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Howard Buffett gives SA R224m to fight rhino poaching

IN CROSSHAIRS:  South Africa is home to more than 90% of the global rhino population. Scientists forecast if poaching rises as fast as is did between 2009 and 2011 the population will go into decline by 2016. Picture: THE TIMES

IN CROSSHAIRS: South Africa is home to more than 90% of the global rhino population. Scientists forecast if poaching rises as fast as is did between 2009 and 2011 the population will go into decline by 2016. Picture: THE TIMES (Source: Business Day Live)

AMERICAN philanthropist Howard Buffett handed South African National Parks (SANParks) a cheque for R224m "give or take, on the exchange rate" on Friday afternoon, to aid South Africa’s fight against rhino poaching.

It is agreed that South Africa is not winning the war on rhino poaching. The country lost a record 1,004 rhinos last year, way above the average of 15 a year before 2008 and has lost 117 already this year. Experts say if the situation is not rectified the pachyderm could be extinct in the wild by mid-century.

The money would go towards developing improved intelligence, without which any war was impossible to win; helicopters; statistics; and infrastructure such as fences to help SANParks battle rhino poaching, especially in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park, said Mr Buffett, son of renowned investor Warren Buffett.

Speaking at the official cheque signing at Standard Bank in Rosebank, Johannesburg, Mr Buffett said fighting rhino poaching was similar to the US’s battle against drug smuggling, which the country was not winning, but in which technology improved its chances.

The cheque was signed under the watchful eye of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Mr Buffett, who holds South African citizenship and owns a Limpopo farm and conservation operation that sold its three rhino "because we knew we couldn’t protect them", said wildlife trafficking bankrolled much of Africa’s conflict, which made the fight against poaching a fight against human misery.

Estimates are that rhino horn fetches up to $60,000/kg on Southeast Asian markets, where it is sought after as a medicine, general tonic and even an aphrodisiac.

Standard Bank joint CEO Ben Kruger said Mr Buffett’s donation was "a great game shifter for Africa and the world".

"For us the sustainable development of Africa is a priority, and an essential part of our business development ... It makes sense that business can and should be part of conservation in Africa ... For every international tourist in Africa eight local jobs are created," said Mr Kruger.

Standard Bank is focusing on growing its operations in Africa, with operations in 18 African countries and representative offices in Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire.

Earlier this month, the group reported its rest-of-Africa operations grew aggregate headline earnings 44%, from R2.4bn in 2012 to R3.5bn last year. The group’s operations on the rest of the continent contributed 17% to the total income of Africa’s largest lender.

Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa thanked Mr Buffett for aiding the fight against what was calculated to be the fourth largest black market in the world, with illicit wildlife trafficking bringing in $19bn a year.

South Africa has signed several memoranda of understanding with destination countries such as Vietnam, believed by researchers to be the largest market for rhino horn, and is still negotiating or yet to sign such deals with China and Mozambique.

Mozambique, because of its long border with the Kruger National Park, where most of South Africa’s rhino are to be found, is home to a large number of poachers.

More than 80% of the world’s rhino are found in South Africa.

Ms Molewa said South Africans could not let the country’s impressive record in rhino conservation — raising the rhino population from about 50 at the turn of last century to more than 18,000 — be tarnished.

"Not on our watch," she said.

Anti-poaching strategies under retired South African Army general Johan Jooste were "beginning to bear fruit", she said.

SANParks CEO David Mabunda said South Africa contained the world’s only viable rhino population, which made the fight to save the country’s rhino "a bankable project".

"All we need is a game-changer ... This donation will give us technology. We need to know when the poachers pitch up on our border so that we are ready for them and have a kind of welcome for them," he said.

Ms Molewa said the total of 1,004 rhinos killed by poachers last year would have been "doubled or even tripled" if the government, SANParks, the business sector and ordinary South Africans had not contributed to the war against poaching. It was time South Africa’s game rangers, who had never expected to be fighting other people, went back to being rangers, not soldiers, she said.

Ms Molewa acknowledged some South Africans, including officials, were complicit in corruption that led to rhino poaching, but argued that "does not make South Africa a corrupt country".

Mr Buffett said there was no country in the world in which corruption was absent. "You would have a hard time finding any country in the world that does not have corruption. Crime feeds on corruption. That is not what this is about, this is about how you can stop people hurting other people."

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