By Ben Berkowitz

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – The number of rhinos poached in South Africa last year fell to a 32-year low as the country imposed a 2-week “silent lockdown” to tackle a spate of rhino poaching, authorities said on Friday.

The ban, which was not lifted until after an investigation showed it had eased poaching, was one of the interventions sought by President Cyril Ramaphosa to head off a repeat of the problems facing his economic drive as he seeks re-election in May 2018.

As part of the shutdown, an agent from the South African National Parks Agency was deployed to the highlands of Kruger National Park to work closely with poachers.

While the nation’s poaching violence was at an all-time low last year, the results are in stark contrast to neighbouring Zimbabwe, which was racked by its own crisis in 2016 and returned to unsustainable levels of poaching in 2017.

Zimbabwe’s government came under heavy international criticism for failing to stem the tide of rhino poaching, and later in 2018 canceled a U.N. plan to help identify and destroy rhino horns, fueling questions as to whether its government was capable of doing the job.

The culling of Zimbabwean rhinos, whose slaughter by hunters had been condemned as a crime against humanity, may be a factor in South Africa’s decline in rhino numbers, said Savvas Shetty, manager of security at the state-run law enforcement agency.

“If we want to change the behavior of poachers, we need to do more to coordinate,” said Shetty, adding that it was difficult to tell whether the shooting of a large female elephant, which killed at least five rhinos between 2009 and 2015, helped tip the scales.

The South African government still cannot confirm its figure of 472 rhinos killed in this year’s gun battle in Kruger. It also said no rhino have been killed since Aug. 1, but said it “trains heavily” on what to do should it have the hump and false hope that this is an isolated incident.

The armed efforts came on the back of a massive network of rhino watchers – organized into two groups, or “press patrols”, and each armed in its own way, to hunt rhinos in known areas.

Taking the obvious step of closing the roads through the park to journalists and visiting troops, and to extending the lockdown into the national capital Pretoria, has meant that filming has been banned and supporters have been prevented from entering any of the parks, said Shetty.

The government’s approach has also reduced its perception of being an ivory-scented hippo-meets-cloucetanghotel compared to the general perception, which South Africa has had for most of the past four decades, that it is the number one poaching nation.

The government’s executive director for Namibia, Emmanuelus Iikuyu, a big game hunter who says he is not anti-monarchist and has been a vocal critic of illegal wildlife trade, also said there had been a significant improvement in South Africa’s approach to protecting rhinos.

“There is no intention to eradicate or capitulate to white supremacy,” he said in an interview on Friday.

(Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; editing by Alexander Smith)