US Adds Weight to Ezemvelo’s Rhino Battle

02/07/2015 | The Independent on Saturday | RICHARD COMPTON


PERHAPS we know it but it has to be repeated. The role of external stakeholders and their various partnerships with state preservation bodies is essential in the broad roll-out of conservation’s numerous bio-diversity priorities.

The value of this external support was highlighted in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s last Annual Report which documented the myriad organisations and NGOs which collectively make conservation in KwaZulu-Natal happen. This support base assumes even greater significance as financial austerity bites with numerous unfilled posts being one of the critical casualties of this pressure.

While WCT, WWF, Sanbi, ORI, EWT among about 30 others are recognised acronyms, the US government is not necessarily spoken of in the same breath.

But towards the end of last year an opportunity arose to evaluate that country’s contribution to KwaZuluNatal conservation. The occasion was the US Department of State in South Africa’s donation of a 4×4 “crime scene” trailer to Ezemvelo. On its own this was a generous and practical gift. But it sponsored a broader realisation that the US has had a hand in numerous other areas of support for Ezemvelo over the years.

In his acceptance speech for the trailer, Sifiso Keswa, senior manager: people and conservation, brought this appreciation to the fore. “We simply must record and contextualise the many other crucial interventions the US government, as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service has made and is making to support conservation in KwaZulu-Natal and in South Africa in general. It is so hugely valued.”

While the crime scene trailer was considered “intelligent assistance” in the fight to combat wildlife trafficking (a state-of-the-art vehicle, carrying every piece of forensic equipment to crime scenes to help in the expert collection of evidence critical in the investigation and prosecution of criminals), it opened the door to what else the US has contributed towards.

Keswa spoke of the US’s conservation arm, the Fish and Wildlife Service, recently donating more than R1.1 million of a larger R1.7m grant to support Mkhuze Game Reserve.

This includes funding the salary for a specialised rhino monitor over a period of two years; a 4×4 vehicle; resources to execute critical monitoring and notching of the reserve’s black and white rhino populations and providing essential equipment, both infrastructural and surveillance.

The motivation for this grant was motivated by Mkhuze’s conservation manager Eduard Goosen, one of the most highly rated of Ezemvelo’s field staff. “This is a massive gesture of goodwill. It’s a godsend. Since receiving this money we have notched the ears of some 31 rhino, which, at this early stage, has resulted in expanding our previous estimate of Mkhuze’s rhino population from 74 to 85.”

To demonstrate what Keswa termed the US’s “holistic oversight”, its assistance reached beyond “the nuts and bolts of the field” and extended to the educational upliftment of the organisation’s human resources, too.

Over the past two years the US Consulate General in Durban sponsored three of Ezemvelo’s principal law enforcement and management staff to attend its International Visitor Leadership Programme, a new US initiative dedicated to wildlife trafficking and poaching. These staff spent three weeks engaging with American institutions and various departments as well as experiencing panel discussions and field trips.

“The experience Jabulani Ngubane (manager: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park), Lawrence Munro (rhino operations unit manager) and Dirk Swart (section ranger: Hluhluwe) gained was unprecedented, an invaluable exposure to international conservation and intelligence expertise.”

And then at the end of last year the US Consulate paid for Steven Galster of the Arrest (Asia’s regional response to endangered species trafficking) programme, based in Thailand, to speak at Ezemvelo’s Annual Symposium of Contemporary Conservation Practice, arguably the country’s premier practical scientific conservation forum. His insights and experiences of the latest global trends in wildlife crime and trafficking were considered authoritative – if not heartbreaking.

Finally, the huge success of last year’s inaugural World Rhino Youth Summit at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park again had much to do with the US. It was to its consulate that the summit owed the critical attendance of children from Vietnam, their teachers, and a journalist. This funding was indispensable to the overall success of the congress, which essentially galvanised youth from throughout the world to gain a hands-on experience of the rhino poaching war.

This article appeared in The Independent on Saturday on Feb 7, 2015