Let me paint you an ugly picture. Since 2011 our rhino population has plummeted 75 percent. Without the combined efforts and funding by various organisations and partnerships working together to combat the pillaging of this iconic species, the picture could have been a great deal worse.
But no strategy or action can be successful without a clear and factual picture of the problem. Why are the poachers successful? Have their methods changed? What areas are they targeting? How successful is a dehorning programme or any concentrated intervention, and to what extent does this simply move the problem to another sector?
These questions and many more need to be answered and that’s the objective of Framework of Interventions for Effective Rhino protection Evaluation or Project FIRE, which I have been given the privilege of leading as CEO of GKEPF.
The project involves an objective and methodical deep dive into what drives poaching success and how effective various interventions have been. It involves gathering data on these interventions and analysing their cost effectiveness. This is critically important if we are to stem the tide of rhino poaching in South Africa. On GKEPF conservation areas, we fiercely guard our remaining 2000 white and 250 black rhinos.
Over the past few years, the government, private sector, and NGOs have continued to commit funds and resources to combat illegal wildlife trade and trafficking, but a holistic evaluation will give all of us a much clearer picture of the way forward and exactly how funds should be allocated for maximum impact.
Project FIRE will focus on 12 sites covering an area of over two million hectares, all with diverse ownership models and management approaches. Anti-poaching initiatives have historically included the use of advanced technology, tracker and detection dogs, access control, integrity testing and community engagement projects. Dehorning rhino remains one of the most important initiatives, but it is vital that we measure its impact not only on rhino numbers but its effectiveness as a security intervention. Crime breeds crime and rhino poaching is a wedge for organized criminal syndicates.
When we are faced with solid evidence and detail, it is far easier to plot a more cohesive way forward. Science will drive better management decisions. Reporting systems will make management decisions more effective. By sharing critical data, we will simply know more, will be able to act more strategically and will be able to manage funds more effectively.
Data collection began in 2021 and by later this year, we aim to have developed a vital analysis tool that is set to be critical in combating rhino poaching.
Project FIRE calls for a powerful and driven coalition of reserve managers from GKEPF and representatives from Kruger National Park/ SANParks who will meet regularly. Data will be captured by independent coordinators, and the work done by independent analysts from the University of Cape Town.
FIRE will benefit all private reserves, SANPark reserves, any area where rhinos are protected, key reserves and players in surrounding countries with significant rhino populations, and community, privately and provincially owned reserves in SA.
It is, in essence, fighting fire with FIRE. This much we do know. Rhino poaching is not a random criminal act. It is organised, funded, connected internationally, and sophisticated. The only way we will be able to match this level of organized crime is to co-ordinate our efforts and harness the wealth of experience and knowledge we have in our scientific partners, our wardens, rangers, and security managers.
The project is a valuable collaboration between the GKEPF private sector and the Kruger National Park, and supported by the Rhino Recovery Fund (RRF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).