24 Jun 2022
Namibia has the largest population of free roaming black rhinos and it is a unique experience to encounter these ancient animals in the mountainous areas of north-western Namibia on a game drive.
However, the species and their cousins, the white rhinos, are under threat because their horns and male sexual organs are sought after by Asian countries for various “traditional” medicines. International syndicates approach locals to kill rhinos, chop off their horns and deliver them to middlemen, who smuggle them via international routes, have also reached Namibia in the past years.
After a surge of rhino poaching in South Africa, syndicates also turned to Namibia. The Ministry of Environment, Tourism and Forestry (MEFT) successfully increased its anti-poaching efforts with support from local and international partners in the past five years.
In the past three years, no rhinos were poached in Namibia’s Etosha National Park, thanks to the protection efforts for the endangered species. Sadly, the MEFT had to announce on 13 June 2022, that its anti-poaching unit found 11 poached rhinos during a routine patrol in the western parts. The criminals had removed the horns of all adult animals. (*End of June a 12th poached rhino was discovered on the park.)
Two days later, two of suspected five poachers were tracked down in the park and arrested. “The identity of the other two suspects is known and we will leave no stone unturned to arrest them”, announced the MEFT Minister Pohamba Shifeta on 20 June, after his trip to the park to be briefed about the details.
"We have reorganised and made changes in the anti-poaching unit,” the MEFT Minister said at the press conference. The head of the anti-poaching unit, Ndahangwapo Kashihakumwa who was stationed in Windhoek, was sent to Etosha and will remain stationed there to supervise the undisclosed changes. Soldiers from the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) and members of the National Intelligence Service (NCIS) are part of the unit.
“Our people were too complacent. We also have to assume that staff in the park could probably have passed information about the rhinos to the poachers, we can reasonably assume this was an inside job," the Minister said.
"It is not the first time something like this has been done, that staffs [in the park] are in cahoots with poachers," Shifeta added. He confirmed that the dog unit, known as “K9” was still active in the park.
"This is an area that has been a hotspot before, and after increased security, we have noticed the poachers moved elsewhere.”
The Etosha National Park is huge (22,270 square kilometres) and patrolling its different areas is a daunting task.
In July 2018, the Operation Blue Rhino was formed to assist the fight against poaching and the Blue Rhino Task Team (BRTT) was put together. It is a cooperation between the Namibian Police (NamPol) within the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security and the Intelligence and Investigation Unit (IIU) of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism among others. Operation Blue Rhino became active in July 2018 to curb wildlife crimes, and particularly rhino poaching in Namibia. An agreement has been reached to continue the operation until June 2025. Funding comes from the Rooikat Trust. The MEFT, NamPol and Rooikat provide patrol vehicles. The Rooikat Trust was established in 2017 as a local NGO to enable the rapid, flexible and targeted dispersal of funds provided from international agencies, including the Wildcat Foundation and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the USA.
Rooikat provides direct, wide-ranging support for law enforcement and logistics. This enables rapid responses to poaching incidents in the fight against wildlife crime in Namibia.
Donor funds enable technical expertise, purchase of equipment, with tracking boots, camping equipment, operational running costs in the field, logistical support, training, and mentorship,
The funding also supports forensic investigations, analysis, case preparation for the courts, prosecutor support as well as support to the customs and excise department of the Namibian Revenue Agency. Funding is also provided for expert witnesses and legal advice.
In the first six months of this year, 21 rhinos have been poached, last year 43 black and white rhinos were killed by poachers, 40 in 2020 and 56 in 2019.
Since the specialized anti-poaching activities started in 2017, some 987 suspects were apprehended for rhino and elephant poaching in Namibia. According to Police Commissioner Barry, de Klerk, who heads the protected resources division and the Blue Rhino Task Team, 519 of the 987 arrested persons, were apprehended in connection with rhino poaching, mostly Namibians and five Asians. About 243 of the 519 persons of interest are out on bail and 132 are awaiting their trial before a court of law, while 30 persons were found guilty and convicted, 29 were released.
Courts and magistrates also receive training about the severity of wildlife crimes in Namibia and a special booklet has been distributed to them with information about endangered species within Namibia and which laws must be applied; and also the fines and prison sentences that can be applied when culprits are found guilty. Namibia has increased fines for poaching to N$25 million (about 1,48 million Euros - up from N$200,000 (about 11,870 Euros). Prison sentences have been increased from 20 years to 25 years.
Wildlife crime is a global problem, with criminal networks reaching across international borders and continents. Namibia has made remarkable progress in combating wildlife crime. The number of animals poached has decreased, and the number of successful arrests and meaningful convictions has significantly increased. The fight against poaching is very costly.
The successes are attributed to the outstanding collaborative efforts of the various law enforcement agencies, the judicial system, and community support, with assistance from the international donor community.
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