27 Feb 2016

Jamie Joseph: Battling poaching in Africa

From Saturday Morning, 8:15 am on 27 February 2016

Rhino poaching in South Africa has made some people extremely rich, South African-born environmental activist Jamie Joseph says.

Speaking on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill, Ms Joseph was scathing about what she said was largely unchecked poaching and the failure of some authorities to prosecute those responsible.

Ms Joseph grew up between South Africa and Zimbabwe, before moving to New Zealand seven years ago, and recently spent nine months shadowing anti-poaching rangers in Africa.

In January, she published a story on her blog about Dumisani Gwala, who she accused of being a kingpin in the so-called rhino wars.

Compared to any other poaching syndicate in South Africa, she said, the scale of Mr Gwala's alleged operation, based 15km from the Mozambique border in the province of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, was "off the charts".

With a police investigation ongoing since 2012 "we're looking at 200 dead rhino", Ms Joseph said.

The rangers were risking their lives to save what wildlife remained in South Africa and they trusted her to shine a light on the horrific practice of rhino horn poaching, she said.

'Cakewalk for criminals'

Even if poachers were arrested, she said, they faced minimal penalties such as fines - which, with rhino horn selling for up to $100,000 per kilo on the black market in China, just meant killing another animal.

The amount of money involved and the fact it was largely risk-free meant it was "a cakewalk for criminals", she said.

"Why would they peddle drugs when they can kill a rhino? The laws are not acting as a deterrent."

Ms Joseph said what was done to rhinos, who were often still conscious when their horns were hacked off, was perhaps the worst atrocity inflicted on animals.

Various solutions had been put forward, such as removing the prized horns, but Ms Joseph said that was not a long-term solution because they grew back.

A formula to make them useless for sale by poisoning the horns had also failed but a new solution might be to attach radioactive isotypes, which would mean any officials smuggling rhino horn in diplomatic bags would still set off alarms at border security.

"I would love to see that ... if you had all the private rhino owners in South Africa poison the horns, that's one quarter of the horns of 20,000 rhino.

"And then you have one of the big NGOs that are based in China and Vietnam blitz a campaign that says you have a one in four chance of contracting a stomach or gastric disease - I'm sure the sales will plummet."

No one would die, Ms Joseph said, but it could stop people engaging in a criminal activity and driving a species to extinction.