.

Ms A Weber (DA) asked what happened to rhino horns confiscated at the airports. She referred to a contract/project worth R25 million directed to the SANParks anti-poaching unit, but the project was no longer running. Why was the unit not running anymore? She asked for a breakdown of the expenditure on this project, and if this unit would be replaced. She added that in 2015, Howard Buffet had donated R255 million specifically to SANPArks for anti-poaching. This fund was supposed be used to train rangers and management teams, including intelligence monitoring and surveillance, in the KNP. She also asked for a breakdown of expenditure on this, and whether it was effective

Ms Weber said that there were about 60 black rhinos left in the KNP, and 17 had been moved to Malawi and the Luanda National Park during December last year. Why had they been moved?  They needed to learn how to protect and increase the number of black rhinos, instead of moving them. Where were the safe destinations within South Africa? If they were prioritising translocation, did it imply that the country was losing its fight against poaching?

Mr N Singh (IFP) applauded the team, and said that these strategies that were presented to the Committee were excellent -- but how effective was the implementation of these strategies? What was going to be done to effectively address the challenges that had been raised for the past six to ten years by all the stakeholders?  He said that in 2013, 80 delegates had attended a workshop in Skukuza, where resolutions were passed, and in 2014 there had been public hearings at which laudable resolutions had been made. In May 2017, Parliament had introduced a first of its kind national strategy in the country, the primary goal of which was to direct law enforcement structures and empower them with the necessary means to reduce and prevent the increasing scourge of wildlife trafficking. What had happened to all of the recommendations made by all the respective stakeholders? He felt like the challenge would be the same unless somebody was willing to lead again, and the right way was by integrating affected government departments. Was there a political will from all those involved agencies to deal with the challenges of wildlife trafficking and poaching? He hoped to get an answer from the Deputy Minister on how she could take the lead in ensuring that these resolutions were promptly implemented.

Lastly, Mr Singh asked how many times the breeding facilities for lions were inspected? He also encouraged the Committee to approach the Department of Justice to implement specialised courts on poaching. They had good documents that had been compiled over time, so “let us walk the talk.”

Ms S Mbatha (ANC) said that there had been increasing demand for leopard skins, and there was a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that tried to facilitate awareness, which needed to be ongoing because behavioural change took time. Her concern was that there was a lack of communication between SANParks and the communities. Had they tried to enforce a partnership with the chieftaincy and traditional markets, and ask how best they could collaboratively deal with this issue of animal poaching? She added that some animals naturally die, and wanted to know why the Department or SANParks could not sell those skins to them. Had they spoken to the farmers about how to deal with leopards stealing or killing their stock?

Proper monitoring should also be put in place, because these days animals and humans had to coexist. How did one avoid cross-contamination between animals and humans? What campaigns could be implemented to involve the communities? What disciplinary measures were in place for internal SANParks staff? What were the statistics of officials or staff that were found guilty? She did not understand the issue of unavailable resources mentioned by the SANparks team. What other methods did they use to raise funds, both short and long term, for facilities besides donor funding?

She said she was worried about the capacity of the Environmental Management Inspectorate (EMI)? What measures had been taken to ensure that the EMI were spread across the municipalities? How best could the Department assist the municipalities to ensure that all municipalities had the EMIs, because without them there was no progress? Referring to vacancies and shortage of staff, asked about the plan to secure more staff to avoid work overload for existing staff.

Ms Mbatha asked for a report on the finalisation of rhino research, so that the Committee could understand the underpinning issues..  Finally, she requested feedback on wildlife breeding and its financing, and emphasised that the security systems issue needed to be revisited and strengthened within the SANParks to curb poaching. She applauded the team on conducting a strength, weakness, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis, and encouraged the SANParks to offer intervention plans based on the SWOT analysis.

SANParks’ response

Mr Mketeni thanked the Committee for the questions, and said that he would respond only to the questions directed to SANParks. 

On the recruitment of neighbouring communities, the CEO said that they were doing very well at that, and about 90 % of the youth working with SANPArks were locals. 

Regarding the guarding of rhinos, SANParks lacked capacity, and he underlined that the size of the KNP was equivalent to Belgium or Israel, so they would have to consider increasing capacity. He highlighted that the black rhinos were less vulnerable because they were browsers (eating from trees) compared to white rhinos, who were grazers and preferred open spaces, which was why more of white rhinos were killed.  Although there were fewer black rhinos across Africa, the aggressive nature of black rhinos influenced its population stability.

He said elephant culling was part of the strategy, and was based on proper research into the issue of elephant concentration and their impact in the parks. It was not about exploding numbers, but the elephants’ behaviour. The culling intervention was part of adaptive management strategies. On the ivory sales issues, he said it was clear that the money was there to conserve the elephants, community work and research, and SANParks had stuck exactly to this mandate and worked with the Department in terms of releasing the funds. They had examined the value chain around issues of sustainable use, and agreed that the elephant numbers were indeed growing.

Mr Mketeni answered Ms Weber on the cross-border rhino issue, and said that the plan was not to take the rhinos to any state, but to create safer destinations for rhinos within the country, such as the Northern Cape, where there were no threats due to its remoteness. He stressed that before the animals were released, the parks had to check the habitat suitability, with a viability and security assessment.  They had constructed a plan with the Peace Park Foundation regarding the increasing number of animals (except rhinos) at the KNP to be transported across to Zinave National Park in Mozambique because of its stability and safety, unless there was a new directive.

The CEO stressed that the staff involved in criminal activities had gone through a proper hearing and procedures, and action had been taken accordingly. Once a staff member was implicated, SANParks would report the case to SAPS, and the NPA would decide on the prosecution. Further details could be made available on request.

In response to Mr Bryant’s question on strategies and their implementation, the CEO said that the plans were reflected in the annual reports and annual performance plans that were presented to Parliament.

He was not sure about the R25 million mentioned by Ms Webber, but he would ask around and revert to the Committee.  The only large amount of money he was sure about was the investment by Howard Buffett, but it had been pulled out at some point. He said that SANParks could advise what they had done with the money when the fund was still active, but it had involved air mobility (helicopters), establishment of a canine unit, surveillance work, putting in cables and monitoring fences along the western and eastern boundaries around the KNP.

In response to Ms Mbatha ‘s question on campaigns for local communities, he said there were a couple of projects under way, such as the park forums, Kids in Parks and Parks Week in September, where free entrance was granted to South Africans.

Mr Mketeni concluded that in terms of resource mobilisation, they had funding strategies and policies at SANParks. Progress had also been made in engaging the private sector, and they offered donations. 

Dr Ferreira proposed that most of the questions asked should be answered in a written format, to give accurate values and proper answers, as they required specific details.

Further discussion

Deputy Minister Sotyu invited the Committee to ask outstanding questions from the first and second presentations.

Mr Bryant asked if polygraph tests had been voluntary. Had staff been compelled to participate in these lie detector tests? What had been the outcomes, and what were the consequences if a staff member came with a positive result from the test?

Ms Phillips asked the CEO to categorically state that no funds from the profits of the ivory sales had been used to refurbish the Skukuza abattoir.

Ms N Gantsho (ANC) asked how often SANParks conducted staff lifestyle audits to ensure that staff did not undermine the efforts of law enforcement to protect rhinos. Could the cars that were entering and leaving the SANParks, especially the KNP, be thoroughly checked, including staff cars?

SANParks’ response

The CEO said he could give an assurance that the money from the ivory sales was not used to refurbish the abattoir. It had been spent to upgrade and expand the vault in KNP because of the space need for the increasing number of horns coming in.

He assured Mr Bryant that polygraph integrity tests had been conducted, and four years ago there had been resistance by some of the staff members, so a policy had been developed to make it compulsory for integrity testing. They needed to have an agreement with the unions, especially for those working with rhinos, to conduct frequent testing.

In terms of staff involvement numbers, the CEO said they had 57 staff members involved over time. There had been 52 dismissed, one warned, two reinstated and two found not guilty. He emphasised that these numbers reflected the internal cases, and advised that many were with the SAPS and courts, so he could not talk about those.

In response to Ms Gantsho, he agreed that they did searches, but they needed to enhance and balance the ability at the gates to detect the horns and guns using new technology, such as metal detectors. Because most of the visitors were tourists, they often complained about rangers being rough during searches.

Deputy Minister Sotyu told Mr Singh that they were not aware of the resolutions that had been made in previous meetings, but committed find ways of accessing the documents with the resolutions he had highlighted so that their implementation could be monitored.

She said the specialised courts that were mentioned had been a challenge to the government since 2009.  Referring to “recycled criminals,” as raised by Ms Mbatha, she said that repeat offenders even with serious crimes such as rape, murder, armed robbery and burglary remained a national challenge across departments.

Mr Mtekeni said that the report from High Level Panel requested by Ms Mbatha would be presented to the portfolio Committee by the Minister once the report was issued.

Mr Bryant wondered if it was necessary for an oversight visit to be prioritised at KNP, as agreed last year, because the issues raised could be dealt with easily if they were physically there and able to interact with the officials concerned.

The Chairperson asked for a response to Ms Gantsho’s question on lifestyle audits.

The CEO said that they would look into the lifestyle audit issue, in conjunction with the integrity test.

The Chairperson closed the first discussion session and opened the platform for SANParks to deliver a presentation on Wildlife Economy.

SANParks on wildlife economy

Mr Xola Mkefe, Director: Wildlife Economy, SANParks said the wildlife economy project was initiated in 2014 and facilitated by Operation Phakisa under the Ocean Economy, and was moved to the Biodiversity Economy in 2015. The mandate of the programme was to include previously marginalised groups -- women, black people, those with disabilities and youth -- in the areas of infrastructure support and game farming. 

The wildlife economy had two parts. There were wildlife donations for communities with infrastructure-ready game reserves, and wildlife loans where a custodian agreement was signed with individual entrepreneurs involved in the sector. The assessment criteria were based on property, the management history of the area, and background checks. After the biodiversity economy summit in 2017, donations of 400 animals were offered to a community game reserve in the Northern Cape at an estimated value of R1 million, and 50 animals to Limpopo.

Under Window One, there had been a positive response in applications from numerous emerging game farmers and community game reserves. There were only nine successful applicants recommended to the board, with one community game farm. In this first window, 957 animals of eight different species, with an estimated value of R8.2 million, had been donated. Challenges had included a weak governance structure, a lack of technical and management skills, fronting of loan requests for wildlife by individuals, regulatory health restrictions relating to translocation, and biases towards charismatic species such as buffalo, roan and sable.

Under Window Two, about 52 applications had been received and 40 were eligible for evaluation.  Only 31 applications were recommended for a wildlife donation and loans from SANParks, and five emerging female game farmers from window one, four new female emerging farmers, seven local communities and 15 new emerging farmers were selected.  SANParks had approved 3 022 animals of different species for donations and loans with an estimated value of R12.7 million, and the cost of capture and translocation of the wildlife was estimated at R8.5 million.

The Committee was told that the other wildlife economy activities that were not related to game included the picking of thatch grass, mopani worms and the training of crafters in partnership with the private sector to provide access to the market.

Discussion

Ms Phillips asked what percentage of rhinos that had been given away were still alive. How many had been dehorned? How many horns were accounted for? Was it economically viable to give or lend R12.5 million in order to relocate the game?

Mr Singh asked if SANParks was aware of the number of public and private relationships within SANParks and the private gaming industry. Which projects had been successful in terms of profits and management? To what extent were the loans repayable, and on what terms?

Ms Mbatha commented that the presentation by SANParks on the wildlife economy had been very clear, and she was impressed.

Responses

In response to the question raised by Ms Phillips on rhino horns, Mr Mketeni said that the horns were accounted for, and stressed that Ms Craigie did the audits and ensured that facilities were stable and safe. He stressed that they were currently on Window Two, and habitat viability, suitability and security were assessed at every window. In the next stage, they would check with recipients such as farmers on whether they were making a profit or not. They could not speak for them as they were still in the initial stages. He emphasised that post-delivery support, coupled with youth empowerment on game ranging, was crucial.

Lastly, on the issues of translocation costs, the DEFF and SANParks were engaged in taking care of the translocation themselves because they wanted professionalism, and could not just outsource the animals and leave them to die in trucks because of dehydration and malnutrition. They wanted to make sure that the process was done properly in the initial stages. The CEO added that in future, these typical costs could be avoided by involving the private sector in the deliveries.

The Chairperson said that questions that needed answers in a written format should be noted and attended to. The proposed oversight visit to the KNP had been noted and time permitting and the situation allowing, it would be implemented.  He referred to the concerns highlighted by Mr Singh on the implementation of strategies highlighted in documents and policies, and said that if action was taken, the whole situation would be different. He urged the DEFF to focus on implementation, especially on the wildlife economy, and how it could contribute towards the reconstruction and economic development of the country.

The meeting was adjourned.

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