By Ed Cropley WINDHOEK South Africa’s rhino population has dropped to the lowest level ever, a crippling reduction in the availability of horns could only be possible in this social crisis. A high level of surveillance is now being carried out within the reserves in line with the international agreement on the rhino trafficking. Indeed, the reduction in poached horns could be a crucial aspect in the successful implementation of a conservation drive, geared toward reinvigorating rhino populations through setting aside 11 percent of the world’s remaining wild rhinos for conservation. However, even with such a successful cull, the best estimate by the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) is that less than 10 percent of the reserves will be able to save one rhino per year. IRF, a non-governmental organisation based in South Africa, recently conducted a network and investigation within the Kruger National Park, a massive national park, one of the few protected areas in South Africa, where the average rhino population is down to 1,249 from 1,927 in 1975. According to IRF consultant, Stephen Lawson, the most important reasons for the decline in the national park were an absence of the habitats that wildlife normally needs to survive. These habitats, as we are all aware, are being taken away from the national park. The destruction of these habitats is particularly alarming considering that the southern African country’s wildlife is already on a war footing. According to IRF, the South African war against rhino poaching has reached a new peak. “There have been 28 rhino killings in the Kruger National Park to date,” said Lawson. Additionally, the Marikana massacre, in which 84 white rhinos were shot in one day, only further stimulated fears of the growing violence against rhinos in South Africa. Lawson also told IRIN the traditional poachers have also been coming out on a reconnaissance mission. “We have witnessed black rhinos being taken away from this area. They have been in the area for some years and this is not something that is unfamiliar to them. It is just that now we are seeing these movements,” he said. In 2001, around 200 rhinos were killed in South Africa and since then that figure has increased to a staggering 1,225. “This year’s crisis is about 10 percent less, but the situation was never the same between 2000 and 2001 when there were not fewer than 900 rhinos. The world population is now 1,664 and now the balance needs to be flipped from one country to the other so that there will be no difference at all.” Lord Andrew Robson, chair of the South African Park Authority, said more needed to be done to stem the current situation. “This isn’t a pandemic situation. It was just too much poaching before the international agreement on the smuggling of rhino horns was signed,” he said. “There is still some room for hope.” But he stressed that “we are far from a crisis. There is not a crisis yet as a country, but there is a real crisis.” About 15 percent of the rhino population in South Africa is protected, which comes as a blow to the number of national parks and reserves being managed by the South African Government. The Hoehmann Nature Reserve is one of the parks (part of the Free State), which is very close to the centre of the country, and another where the rhino population is dropping rapidly. There are only 318 remaining in the whole of the Far West Region. By 21 September this year, only 86 of the protected parks and reserves remained fully protected. Research by researchers at the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand revealed rhino numbers were drastically low and that poaching was not the only reason, as poaching of the coveted horn was also an important issue. “The value of the horn is rather an exaggeration. The rhino is more of a a fish, that’s what I think,” Dr Garth Razzaglia told IRIN. Research at the University of Tshwane showed that over the past three years, the level of the disease vector – an animal such as buffalo – have decreased, the supply of drugs used in the drug’s use have reduced dramatically, and hence may be a possible factor in the reduction in rhino numbers, especially since the area with the lion population has dropped. Research also showed that the number of permits granted to poachers has increased due to the crack down in the forests.