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Bolstered anti-poaching forces, dogs, DNA and millions of rands are being harnessed to fight poachers of SA’s threatened rhinos and the organised crime syndicates behind them.
As millions of rands in government and private money are pumped into training and deploying more than 500 anti-poaching rangers, a new sophisticated rhino horn DNA database is already being used to vastly improve prosecution of poachers and middlemen.
Also, moves are afoot by the government to globalise the fight by using this DNA database to track the origins of rhino horn products in the Asian countries which have fuelled the demand, with the hope that syndicate kingpins in those countries can also be brought to book.
Within the next few months, SANParks will put into operation a unique dog tracking system to improve follow-up chances in bush areas, where the poachers often escape quickly with their haul after killing rhinos.
The plan is to train foxhounds – which have an acute sense of smell – to follow human scent. They will be dropped, as a pack, from a helicopter on to the spoor of fleeing poachers.
The dogs will have GPS collars and will be tracked from the air so that when the poachers are cornered, a heavily armed reaction unit (rangers and possibly army troops or police Task Force operators) will be dropped to arrest the poachers – or attack them, if they resist.
Other tracking and attack dogs (German Shepherd cross-breeds) are also being trained to help ground forces in flushing poachers from their hideouts.
A number of SA Air Force Oryx helicopters have been assigned for troop deployment duties and units of the SA Army and police Special Task Force have been brought in to assist, because the poachers are often armed with assault rifles and some, especially Mozambicans, have military experience, leading to serious clashes.
The anti-poaching forces are soon to get their own refurbished Vietnam-era Huey helicopter, donated by a company. The former gunship will be modified to take boxes for the foxhounds and will be able to carry up to 14 armed troops.
Private donations are providing a massive and sorely needed help for the anti-poaching forces, equipping them with sophisticated equipment such as GPS devices and image-intensifying night sights. Private money is also helping pay for the counter-insurgency training the park’s rangers are now receiving from instructors, led by an SA Special Forces veteran.
Unitrans VW this week handed over a VW Amarok four-wheel-drive vehicle which will be used for the transport of the tracker dogs. Unitrans has already donated more than R4.5 million to the anti-poaching campaign, via the SANParks Honorary Rangers organisation. The company is putting in R500 from each new and used vehicle it sells. It also helped set up the Unite Against Poaching organisation.
SANParks head of communications for Kruger National Park, William Mabasa, said: “We are very grateful for the donations and we want the people of South Africa to know that we are not sitting idle while people kill our rhinos.
“There is an amazing level of co-operation. This is not going to be an easy fight – there will be many losses – but we are determined to win.”
Frikkie Roussouw, a former police detective who is now with SANParks’ Environmental Crime Investigation unit, said poaching arrests were increasing, but that most of those apprehended were the foot soldiers and that, so far, the kingpins had been elusive. He said the DNA database was going to be a powerful weapon in the prosecution of all the links in the poaching chain.
“We are also seeing that very harsh sentences (jail terms exceeding 10 years for those caught poaching and in possession of illegal firearms) have been handed down.”