Worsening Rhino war Strains Countries’ Relations

The growing incursion of rhino poachers from Mozambique into South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park is beginning to strain relations between the two countries. South African security operatives trying to stem the relentless killing of the enigmatic animals speak of it as a “border war”. They are getting increasingly fed-up with Mozambique’s security agencies for not doing more to clamp down on the poachers and the rhino-horn smugglers on their side of the boundary.

Major General Johan Jooste, a veteran soldier from southern Africa’s bush-war era who was appointed late last year to head up the military, police and game-ranger units fighting the poachers in the park, reverts to the military terms of “insurgency” and “counter-insurgency” to describe the situation. He says the rhino poaching is one of the worst crises in the more than a century of the park’s existence. 
South African National Parks (SANParks) chief executive David Mabunda has called it a “war situation”, with the   boundary between Kruger and Mozambique proving to be “the weakest line of defence against incursions”.

With between 8,000 and 10,000 white rhinos and about a thousand black rhinos, Kruger National Park is home to the majority of South Africa’s estimated 18,000 white and 2,000 black rhino populations. At the rate that the animals are getting killed it is feared that both types, but in particular the more critically endangered black species, could be headed for extinction in a few decades’ time.
 Already 180 rhinos have been killed in the park since the beginning of the year, against a national total of 249. It is now feared the figure for 2013 could end up even exceeding last year’s horrendous toll of 668, of which Kruger Park accounted for 425.

Poachers Killed in Fire Fights with Rangers

According to SANParks, 30 of the 36 suspected poachers apprehended in Kruger Park so far this year turned out to be Mozambicans. Eleven of the 36 were killed in fire-fights with the security forces and the rest were arrested.

The rising casualty rate bears out the extent to which it is starting to resemble a war situation. Jooste insists the basic purpose remains to arrest suspects, in line with the normal rules of law enforcement. But the poachers generally seem to have military training. They come heavily armed and are quite willing to engage in fire-fights. Unlike the park’s security personnel, they are not bound by any rules of engagement. And that, Jooste says, makes it an unequal and dangerous situation for the rangers.

Further stacking the odds against the anti-poaching units is the vastness of the 20,000-square-kilometer (7,700-square-mile) park and the general lushness of the terrain. There are only 339 rangers doing regular foot patrols. It becomes a matter almost of luck to catch the poachers, who slip back and forth across the border and are able to use the cover of the dense bush as they search for their quarry.


Thick bush can often give poachers an advantage against the few hundred rangers who must look after thousands of rhinos in Kruger, a conservation area not much smaller than Massachusetts. Photographed in Kruger National Park, December 2012, by David Braun.
Thick bush can often give poachers an advantage over the few hundred rangers guarding as many as 10,000 rhinos in Kruger, a conservation area not much smaller than Massachusetts. Photographed in Kruger National Park, December 2012, by David Braun.


As part of its campaign to alert the public to the growing crisis, SANParks has been taking media parties on excursions in Kruger Park to show them what the terrain looks like in which most of the rhino poaching happens. They also showed how patrols were being carried out by the rangers, all of whom have been combat-trained, much like regular soldiers. 
It was demonstrated how rangers armed with assault rifles and carrying basic survival kits spend up to 14 days at a time on patrol. At night they sleep in the open or in small camouflaged tents.

When poachers are spotted, or a shot is heard, or a spoor or a rhino carcass is found, their reports are assessed back at headquarters in Skukuza , Kruger Park’s main camp, where  geometric wall charts in what resembles a war room map out the different terrains and the poaching hotspots. Back-up units, including dog handlers, get rushed to the scene, some by helicopter, to go after the poachers.

The media groups also saw some sites of rhino killings and how forensic evidence was gathered, including DNA samples of the dead animal for the rhino DNA bank being developed at the University of Pretoria’s veterinary school outside the country’s capital of Pretoria.

Seasoned journalists flinched at the brutality of the scenes. The marks on the ground around the carcasses showed that the downed animals must still have been alive and struggling when their horns were hacked out of their heads. The poachers are said to be reluctant to waste bullets on wounded animals. They want it all done as quickly and quietly as possible.


Forensic experts inspect the carcass of a poached rhino in Kruger National Park  for clues that could be of help in prosecutions. Photograph by Leon Marshall
Forensic experts inspect the carcass of a poached rhino in Kruger National Park  for clues that could be of help in prosecutions. Photograph by Leon Marshall


The conflict has become a threat as well to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) which President Nelson Mandela and Mozambique’s President Joaquim Chissano initiated  in the late 1990s and which was signed into existence in 2002. Part of the agreement was to systematically drop the high-security boundary fence separating Kruger Park from Mozambique’s adjoining Limpopo National Park. 
Much of the 375-km boundary fence is still up, but some sections have been taken down and other parts have been allowed to fall into disrepair, all for purposes of allowing the animals to cross back and forth between the parks.

The fence dates back to the anti-colonial and civil wars that raged throughout the region during the latter part of the previous century. The idea behind doing away with it was to create a sprawling wildlife kingdom that would vastly extend the animals’ roaming areas and become a far bigger tourist destiny than Kruger was already offering on its own, with economic benefits in particular for Mozambique and the impoverished communities on its side of the border.

Jooste mentioned that part of the solution to the poaching problem might be to put back the high-security fence to make it less easy for poachers to slip across the boundary and to help prevent Kruger Park’s animals from straying into Mozambique where, it is said, rhinos in particular are dead the moment they do so.


A game ranger shows journalists a collapsed portion of the boundary fence between Mozambique and Kruger National Park. Photograph by Leon Marshall
A game ranger shows journalists a collapsed portion of the boundary fence between Mozambique and Kruger National Park. Photograph by Leon Marshall


Conscious of the serious implications for the ambitious transboundary conservation scheme, Jooste picked his words carefully. Putting back the fence, he said, was not part of SANParks policy right now. But it might become part of the solution. It would have to be decided what kind of fence it should be and how it would affect the GLTP. It might be put back only in critical areas (where most incursions are happening).

Fencing the Border Counter-Productive

But the Peace Parks Foundation, which South African industrialist and philanthropist Anton Rupert set up in the 1990s, with Mandela and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands as its patrons, to promote transfrontier-park schemes, has warned that putting back the fence would not only destroy the project but indeed be totally counter-productive. 
Its chief executive, Werner Myburgh, has said that communities living in Mozambique’s adjoining Limpopo National Park have just recently agreed, after years of tough negotiations, to be resettled outside the park for purposes of consolidating the transfrontier arrangement.

The relocation is being done with millions in funding from the German and French governments.
 This funding could dry up if a return of the boundary fence is seen as a failure of the project. This would cause the villagers to stay put and perhaps lead to more people moving into the park, thus creating bigger settlements that would offer an even better springboard for the poachers to make their sorties into Kruger.
 Myburgh explained: “We  cannot resort to anti-poaching operations alone. We need to take a more innovative approach. There needs to be a whole suite of actions. A successful transfrontier park where matters like security are co-managed could be a major deterrent also to poaching. We are three to five years away from realising a fantastic dream. Let us not destroy it.”

The situation is a far cry from the relationship of trust that existed between the two countries up till a few years ago when Kruger Park donated more than 3,000 head of game to restock the war-decimated Mozambican park.
 South African officials say arrangements are, however, underway for a high-level meeting between the two governments to try to resolve the situation, which has become so serious that there are even hopes of bringing together the two presidents to see if they can resolve the matter.
 At the recent meeting in Bangkok of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), Mozambique came under strong pressure to account for its failure to contain the poachers and rhino-horn smugglers on its side of the boundary. It was given a year to come up with appropriate action or face trade sanctions.

Under Mozambique’s conservation laws, poaching is still only a misdemeanour, allowing poachers and smugglers to get away with no more than light fines.  The South African media has in recent days been reporting how poachers and their smuggling-syndicate handlers brazenly plan and carry out their sorties from along the Mozambican border area. There have even been accusations of security-force collusion with the syndicates.

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Vultures await their chance at the site of a dead rhino. Photograph by Leon Marshall
Vultures await their chance at the site of a dead rhino. Photograph by Leon Marshall

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won several awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.