By Jana-Mari Smith
The facts: Rhino poaching incident in Namibia December 2012
A SAD CHRISTMAS
Just before the year 2012 ended, the news broke that a female black rhino had been poached and her calf had died from thirst, malnutrition and shock. Hopes that the year could end without a single rhino-poaching incident in Namibia were dashed.
But despite the shocking tragedy there was a silver lining around the dark clouds of the scourge of rhino poaching visible.
”Unbelievably, the poacher, Tjihetura Tjihura (41) confessed within an hour of being confronted by community members, police and rhino guardians on 25 December.“
He then led authorities to the hiding place where he had stashed the two horns, the stolen guns and ammunition.
While the details are vague, it is no secret that the poacher pointed the authorities in the direction of the kingpins of the operation, who run thriving businesses in the area.
Tjihura was arrested and bail has been denied to date. His next court appearance has been scheduled for 28 March.
The incredible speed and quick cooperation between the community, Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), police and private individuals and organisations in response to the initial report made it evident that Namibia’s ongoing efforts to prevent and fight rhino poaching have been successful.
There is no denying though that the news deepened the disquiet in Namibia and the fear that South Africa’s apparent lack of control over their unstoppable rhino poaching problem, could move across the border into Namibia.
Shaka Karutjaiva unwittingly became the hero of the story when he discovered the carcass and the still-living calf on December 25 in a remote area of Kaokoland. A livestock herdsman, he had trekked his cattle deep into the mountains close to the Mbakonja area in the Palmwag concession, due to the drought that has held many parts of Namibia in its grip over the past few months.
Pushing his animals ever deeper into the tough terrain, Shaka stumbled upon the horrifying scene of a female rhino that had obviously been slaughtered for her horns. Nearby a young calf hovered on the brink of death, slowly dying from malnutrition, heat and stress.
No one would have known what Shaka had seen, had he simply moved on and not undertaken the trek to the SRT camp.
”But guided by his conscience and sense of responsibility, Shaka decided to return to Mbakondja to alert Save-the-Rhino-Trust guard, Mannetjie Ganuseb.“
Mannetjie was manning a SRT rhino station in the area. SRT’s foresight to set up a station in this remote, Rhino rich area was key to the silver lining of this story.
From here on, matters moved fast. Mannetjie alerted his SRT bosses, who in turn alerted the team at the Ministry of Environment (MET), the police and the veterinarians. The major concern was for the calf. They knew that every second counted.
THE RESCUE EFFORT
This part of Namibia is not open country. It is rugged, hot and dry, coated with sharp and inhospitable edges.
On 25 December, less than 24 hours after the alert had been raised, a concerned team of SRT members, police, private individuals and community game guards set off to locate the calf and the carcass of its mother.
It was a difficult drive. In the end members of the team had no other choice but to stop at a Himba cattle post on their way to the poached rhino and her calf.
Only one car had sufficient tractive power to continue, and thus the veterinarian, police and head of the SRT drove on, leaving behind a community game guard, a SRT guard and a MET staff member.
THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
The poacher had chosen to ambush the rhino in a dry gully at the base of a box canyon. It was obvious that she had been dead for about four days. The area was cordoned off and the investigators scanned the surroundings and took a closer look at the carcass.
From the outset it was clear that the poacher was a professional. The rhino had been killed with one bullet through the heart and lungs. Her horns had been removed carefully and professionally.
Initially the calf was nowhere to be seen. Then the team spotted it stumbling down the mountain slope towards its dead mother. Probably due to exhaustion and pain, it showed no fear towards the humans, and settled down in some bushes close to its mother.
Sadly, the calf was already giving off the smell of death, having stayed close to the rotting corpse of its mother since she had died.
The veterinarian, Axel Hartmann, rapidly darted the calf, doused its sleeping body with water to cool it off, and loaded it onto the back of the vehicle. Two of the team stayed behind, while the others hastily began the drive back to Mbakondja. The priority now was to save the calf’s life.
Unfortunately, tragically, the calf succumbed a mere two kilometres down the road. In a desperate attempt to save its life, Axel massaged its heart, but to no avail.
The poacher had decimated two black rhinos with one shot.
Those present that day attested that the death of the calf left a bitter, disappointed taste in all their mouths. They were deeply affected by the unnecessary suffering and the cruelty that had ended this young life in such a horrific way.
Nevertheless, around the corner there was at least some good news. As they approached the temporarily erected cattle post, an SRT member came running towards the vehicle. To everyones astonishment, he imparted the news that the poacher had been arrested, and had given a full confession.
So, at the end of the harrowing day, there was, finally, some good news.
The bitterness and tragedy of the day was now infused with a feeling of triumph, albeit a somewhat Phyrric one.
Nevertheless, it was a triumph that attested to the success of many years of awareness campaigns; a triumph that had given rise to the reporting of the carcass within days of the rhino’s death. The triumph was further endorsed by the fact that those who could, had immediately jumped in to help, thereby ensuring that the death of the rhino and her calf would not go unpunished, and that the horns would remain in Namibia.
The story, of course, does not end here. Many of those willing to pay vast sums of money for rhino horns are still at large.
Moreover, the trade in rhino horn shows no signs of abating, as money remains a strong motivator in an impoverished community.
Close to the death scene were signs of poaching other wildlife.
The remains of a large antelope – a kudu or a gemsbok – were detected, and it seemed a foreign exploration team had destroyed a vast array of protected plant life – including 35 welwitchias. The presence of this team in the area was met with skepticism.
And while this incident sent out a clear message that rhino poaching in Namibia is closely scrutinised and that good management in the area can make a difference, more personnel, training, support, vehicles and funding is urgently needed.
”Those on the ground are aware, alert and ready to respond and this poaching incident proves that there is a solid foundation of community awareness, understanding and willingness to promote wildlife conservation.“
All those involved, emphasised the continued need to boost and uphold Namibia’s rhino-protection efforts in order to prevent South Africa’s rhino tragedy from lodging itself in Namibia.
Photos of the scene of the crime and the destroyed welwitchias will be posted soon.
PLEASE LET US KNOW YOUR RESPONSE TO THIS STORY AND HELP TO SPREAD THE WORD THAT NAMIBIA'S RESPONSE TO RHINO POACHING IS SWIFT.