Vultures wheel in the hot humid air. The sighting is followed by the smell of rotting flesh. We are getting close. The African bush is dense at this time of year after a season of summer rains making progress difficult. The thick foliage increases the danger of a sudden wild encounter too. Elephants and buffalo were seen earlier and aggressive black rhino are known to charge out of the bush seemingly from nowhere.
Finally, after scrambling out of a shallow wooded gully, we come upon the gruesome scene. A female white rhino lies slumped in a clearing, her eyes already gouged out by vultures, her flanks torn open by hyena and lion. The cause of death is a single rifle shot to the head. The horns have been brutally hacked off, leaving little left of her face.
“This is just one of 16 rhinos killed in the past 10 days,” laments the park’s Senior Investigator for Environmental Crime Investigations, Frik Rossouw. “We are struggling to keep up.”
Soon a helicopter, flown by Flying for Freedom South Africa, a nonprofit that assists the park in the aerial aspect of the anti-poaching campaign, arrives with a forensic team, which includes a National Police Inspector. They waste little time in processing the scene. They take photographs and cut open the carcass in search for the bullet that, when found, will be sent to the lab for ballistic analysis.
Still, Rossouw reckons they will only be processing two of the 16 carcasses, as more incidents keep arising, creating an enormous backlog.
Increase in Poachers
The Kruger Park, South Africa’s premier inland tourist destination, has been losing hundreds of rhino annually over the past few years. The park has the highest rhino-poaching incidence rate in the country — 662 dead rhino in 2016, 826 the year before. These figures account for more than half the national figure.
Lately, the park has even lost elephants to poachers, who are entering the park in ever-increasing numbers.
Last year, park authorities recorded a staggering 2,883 instances of poaching-related activities, an increase of 16.9% from the previous year. Almost 150 firearms were seized inside the park.
Ranger foot and air patrols and even the use of drones have had little effect in preventing the mounting number of incursions. Most of the activity occurs at night, making it extremely difficult to detect poachers in the massive 8,000-square-mile reserve, an area the size of Israel.
Neighboring the park are some two million people, mostly rural and impoverished. That’s just on the South African side. The population practically doubles when you consider the Kruger’s eastern border with Mozambique. There is, therefore, no short supply of potential poachers. Most are are easily tempted to risk their lives for a little cash.
The Kruger Park rangers, however, are making a valiant effort to combat the scourge. They have just launched a sophisticated multi-prong anti-poaching campaign.
The most striking is the set up of a wide-area surveillance system, code-named ‘Postcode Meerkat’, at the Mission Area Joint Operation Centre near Skukuza Main Camp where rangers, the South African Police, and National Defence units make use of radar and electro-optic movement-detection sensors to detect abnormal movements within the park during the night.
The system, funded in part by the Peace Parks Foundation, has only been in operation since December, but has had immediate success. Since Postcode Meerkat was installed, no rhinos have been lost within its detection area. This is according to Marc McGill, the park’s Manager for Technical Services. He says dozens of poachers have been successfully apprehended and arrested without any exchange of gunfire.
“The wide area surveillance is a game-changer,” says McGill, adding that there are plans to install another three systems to cover an even wider area. [Kruger Park Finds Early Success in new System to Detect and Intercept Rhino Poachers at Night]
The system, however, is costly to install – about U.S.$ 6 million dollars – and it involves constant monitoring and a lot of manpower. Kruger Park’s chief ranger, Nicholus Funda, says that while the new technology will undoubtedly help them “to take back the night, there is no silver bullet to getting rid of wildlife crime in the park.”
Funda says they have needed to add much more to their anti-poaching toolbox.
Park’s best friend
A less expensive approach, which is also proving effective, is the use of sniffer and tracking dogs in the park’s anti-poaching efforts.
“We realised that the gates became our weakest point,” explains Funda. Many poachers have begun posing as day-visitors, entering the main tourist gates in vehicles. “We call them ‘drop-offs’,” he says.
Vehicles, usually with four occupants, drop armed poachers inside the park and return with just the driver before the gates close for the night. The driver returns a day or two later to pick up the poachers at a pre-arranged spot. The horns and weapons are concealed and the vehicle makes its way back out the park.
Funda says they have implemented a new gate-access control system. Visitors will now be expected to produce a permit, while the vehicle registration will be checked against the vehicle disk. Also, the number of people in a vehicle exiting will be compared with the number of those who entered the park in that vehicle.
But it’s the dogs that are proving most effective. At the gates, Labradors and spaniels are trained to sniff for guns and animal products. It is thought that these measures will reduce the amount of poacher “drop-offs” considerably. Bloodhounds and Belgian shepherds have already been successfully deployed to follow the scent of poachers inside the park.
“We have one of the most successful anti-poaching units,” says the park’s K9 Manager, Johan de Beer. “Last year, we had about 200 arrests and the dogs were responsible for 168 of those arrests. They are doing very well. I don’t think we would be able to do the job without the dogs,” De Beer said.
It’s still relatively costly. The price of each dog ranges from U.S. $2,500 to $4,000. If a handler needs to be trained, it requires an additional $2,500. “It’s quite expensive,” De Beer said.
One of the more quirky approaches is the park’s use of traditional healers in combating poaching.
Sylvester Hlati, President of Limpopo Unified Traditional Health Organisation (LUTHPA), explains that many of the poachers seek assistance from traditional healers before they enter the park. Poachers are naturally worried about the dangers of lion, leopard and elephant, especially at night, as well as detection from rangers. Consequently, they seek the power of the healer’s powerful traditional medicine, called muti, to shield them from danger.
The use of traditional healers is common practice in South Africa, but Hlati wants the industry to be more unified and regulated, like it is with conventional medical practices. “We don’t want the healers to break the law,” says Hlati, “so we have begun a program of educating them to turn away potential poachers if they seek counsel.”
Hlati believes the program is working. “Sometimes poachers return with rhino horn, other animal products and rare plants and offer it to sell it the healers to make muti.” In such cases, healers have reported the perpetrators to the police and the poachers were arrested. “This has happened on at least four occasions,” Hlati says.
As usual, though, funding is an issue. Unlike the more conventional anti-poaching schemes, Hlati is struggling to find donors to effectively continue his efforts.
Protecting rhinos is expensive
The Kruger National Park during the past decade has spent nearly U.S. $ 77 million just on the protection of rhinos, 80 percent of which goes on technology, infrastructure, helicopters and four-wheel drive vehicles for the rangers. To make matters worse, anti-poaching funding from government has been reduced, forcing the park to rely more on income from tourists and non-governmental donors.
It’s still too soon to assess if the multi-prong anti-poaching efforts are making a significant difference.
“You are talking about people who have strategies, who know what they are doing, coming from anywhere,” says Funda, referring to the poachers. We have to be persistent in our efforts if we want to win this.”
Only time will tell; but it is time the Kruger Park’s remaining rhinos can ill afford.