We know that elephant poaching is on the rise in the Kruger National Park but as with rhino poaching statistics, the powers that be seem reluctant to share information timeously. Why? All that results is a sense of frustration and suspicion. Is the situation far worse than we believe it to be? Whatever the reason it is hard to understand, let alone support. Tony Carnie reports for the Conservation Action Trust.
Alarm over new gag on elephant poaching stats
BY TONY CARNIE | CONSERVATION ACTION TRUST | 29 MAY 2017
First there was a clampdown on rhino poaching statistics. Now the same is happening with information on elephant ivory poaching. SA National Parks has refused to provide statistics on how many elephants have been poached in the Kruger National Park this year, referring queries instead to the national Department of Environmental Affairs.
But this department has also declined to release the latest figures – with officials suggesting that “you will have to wait until the next quarterly statistics are released by the Minister”.
The refusal to release these statistics follows a sharp increase in elephant poaching in the northern section of the Kruger National Park, where at least 80 elephants have been killed since early 2015 – the highest levels in more than three decades.
The latest move also mirrors a communication clampdown by SANParks and the Department of Environmental Affairs on rhino poaching statistics that came into effect in early 2012, when South Africa’s horn poaching crisis was spiralling out of control.
Recently, when SANParks was asked for an update on elephant poaching statistics, a spokesman replied: “May I request that you direct your enquiry to the Department of Environmental Affairs as the issue relating to statistics is the competency of the Minister of Environmental Affairs.
Asked whether the restriction on rhino poaching information now applied to elephants as well, SANParks said: “It applies to all species and areas within the Minister’s management.”
Flippantly, I asked whether this applied to tortoise and hedgehogs too, but received no response from Sanparks.
The department, also, did not respond in writing – though an official indicated that elephant poaching data would only be released by national Environment Minister Edna Molewa during the next quarterly update on rhino poaching. The last update (covering the last four months of 2016) was issued at the end of February, suggesting that no more official statistics will be published for another two months at least.
In March 2012, SANParks issued a new directive: “Please note that from now until further notice all matters related to rhino poaching will be addressed by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). This will include all the periodic updates that SANParks has been giving to the media about rhino poaching statistics, all interviews related to rhino poaching and all issues of clarity or information.”
Asked to explain the rationale for the information clamp, SANParks said at the time that: “There is nothing sinister in the decision to have all rhino poaching media and public issues going through the Department of Environmental Affairs as they have been going through SANParks. It is just an administrative arrangement which makes more sense because this is a national issue and not just a SANParks issue . . . The notice posted to media this morning was just a courtesy to ensure that you are not finding yourselves frustrated by seeming to be pushed from post to pillar when you want to make your inquiries. A little bit of proactive notice never hurt anyone surely. It is very unfortunate that a simple act of courtesy could give rise to so much suspicion.”
Following that directive, the department began to issue monthly statistics on rhino poaching, but in 2015 – after poaching levels had soared to a new record of 1 215 deaths the previous year- the policy changed again. Monthly reports were discontinued and stats are now only released every four months.
The government justified this move on the basis that: “There is no regulation or legal obligation on the department with regard to the timing of publishing statistics.”
The latest clamp on elephant information has raised concern that ivory poaching in Kruger and other national parks bordering Mozambique and Zimbabwe is escalating rapidly.
Available statistics show that 24 elephants were poached in South Africa in 2015. This rose sharply to 46 last year – and shortly before the latest gag, SANParks reported that another 11 were killed in the first three months of this year. The latest figures are the highest recorded in decades. Though nearly 100 were poached during 1980, this was followed by a rapid decline towards zero or single figures annually thereafter.
During a media briefing last year Kruger chief ranger Nicholus Funda voiced concern about the sudden increase in elephant killings in the northern section of the park and suggested that the intense focus on rhino protection could be to the detriment of other species.
Dr Michelle Henley, chief executive of the Elephants Alive research group and member of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group has warned: “We need to take care that elephant poaching does not spiral out of control in much the same way that rhino poaching did a few years back.”
Henley said she was also concerned about the apparent refusal to release statistics on elephant poaching.
“I can’t see that releasing the number of poaching deaths will put elephants in jeopardy and I think it is important for the public to realise that ivory poaching in Africa is moving southwards. I don’t think it’s a good thing that these figures are not released.”
Henley said Mozambique’s elephant populations had been targeted heavily by poachers and she saw very few elephants during a recent flight over Mozambican territory bordering Kruger.
The only significant herd sighted during the trip had behaved aggressively when a monitoring helicopter flew over the animals. She said elephants in the northern Pafuri section of Kruger Park also seemed “far more edgy” than other sections of the park.