Category Archives: Wildlife and Eco-Tourism

The natural world and conservation issues.

South Africa – how to save the Karoo


2017-04-26 07:17

As the Karoo faces increased development, scientists are calling on citizens to help them research this unique landscape. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

As the Karoo faces increased development, scientists are calling on citizens to help them research this unique landscape. (Ashraf Hendricks, GroundUp)

Oudtshoorn – “Scientists know very little about the plants and animals in the Karoo, and there is an urgent need to document the indigenous species found in this important part of South Africa,” says the Karoo BioGaps Project, a citizen science initiative which aims to document the Karoo’s natural resources.

But this vast track of South Africa, which contains a wide range of animal and plant life despite its extreme temperatures and low rainfall, is being eyed for development. Shale gas exploration, solar plants and other infrastructure are being earmarked for the Karoo, to boost much-needed development. But without data, scientists and policy makers do not know which areas require additional protection or to be left alone entirely.

“We need to learn which species are widespread, and which are sensitive to proposed future changes in land use and development,” says the newly launched project, GroundUp reports.

There are two ways you can get involved in documenting Karoo biodiversity:

• You can photograph Karoo species and upload your pics to There is also a community forum where uploaders can discuss photos and observations.
• Even if you have no plans for visiting the Karoo anytime soon, you can help to transcribe the thousands of historical records at These treasure troves were collected before conservationists and explorers dreamed that a person would be able to take and share photos with anyone in the world instantly.

Historical records

“It is absolutely critical for us to digitise these old herbarium and museum records as they are basically unavailable for use by scientists in their un-digitised format,” says Carol Poole, the South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) project co-ordinator for biodiversity research.

“The ability these days to crunch large datasets means that including all these historical records along with current fieldwork records is very important.

“They give us a perspective of what species existed where in the past, and we can compare that to where we find these species in the fieldwork being conducted today. So comparing historical and current species records is an important part of assessing species’ distribution and threat status,” she says.

Some of these records date back to the 1830s, and digitising them will make them accessible to anyone who wants to look at them. There are 12 main groups that the Karoo BioGap Project is looking to inventory: plants, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, birds, bees, spiders, dragon flies, scorpions, grasshoppers and butterflies.

Climate change

Citizen science is the latest trend in resource cataloguing, but researchers say that engaging non-scientists in this way introduces them to a world that usually gathers dust in archives or allow them to discover new things.

There are a number of citizen science projects in South Africa, allowing anyone interested to choose the project that would suit their interests best.

For example, rePhotoSA, an initiative from the Plant Conservation Unit and the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape, is collecting photos from around southern Africa to track how climate change and development have altered landscapes. It calls itself a “repeat photography project of southern African landscapes”

For a more hands-on experience, the miniSASS project aims to create an inventory of life in our rivers and dams. The types and numbers of small animals living in our water bodies tell whether that water is in a good condition or not. Based on the SASS (the South African Scoring System), this initiative is the brain-child of the Water Research Commission, environmental consulting organisation GroundTruth, and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa). This information is then passed on to policy makers.

Digitised records

Asked what volunteers got in return for being part of  the Karoo BioGaps Project, Poole says that they will be helping decision-makers on important national issues, such as the shale gas development.

“There is also the excitement of being part of history in a way – transcribing these historical records will mean that the transcriber themselves has played a role in history as these digitised records will exist in databases forever.”

One thing that makes the Karoo BioGaps Project stand out is that its managers recognise that sometimes kudos is not enough. There are also prizes for the most pictures and most transcriptions.

Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa: Somerville’s knowledge of the ivory trade past and present is close to unparalleled




Something slightly different today – a book review. But I’ve not reviewed a book since…well, I can’t remember… So let’s start with a quote to get us going:

“The elephant is the most harassed of all African mammals…Its reduction in numbers is still progressing, and special measures may become necessary in order to save it from extinction”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not a recent observation from an NGO, government body, or conservationist. It comes from Major Hingston of the Fauna Preservation Society (a British NGO), writing in the 1930s. Evidently, the poaching threat facing Africa’s elephants, and recognition of their uncertain future, is far from new.

Keith Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa tracks the ebb and flow of ivory trading across Africa over the centuries, reflecting on ivory’s relationship with foreign traders, colonial administrations and modern-day insurgencies. We read of elephant herds being wiped out in various regions, of the “exploits” of big-game hunters, of the early movements towards regulation of hunting, and of the tensions between local communities and the elephants themselves.  It’s sobering to see many hundreds of years and tens of thousands of poached elephants reduced to numbers on a page – often accompanied by the price (not value, I should emphasise) of their ivory. From the Congo Basin’s forest elephants to the last of the Saharan herds; from Kenya to South Africa; from Gabon to Mozambique, Somerville masters complexity with a clear, well-researched and fluid narrative.

Ivory burning
A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) officer stands near a burning pile of 15 tonnes of elephant ivory seized in Nairobi National Park.  A number of African governments have taken to burning tusks as a show of defiance against poaching. Critics say this is little more than a publicity stunt and that efforts to stop poaching still fall short.  Photo Credit: The Daily Telegraph

He argues strongly in favour of bringing local communities on-board in conservation efforts throughout this book (something we’re seeing work well in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, among others). He is critical of colonial regimes and modern western NGOs for imposing their visions of appropriate wildlife management on African states, and for distancing local people both physically and emotionally from their immediate natural environment.  As long as they lack the support of local communities, conservation efforts will be fundamentally hamstrung.  Farmers and pastoralists are far more likely to kill elephants which trample crops or break fences if they see no value in the elephant.  At the same time, they are less likely to inform the authorities of poaching, and more likely to facilitate or participate in that poaching for financial gain. Yet to place the blame for the shocking declines in elephant numbers in recent decades on the farmer who shoots or poisons an elephant which destroys or threatens his/her livelihood, is very misleading.

“Corruption, political power and wealth accumulation and utilisation are at the heart of the ivory trade, but it also feeds off impoverishment of communities, resentment over alienation from control of wildlife sources, and conflict leading to availability of weapons and opportunities to poach with impunity, whether by local people, criminal gangs, militias, rebel groups, and national armies – or a combination of them all”

Keith Somerville, “Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa”, p.317

By a similar token, Somerville argues that the narrative of “ivory-insurgency-terrorism”, which has sprung up and gained much momentum in recent years, is overly simplistic, perhaps close to baseless.  To stress how Boko Haram, Al Shabaab or other insurgencies have used illicit ivory trading to fund their operations overlooks far more significant revenue streams available to these groups. They may dabble in ivory trading opportunistically, but, writes Somerville, it is not central to their financing.

Al Shabaab.jpg
Members of Somalia’s Al Shabaab militia. Somerville sets out to debunk what he considers a convenient “ivory-insurgency-terrorism” narrative, which does not fit with reality on the ground. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

So who – or what – is to blame? Well, corruption and conflict certainly play key roles in facilitating and increasing poaching.  Somerville stresses that whenever there has been little threat of punitive action due to poor law enforcement, corruption or civil war, then officials, poachers, traders and smugglers have been able to act with impunity, and hundreds of thousands of elephants have been slaughtered as a result.  It comes as no surprise that the most politically stable African states with the lowest levels of corruption – Botswana, for instance – have the fewest problems with poaching and have been most successful in sustaining elephant populations.

Somerville’s account is replete with instances of well-connected individuals within the political, military and even “conservation” elites being actively involved in poaching and ivory smuggling in their respective countries. There has even been evidence of military helicopters and heavy weaponry being used to kill elephants in large numbers. Whistle-blowers have often been ‘silenced’, so to speak, or otherwise removed from the spotlight.

There is some indication that African states have begun to tackle the corruption which has been so endemic in the post-colonial period. Ceremonial burnings of seized ivory or national stockpiles are now used by a number of African governments as a show of resolve against poaching. However, unless these public displays are backed up by significant anti-poaching and, just as important, anti-corruption measures, their real impact is understandably limited.

“Levels of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trading in a country are more likely to be related to wildlife management practices, law enforcement and corruption than to choice of CITES appendix listings and consequent extent of trade restriction.”

Zoological Society of London, ‘International Wildlife Trafficking: Solutions to a Global Crisis’, Symposium, February 2014

The everyday reality of corruption, crime and politics enables illegal poaching to survive in spite of international pressure for a more extensive ban on the trade – in addition, that is, to the CITES ban of 1989.  But following Somerville’s logic in his conclusion takes us to a slightly disconcerting conclusion: if “a free-for-all for illegal raw ivory [as a result of a complete trade ban under CITES]” is not the answer, then some degree of regulated trade must be. What Somerville terms “locally acceptable forms of sustainable use” necessarily entail management of elephant populations. Some reviewers have suggested that this leaves the door open to a legal, regulated trade in ivory as a logical extension of Somerville’s argument.  Sustainable management of elephant populations doesn’t necessarily mean legal (or illegal) ivory trading, but that’s based on zero demand for new ivory. Realistically, that’s not going to happen for some time, if indeed ever.

For some, this conclusion might be uncomfortable, but Somerville’s knowledge of the ivory trade past and present is close to unparalleled (this book is certainly one of the most comprehensive studies of pan-African ivory trading to date), and we would do well to heed to his words. His research for this book began in the early 1980s, and over the past 35 years he has travelled extensively throughout sub-Saharan Africa, interviewing men and women on the front line of elephant conservation efforts. Their views evidently inform his analysis as much as his own.  According to Somerville, it’s wrong to assume that all conservationists – many of the people who devote their lives to protecting elephants – are in favour of a blanket ivory ban.

Elephants Fence Breaking.jpg
Fence-breaking and crop-destruction are two of the most common instances of conflict between local farmers/pastoralists and elephants. As you can see, even the most sturdy of fences cannot stop a herd of elephants if they are determined to move through the obstacle.  Photo Credit: / Hitchcock et al. (2015), Elephant Engagements and Indigenous Peoples: Borders, Boundaries and Barriers in Southern Africa

The inescapable truth is this: Africa’s human population is growing faster than that of any other continent, and is forecast to eclipse 2.4 billion by 2050.  This will, beyond any shadow of doubt, intensify the scope and scale of Africa’s human-wildlife conflict in years to come. If sustainable solutions on a local level can be developed as a means of conserving elephant populations – even if, and it pains me to write this, a legal trade in ivory results – surely that is preferable to local, regional, or continental extinction of the species?  Not ideal by any means; but preferable.  What we cannot lose sight of is Somerville’s focus on getting local communities onside in conservation efforts. It is so crucial in giving us the best possible chance of preserving Africa’s majestic giants for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.


The Chinese government has recently announced that 67 of its licensed ivory facilities are being shut down, including 12 of its 35 ivory carving factories and several dozen of its more than 130 ivory retailers. According to the Chinese State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife trade issues, the other facilities will be closed before the end of the year. This is being hailed as a massive step forward in tackling ivory supply & demand in the Far East. Although Somerville’s book doesn’t go into Far Eastern demand in great detail, he does acknowledge that the twin pressures of rising demand and the sort of corruption/conflict on the ground in African range states are two sides of the same coin. It’s pretty simple, really – break the demand for ivory, and you go a long way to reducing the poaching of elephants.  But it’s still a long road ahead to bring the illegal ivory trade under control. And there’s likely to be further ups and downs on the way.

Ivory carvin
China’s 3,000 year old ivory carving industry is finally being reined in by Beijing, with the announcement in March 2017 that 67 licensed ivory facilities are being shut down. China remains one of the largest sources of demand for African ivory. Photo Credit: National Geographic/How Hwee Young (EPA)


If you want to buy Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa for yourself, a quick google will take you to a number of online bookstores, or, if you’d prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, just head into your local bookshop!

South Africa – DEA says it is putting a rhino horn permit system in place and auditing all stockpiles

Citizen (SA)

Permit scheme will control SA rhino horn sales, says DEA

FILE PICTURE: Rhino horn. Picture: supplied<!– –>

FILE PICTURE: Rhino horn. Picture: supplied

The department said its directorate of biodiversity compliance was conducting an audit of all existing stockpiles of rhino horn.

A permit system for the local sale and possession of rhino horn is in place, the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) says.

This is after anti-poaching activists expressed fears after last week’s Constitutional Court ruling that it would not hear an appeal by the department against a high court decision forcing the lifting of a 2009 moratorium on local trade.

The environmental management inspectors of both the DEA and provincial conservation departments monitor compliance with the conditions of the permits, said DEA spokesperson Albi Modise.

“The department has developed an electronic database that will capture extensive details of all individual rhino horns in private and government-owned stockpiles and all newly-acquired horns, which will be entered into the database on a monthly basis,” he said.

The DEA’s directorate of biodiversity compliance was conducting an audit of all existing stockpiles of rhino horn.

The directorate had done audit inspections of government-owned rhino horn in all provinces and of privately-owned horn in two provinces.

“Six provinces have conducted audit inspections in respect of privately-owned horns.

“The department is currently conducting ad hoc inspections to verify the provincial audits.

“One province is still in the process of inspecting privately-owned rhino horn stockpiles.

“Once the inspections and audit are complete, the department will conduct ad hoc inspections to verify the information,” Modise said.

The department wants every horn in government and private hands to be tagged with a micro-chip, DNA tested, measured, weighed, marked and captured on the national database.

“This will ensure that the department has full and accurate information on the number of horns in South Africa at any given time and the registered owner of each horn.

“This is vital to prevent the smuggling of illegally-obtained horn out of the country,” said Modise.

On Monday, Agence France-Presse news agency reported that enforcement officials in Malaysia had seized 18 rhinoceros horns imported from Mozambique, weighing 51.4kg.

Mozambique shares a border with the Kruger National Park, which has borne the brunt of rhino poaching in South Africa.


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Malaysia seizures $3.1m worth of rhino horn from Mozambique


Malaysia seizes $3.1 million worth of rhino horns at airport

KLIA customs director-general Hamzah Sundang poses with rhino horns that were seized on April 7 from Mozambique to Kuala Lumpur via Doha, during a news conference at the airport in Sepang

KUALA LUMPUR Malaysian authorities have seized about $3.1 million (£2.5 million) worth of rhinoceros horns flown in from Mozambique via Qatar, the latest seizure in Asia of products from endangered species to feed demand for traditional remedies, officials said on Monday.

Malaysia is a major transit point for the trade in endangered species to other Asian countries although a customs official told Reuters Malaysia was believed to have been the final destination of the 18 horns.

Customs officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport found the more than 51 kg (112 lb) of horns on Friday, after a tip-off, packed in wooden crates in a cargo warehouse, airport customs director Hamzah Sundang told a news conference.

The horns had been shipped to Malaysia via Doha, Qatar, on a Qatar Airways flight, using false documents and declared “Obra de arte” or “objects of art”, Hamzah said.

“The address of the consignee and the agent of the recipient didn’t exist. All the documentation used for the shipment were false,” Hamzah told the news conference at the airport customs complex.

No suspects had been detained and investigations were continuing, he said.

The office of Qatar Airways in Kuala Lumpur did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In January, 846 kg (1,860 lb) of ivory tusks were seized at the airport, media reported.

Global trade in rhino horn is banned by a U.N. convention, but it is prized in some Asian countries as an ingredient in traditional medicines to treat everything from fever to cancer.

Last month, Thai authorities confiscated nearly $5 million worth of rhino horns in the country’s biggest such seizure in years.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Robert Birsel)

South Africa – court rejects ban on rhino horn trade

A rather shallow BBC piece on a very important subject. Some private owners are literally just breeders who then sell on their rhino to private game farms and even for hunting. But many are genuinely concerned with saving the rhino and believe that a regulated, non-lethal trade in horn from dehorned rhinos will cut demand for poached horn and reduce poaching substantially. They are supported by very experienced and knowledgeable conservations like John Hanks and David Cook.  So just referring to “rhino breeders” is misleading and potentially pejorative – many of those private owners who have played a role in protecting and expanding the numbers of rhino in South Africa are not just breeders who treat rhinos as cash cows but people who can help repopulate wild areas depleted by poachers. 

The court decision should lead to extensive consultations on how to establish, monitor and control trade so that it feeds cash into conservation and local communities and so helps fight poaching from the ground up – this should not be about people making money from legalised horn trading but using a resource for sustainable-use conservation that is non-lethal. 

The SA government’s draft law is nonsensical, could be leaky as a sieve and aid laundering of poached horn or the revival of pseudo-hunts (where people pose as hunters so they can export trophies in order to sell the horn)  as a means of getting round the regulations.  They need something carefully controlled to convince other countries and CITES that a regulated, safe trade is possible to undercut the poachers and not provide opportunities for mixing illegal with legal horn – if SA is to export horn it must find willing partners abroad and do it properly, not in some shoddy fashion, which is sadly what one now expects of the Zuma kleptocracy. Knee-jerk reactions by pro and anti-trade campaigners will get us nowhere, there must be sane, considered debate and the drawing u of workable and transparent trade that redners the illegal trade and so poaching obsolete. KS


South Africa court permits domestic trade in rhino horns

A rhino is pictured in South Africa, 6 February 2013Getty Images Breeders believe that a legal trade in rhino horns is the only way to stop poachers

South Africa’s constitutional court has rejected an attempt by the government to keep a ban on the domestic trade in rhino horns.

The ruling that the application be dismissed means that rhino horns can effectively be traded in the country.

Rhino breeders argue that legalising the trade could cut the number of rhinos slaughtered as horns can be sawn off anaesthetised live animals.

However many conservationists disagree with the proposed policy. [KS: But many support it – so try to be balanced.]

The department of environmental affairs said authorities were still considering the implications of Wednesday’s judgment. [KS: Except that they have already issued draft legislation on legalising the trade and even allowing the export of two horns per person as “private property” – did you not know this?]

“It is important to note that permits are required to sell or buy rhino horn,” the department’s spokesman, Albie Modise, said in a statement.

The ruling only applies to the industry in South Africa as a ban on international trade remains in force.

Rhino breeders who have argued that open trade is the only way to prevent widespread slaughter of the animal welcomed the ruling.

“We are absolutely delighted at the ruling by the constitutional court,” Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association (PROA), told AFP news agency.

Breeders also argue that the process is not permanent as the horns grow back.

The Helping Rhinos organisation however tweeted that the ruling was “disastrous”. [KS: But what about other conservation groups that support a legal trade?]

South Africa is thought to be home to around 20,000 rhinos, around 80% of the worldwide population. More than 1,000 rhino were killed by poachers in South Africa in 2016.

Kenya – white safari conservancy owner shot at by illegal herders


By Katharine Houreld | NAIROBI

NAIROBI One of Kenya’s most prominent conservationists said on Thursday she was repeatedly shot at when she ran to her baby as armed men set fire to a lodge near her home in the drought-striken north, where such attacks are becoming increasingly frequent.

Residents say politicians hoping to win votes in an August election are encouraging herdsmen desperate for grazing to bring tens of thousands of cattle into the area.

“Yesterday evening our operations buildings and our house came under direct gunfire from armed men,” Sveva Gallmann said in a statement released after Wednesday night’s attack.

“My nine-month-old daughter was in the house with her carers and I was shot at three times as I ran between the buildings to get to her.”

The Gallmann family own the 100,000-acre (400 square kilometre) Laikipia Nature Conservancy and employ 250 Kenyans on the luxury lodges, ranch, and other businesses on the land.

This month, the government announced it would send troops to the area after herdsmen shot dead a British military veteran who ran a safari company in Kenya when he went to inspect a friend’s house that had been burnt down.

Kenya has a history of ethnic clashes and political violence. The last election, in 2013, passed relatively peacefully but more than 1,200 people were killed following a disputed poll in 2007.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

Has the tide turned for South Africa’s rhino poaching crisis?

Talking Humanities

Prof Keith Somerville

Image: White rhino in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

South Africa’s long-awaited statistical report on rhino poaching reveal a 10.3 per cent dip in the numbers illegally killed in 2016 compared to the previous year. However, the picture is far from straightforward, explains Professor Keith Somerville.  

On 27 February the South African Ministry for Environmental Affairs released the long-awaited rhino poaching statistics, which showed that nationally 121 less animals were poached in 2016 (1,054) compared with 2015 (1,175). But the figures also indicated what many feared, that there had been an increase in illegal killing for horn in areas outside Kruger National Park. 

Although the 2016 decline is to be welcomed, it still represents more than 5 per cent of South Africa’s total rhino population of around 20,000. The rise in poaching outside Kruger is a cause for great concern, as it suggests that poaching networks are spreading their operations across the country, and growing in sophistication and flexibility, as demand from Vietnam, China and other countries in East Asia shows no sign of falling.

Rhino poaching in South Africa

One problem is the diffuse nature of the poaching gangs. They include Mozambicans brought into the country and paid to poach – they are often armed with high-powered rifles imported for the Mozambican security forces and wildlife department that have been corruptly diverted to poaching gangs. But much of the poaching in South Africa involves gangs of Afrikaners, which include former vets, wildlife rangers, helicopter pilots, professional hunters and game farm owners.

A very worrying element in this complex web, is the suspected involvement of senior ANC members and even government ministers with known poachers. Recently state security minister David Mahlobo, was found to have close links with a self-confessed rhino horn smuggler, massage parlour owner and businessman, Guan Jiang Guang.  Mahlobo has denied being a friend of the Chinese businessmen even though Guan Jiang Guang claims such a friendship exists and an Al Jazeera documentary on rhino poaching shows the two together.

Save the Rhino and other conservation NGOs have welcomed the overall fall in South Africa, but are opposed to the South African government’s draft legislation which would allow a domestic trade in rhino horn to resume. The trade was suspended by a government-imposed moratorium in 2009, which was successfully challenged in the courts by private rhino owners.

Under the new law, the government’s hacked together response to the court decision, a foreign citizen visiting South Africa could get a permit to export a maximum of two rhinos per year (or their horns), meaning the already overstretched South African wildlife authorities would be required to police both a legal and illegal trade.

This has huge potential for laundering poached horns and for a new form of what was once called pseudo-hunting, when non-hunters from Vietnam and Thailand paid to shoot rhinos and export the ‘legal’ trophy. However, the proposed legislation seems to have few safeguards and many private rhino owners have welcomed the move. But it doesn’t address the many complex problems relating to whether creating a regulated, legal trade in horn from dehorned rhinos, legal stocks and horn from natural mortality would help to stop poaching by opening up a legal, alternative supply.

Rhino owners and some conservationists, like David Cook (formerly director of the Natal Parks Board, and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi senior ranger) and John Hanks (former director of WWF’s Africa programme), favour an internationally regulated, legal trade that would supply demand through the provision of non-lethal horn. Such a system needs strong safeguards and monitoring procedures that are neither in place nor addressed in the rushed draft legislation.

South Africa’s government has a reputation for corruption at the highest levels of the ruling party, ministries and state institutions (including the police), so the hasty creation of a poorly-monitored legal trade does not amount to a regulated, well thought-out means of destroying the monopoly of the smugglers, or of using a regulated trade in non-lethal horn to undercut the illegal trade, reduce poaching significantly and produce income for sustainable conservation. Falling between the two stools of a total ban and a properly-policed legal trade, the new legislation looks like a new rhino disaster waiting to happen.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is also research associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. His latest publications are Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa and Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent.