Opinion piece on Aikona
The South African National Parks (SANParks) was not surprised by the call made by AIKONA – a non-governmental group objecting to hotel developments in the Kruger National Park last week requesting the Public Protector to investigate certain issues that they conclude amount to “maladministration”. The issues range from the bonuses paid to the executive management, to the composition of the board, to the so called “commercialization” of the Kruger National Park (KNP) and they are also – questioning why the executive should be paid bonuses while rhinos are being poached.
Opinion piece on Aikona - Afrikaans version.
Firstly, AIKONA has every right to exercise the public interest right like any citizen as directed by the constitution of the republic however such a right should be executed without maligning the reputation and integrity of SANParks and its employees. Unfortunately AIKONA is on an ideological and political warpath to protect apartheid era conservation legacies by projecting the current leadership at SANParks as out of sync with its mandate, incompetent, corrupt and reckless. The choice of conducting their malicious accusations in certain publications raises more questions than answers. This is a clear indication that AIKONA’s interests are only focused on one section of the population. We view this as only a well-designed strategy to peddle their smear campaign to retain past privileges enjoyed by certain sections of the population in every which way and frustrate any form of transformation that seeks to open the park system to the entire nation. We should also mention that AIKONA had previously approached SANParks using Promotion of Access to Information Act, requesting information similar to the accusations they are throwing at SANParks. This information was prepared accordingly and is still awaiting collection by AIKONA.
This is an indication of a group of people using every tactic to abuse a Section 9 institution in order to achieve a vested ideological and political agenda, under the disguise of a “public right”, hence they were the first to tell the whole world that SANParks is being investigated even before the Public Protector communicated with us.
SANParks has nothing to hide. Salaries of all staff from the general worker to the CEO are determined by the board using independent specialists. The CEO’s salary, which was singled out by AIKONA, was last benchmarked with 17 other public entities in the “large entities” category and was found to be between the median and upper quartile. The comparative analysis took into consideration factors such as size of the business (estate), turnover, assets and number of countries in which it operates. SANParks is a complex organization with a diversified business ranging from conservation, climate change, a large tourism business offering 16 000 beds per night, inter-governmental relations at all spheres of government, community and social issues. We believe that all these factors, along with the CEO’s on going good performance given 10/10 clean audits the organization achieved under his leadership justifies the emoluments paid to him. We are puzzled by the call to investigate the composition of the board; this is also not the competency of SANParks. Board members serve at the invitation of the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs.
The debate on so-called commercialization of the KNP has been going on since 1927 after the KNP’s proclamation as a national park in 1926 viz. building hotels, shops, electrification of tourism facilities, establishment of restaurants having tarred roads, swimming pools, providing air-conditioning and a lot more other things to make the visit pleasant were frowned upon, but today people are enjoying those facilities. The fact is conservation and tourism are intertwined and have evolved over time. Today SANParks serves a diverse group of tourists both local and international and to stay competitive it strive to offer a variety of products hence the two proposed hotel developments in KNP. Anything built in a national park, whether it is road, bridge, airport or hotel has to adhere to strict standards of architecture, sense and character of the place. The hotels will be built lodge-style and will blend with the existing infrastructure. The current executive has been innovative in how they finance conservation without relying much on money from the taxpayers. SANParks generates 85% of its operating budget its tourism activities not forgoing its core mandate which is conservation. AIKONA on the other hand is advocating a thesis that says the state should pay 100% for conservation. How is that possible in country with so many developmental needs? We do not believe pursuing a responsible tourism and sustainable development agenda is an enemy of biodiversity conservation.
On rhino specifically the focus is on how many animals are being saved from poachers' guns than those killed. One animal killed is one too many but it is a reality that international poaching syndicates are now focusing on Southern Africa having decimated populations in other rhino-range states. We are guided by the birth-death ratio and so far our scientists are telling us that the population is still healthy and viable. We haven’t reached a state where the more animals are killed than those that are born. We also look at how many poachers have been arrested and brought to book. The fact that we have not arrested syndicate king-pins is because those people are operating abroad in countries like Mozambique, Vietnam, Laos and China. Despite this disadvantage we have no equal comparison of successful arrests. It is a complex task and one that involves tactical para-military operations to which we have transformed ourselves.
SANParks has raised more than R100m in cash and equipment sponsorships to fight the scourge. The CEO has personally led the fight from the front with many campaigns and partnerships that he has personally inspired for technical support. He has been honored by Crime line as one of the profound leaders in fighting wildlife crime with two Awards to date. His efforts saw SANParks crafting partnerships with companies in the public entity space and the private sector defense industry to acquire the use of drones and helicopters.
The key to a victory against rhino poaching, which is a global organized crime orchestrated outside the borders of the country, does not lie with SANParks alone as Aikona would like to make us believe. It will have a lot to do with diplomatic engagements at a political level to address off-shore demand in both Mozambique & South East Asia, adequate surveillance of our national borders by organs of state designated for that responsibility (SANDF), optimal use of intelligence and acquisition of expensive modern technology which will assist rangers in their difficult task of apprehending poachers in the thick bush.
The most relevant question that the likes of Aikona should be asking is what would have happened had SANParks not intervened in the manner they did over the last 5 years? The number of rhinos killed per annum would have been in thousands and nothing would be left by now.
It is one thing to sit on the grand stand and hurl insults and unsavory comment on players in the field. It is quite another to get in there and make a contribution. Since its formation what positive contributions has Aikona made to advance the cause of conservation in South Africa except lamenting about hotels, Mabunda’ s salary and crying foul about commercialization? How much have they raised and contributed to save at least one rhino? We hope their wish to the Public Protector is granted so that we can close this chapter once and for all. There is one certainty for the likes of AIKONA, there’s no turning back the clock, SANParks will continue to be responsible in taking care of the natural heritage on behalf of all South Africans responsibly and will not reverse the clock to the pre-1994 conservation template which we believe AIKONA is nostalgic about.
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