SA rhinos: It’s war and both sides are armed and prepared
Rangers and pilots are embroiled in an undeclared war in the Kruger National Park
The sky was full of vultures as our little convoy of vehicles approached the crime scene, a patch of scuffed, blood-stained earth a few hundred metres off the road. A few days before, on the moonless night of August 16, a female rhino had been gunned down at close range by a gang of poachers who hacked off her horns and fled across the fence near the Kruger National Park’s Malelane gate.
The poachers ignored her young calf – a creature so small that the reaction team managed to load it into the back of their helicopter and fly it to a rhino sanctuary.
“That doesn’t usually happen,” said SANParks helicopter pilot Brad Grafton. “Usually the poachers will kill the calves too because they get in the way.”That the calf survived is cold comfort to the rangers and pilots who are embroiled in an undeclared war in South Africa’s biggest and most popular national park. The same gang was believed to have killed another three rhino in the southern part of the park in the preceding 10 days.
By the time we were allowed to visit the scene, vultures and hyenas had scavenged much of the carcass and all that remained were the rhino’s head and feet and her massive rib cage, now picked clean of flesh. Seeping bodily fluids had made tear marks on her face.
Police and SANParks environmental crime scene investigators had scoured the site and found a bullet and a shell casing from a .458 calibre hunting rifle.“We can find the bullet – or a spent casing – and that puts the weapon on the scene,” said Frik Rossouw, a senior investigator in SANParks environmental crime investigations unit.
The bullet doesn’t put the suspects on the scene, however “because the weapon changes hands so quickly from one poaching group to another. We need to look for more.”
“More” could be a single fingerprint. Blundering around the site in the midst of the press pack, I was surprised, then, to almost step on a second brass shell casing that the investigators had missed. Perhaps it had been scattered under a hyena’s foot during the night.
Using two twigs, one of the rangers gently lifted the gleaming shell out of the sand and dropped it into an evidence bag. It would be tested for fingerprints and perhaps lead investigators to the person who fired the weapon.The shell casing I nearly stepped on was about 5m from the carcass. She had been shot at almost point blank range.The killing ground’s location so close to the road meant the killers were probably dropped off from a vehicle while inside the park. “Somehow they smuggle the weapon in – or maybe it’s already inside – and they get dropped off”.
After killing the rhino and hacking off her horn, the gang would have run for the southern boundary which is so close that we could see the traffic on the N4 road. The proximity to the national road, impoverished communities just outside the park fence, and the fact that they are easy to kill has created a perfect storm that has seen thousands of white rhino butchered for their horns in the past decade.
The horn is prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a cure for fever. Demand has also rocketed in Vietnam in recent years as rising prosperity in that country has led to rhino horn becoming a status symbol as a hangover cure, even though there is zero evidence that it does so.As demand for rhino horn has soared, so has the price. Officials are reluctant to talk about the black market price for fear that it will spur more poaching. Recent figures, however, suggest horn — per kilogram — is more expensive than gold.
The rhino poaching crisis — which began in 2008 — is driven by greed. The vast sums of money to be made has seen more poachers infiltrate national parks to kill these vulnerable animals.
Over the years, poaching syndicates have become increasingly sophisticated and the poachers are well armed. More than one official has previously described the crisis as a counter-insurgency war.A SANParks ranger was recently shot dead by poachers during a follow-up operation.
Senior SANParks ranger Andrew Desmet agreed. “It is a war,” he said.
The days when game rangers carried bolt-action hunting rifles — more as protection against animals than poachers — are long gone. Now rangers are armed with automatic weapons and side arms. They have spotter aircraft and helicopters, and tracker dogs are routinely deployed on patrols and follow-ups.Desmet himself has graduated from being a ranger on foot to patrolling in a Bathawk microlight aircraft, a purchase funded by SANParks’ Honorary Rangers, a group of unpaid volunteers who do conservation work and raise funds for the country’s national parks.Such sophistication is vital to combat the poaching scourge. The poachers continuously adapt their methods, said Rossouw, which in turn compels the rangers and trackers to find new ways of combating them.
Meanwhile, the lure of big money – especially in the poor communities that surround the Kruger National Park – will always be an incentive to poach.
“I wouldn’t say it’s always poor hungry people [doing the poaching],” Desmet said. “Once these guys get used to that lifestyle, they actually become relatively wealthy in their communities and that’s when they might start buying more rifles and sending groups themselves.”
Desmet noted that poachers come from both Mozambique and the western boundary of the park. Some have dual nationalities – Mozambican and South African – and have family on both sides of the fence.And sometimes, the poaching comes from within SANParks. “We’ve caught one of our own, a regional ranger. It was a huge disappointment to use rangers – this was a guy most of us held in high regard. And he wasn’t poor.”
The struggle will continue, said Desmet, until such time as the markets for all these products – rhino horn, ivory, lion bones and pangolins – fades away.
Until then it will be up to the trackers and rangers and dogs to keep the poachers at bay so that a rhino calf small enough to fit in the back of a helicopter can live out her days in the wild.