In South Africa alone there are 22 national game parks and over 1000 private reserves that attract scores of wide-eyed, camera-happy travellers who come here for that once-in-a-lifetime safari experience.To ride in an open safari vehicle, be surrounded by a pride of lions, spot a baby rhino in the protective shadow of her mother and hear the howl of wild dog makes the African dream a thrilling reality.

Sadly, Africa has lost a significant portion of its wildlife and it seems to be depleting on a daily basis. According to census estimates in Africa, lions are down to 20-30 000 from a population of around 500 000, white rhino numbers are about 20 000, black rhino is down to a measly few thousand, oribis (a small antelope) are at around 2000 and wild dog numbers have dropped to a shocking 450. Their plight has become so desperate that a number of NGOs are involved in dedicated wild dog conservation and breeding projects. These and many other animals of the wild are being threatened by a combination of factors which include, habitat destruction and degradation, disease and even lack of food but most significantly, illegal hunting, illegal wildlife trade, poisoning and poaching.

Rhino poaching, in particular, has reached crisis levels in South Africa, driven by illegal demand in the East. Black market prices have risen so high that rhino horn has literally become more valuable than gold. According to official figures from the Department of Environmental Affairs, a total of 1 946 rhinos have been poached to date, and this year alone, 292 rhinos have been killed within our South African borders. In central Africa the problem lies with elephants where the poaching is moving rapidly southwards, with reports of poaching already in isolated areas of Mozambique. To make matters worse, rhino horn is no longer simply an alleged cure for everything from hangovers to cancer (which is a myth as it has no medicinal properties whatsoever), but owning a piece of our precious rhino has become a status symbol for the Asian elite – having a pair of ivory earrings is like owning a designer handbag.

Rhino poaching has reached crisis levels in South Africa, driven by illegal demand in the East. Black-market prices have risen so high that rhino horn has literally become more valuable than gold.

But with the rapid escalation in poaching, so too comes the need for top-notch anti-poaching units in every reserve, the costs of which can run into hundreds of thousands of Rand each month. These highly skilled wildlife protection specialists, their equipment and their vehicles must be paid for and many private reserves are finding it increasingly more difficult to safeguard their rhinos. As a consequence many of them do not want to run the risk of increasing their rhino populations. Some are even escorting them out of their natural habitat and actively seeking alternative conservation areas for them. 

A private reserve ranger (who wished to remain anonymous), expressed great concern at the current state of affairs. He has been in the business for over 20 years and knows firsthand that game reserves with rhino attract more visitors than those without. “We still radio one another to share the location of any exciting finds. However, we’ve stopped doing this now when we find rhino because the probability of poachers hacking into our radio systems and listening in is a reality, and they could use the information to track and kill the animals. For us rangers, our silence is our protection.”

Left unchecked, poaching will ultimately have a drastic impact on the country’s economy and reduce our popularity as a tourist destination, leading to less corporate investment and fewer jobs.

And, we haven’t even got to the business of trophy hunting. For hunters, the rarer an animal is, the more valuable its trophy becomes, and the more you have to pay to obtain a license to kill one. The irony of which, is that funds accrued from trophy hunting are miniscule in comparison to the value of these animals as tourist drawing cards. The illegal trade in dead animal parts is also a big business and rakes in an estimated annual profit of roughly $7.8-$10 billion – which is fifth in value behind illegal traffic in drugs, humans, oil and counterfeit.

By and large, poachers are not criminals, but opportunists who are desperately poor; they see the enormous amount of money that can be obtained for horns and ivory on the black market, and they will risk anything to get it. It’s lucrative enough to make poaching and smuggling a dangerous but worthwhile occupation.

The sad truth is that the local man living in his rural hut in the bush rarely gets to see the benefits of tourism initiatives. That is, of course, unless he is involved in tourism in some way. A massive drive towards eco-tourism is underway where the business of tourism plays a vital role in sustainable community development. A series of eco-tourism lodges run by local people now offers a promising future in community-led conservation. Through their work, local communities are quickly realising that when an elephant or rhino is killed, they are losing an asset. So, in effect, a budding neighbourhood-watch scheme is developing. Committed eco-tourism initiatives are being used to persuade local communities that in safe-keeping their wildlife, it benefits them.

It is the responsibility too, of private reserve owners to donate a portion of their annual tourism income to anti-poaching and wildlife conservation funds.

The rapid depletion of our wildlife is a harsh reality that needs to be tackled head on. The problem is now a fundamental global issue and the fight simply cannot be won by our local village communities, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts alone. This war needs the back-up forces of international conservationists and senior politicians. The battle won will not only uplift SA tourism, but more importantly, allow the precious gifts of Mother Nature to be enjoyed by our children.