MPs to hold public hearings on rhino poaching

Parliament - Parliament's portfolio committee on environmental affairs will start public hearings on rhino poaching on Thursday to consult with rural communities and secure their help in fighting it.

Committee chairperson Jackson Mthembu said the meetings will be held around KwaZulu-Natal's iMfolozi area, the historical home of the white rhino from Thursday to Saturday, then around the Kruger National Park in Mpumulanga from 4 to 6 September and in North West from 11 to 13 September.

Mthembu said it was crucial to have input from local communities as many members were involved in safeguarding rhino or risked encountering poachers, but also because of suggestions that they were being co-opted by poaching syndicates.

"Communities who stay in those surroundings should be part of that solution. If they are not part of the solution we will not find a solution.

"I think we have a duty to speak to our own citizens, that are nearer to where we have this scourge. So that they can give us advice.

"The communities that live there are also in danger as well because those communities include who need to look after the upkeep of the rhino, people who have to face the poachers and their guns."

'A runaway train'

He added: "We are not making any accusations against those communities, but there are these allegations that some people who have been arrested are people who reside there."

The committee was deeply concerned by the alarming rate at which rhino poaching has escalated in the past six years, likening it to "a runaway train".

South Africa is home to more than 90% of the world's white rhino population.

"More than 600 rhinos were killed, as of 31 July 2014, threatening to overshoot last year's all-time high", Mthembu said.

"We need to develop a 'political community of interest' around the protection of our rhinos, particularly closer to where rhinos are being illicitly killed."

In 2013, 1004 rhinos were poached in South Africa, which is home to more than 80% of the world population of the ungulates.

Democratic Alliance MP Terri Stander said new research showed that unless poaching was stemmed, the death rate of rhino would exceed their birth rate within the next year or two and extinction would become a reality within 15 years.

He said the committee would then submit the facts and impressions it gathered to government to fine-tune its anti-poaching policies.

To broaden the hoped-for impact of memoranda of understanding South Africa has signed with so-called consumer countries of rhino horn, government planned to bring MPs and students from there to South Africa to show them the ravages caused by poaching.

"We are also bringing a number of students from these consumer countries because if we don't deal with this matter at an early stage, so that these students can see how our rhinos are killed, they can be part of this pain and sorrow that we all feel."

The public meetings will also focus on climate change and its impact on rural communities.