Johannesburg - With a single gunshot, the chase is on. Near to where the shot rings out, a section ranger tries his best to pinpoint where that bullet was fired.
What that shot means is that there is yet another new crime scene somewhere deep in the bush, where a poacher has just killed a rhino.
It is a new modus operandi where poachers come armed with large-calibre hunting rifles, and drop rhinos with a single shot.
Rangers prefer it when the poachers use their usual choice of weapon – the AK-47.
The tat-tat-tat and spray of bullets from an AK-47 on full automatic makes it easier to pinpoint a location.
With that shot, the section ranger radios it in and the hunt begins.
It is a scenario that is becoming increasingly common in the Kruger National Park, where on average more than one rhino is poached every day.
SA National Parks (SANParks) officials had just such a chase on December 10.
They found two rhino carcasses near the Mozambican border, and a helicopter was scrambled from Skukuza airport.
“We nearly got them,” says Charles Thompson, the chopper pilot who was hunting the poachers that day.
Helicopters are used as eyes in the sky to spot poachers from the air. They are also used to “leapfrog” the poachers and drop off armed rangers ahead of them. But tracking humans from the air isn’t easy.
“They find thickets, sometimes cover themselves with grass, and you can’t find them,” says Thompson.
The killers of the two rhinos made it back to the Lebombo mountains and the safety of Mozambique. Those poachers grudgingly get a nod from the men who chase them.
“You have to respect them,” says Bruce Leslie, regional ranger: special operations.
This respect isn’t for the work they do, but how they go about it. For it is their skill in bushcraft that allows the most successful poachers to evade tracker dogs, scores of rangers, night-vision goggles, and those choppers. There have been cases where it has taken law enforcement years to catch a prominent poacher.
Many of them come from the villages that line the Mozambican border next to the park. It is here that the evolution of a rhino poacher begins – and it starts at an early age.
“They grow up tracking missing goats,” says Leslie.
Their hunting experience might begin with a problem animal; a hippo raiding crops that needs to be dealt with, or a leopard preying on goats that has to be shot.
Like a hitman, the hunter’s reputation might grow, says Leslie. He becomes the go-to man when a village needs a problem animal dispatched.
“Then one day he is asked to kill rhinos,” Leslie says.
In his village he becomes a hero. There are stories of villagers welcoming a successful rhino poacher home with a procession.
The rhino war has recently turned nasty.
There have been death threats; sometimes it is a message left scribbled in the sand, sometimes a cellphone call.
There is a sense that the war is ratcheting up. The big money in rhino horn means that poachers can buy expensive equipment and go toe to toe with the state. Rangers don’t want their faces shown in press photographs, out of fear of intimidation.
There are often shootouts in the bush, and sometimes people die.
The rangers who go after the poachers are better armed than the average soldier.
They carry large-calibre assault rifles, with enough firepower to drop one of the big five, if need be.
They have automatic pistols holstered on their hips.
At the ready is a “grab-and- go bag” – a rucksack with rations and water for two to three days.
“Most of the shootings occur when they try to evade capture,” says Leslie.
Shootouts are usually over quickly – the main goal for rangers is to make arrests.
They are allowed to shoot only if they are fired on, or in a life-threatening situation.
There are too few rangers than needed to police an area the size of Israel. On any day, rangers might end up tracking 10 different groups of poachers moving through the reserve.
Thompson says most of his flying in the park now involves anti-rhino-poaching missions.
In the next few months, an array of new hi-tech weaponry will be pitted against rhino poachers in the Kruger Park. There will be more helicopters, spotter planes and even the drones that proved so successful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
How these new technologies will fare only time will tell. But for the rangers on the ground, saving the rhinos of Kruger will probably still come down to a battle over who is better in bushcraft. - The Star