More than 20 years after the last shots were fired in southern Africa’s bush wars of liberation, there was a strong sense of déjà vu in and around Mokhohlolo camp in the south-eastern corner of Kruger National Park this week.
Camouflaged uniforms, automatic assault rifles, radios, light-intensifying night sights, GPS receivers… and, chillingly, a medical “trauma pack”. Talk of “covert insertion”, deployment of a “rapid reaction unit” by choppers, tracking, follow-up operations, intelligence…
In one of the world’s last great wilderness areas, there’s a new counter-insurgency war being waged… and there’s the same bloody body count. The communiqués now are about the softest of soft targets – black and white rhinos.
This year, even the optimists are forecasting we could lose more than 500 of these unique animals.
Yet, here in the dusty, sweltering Lowveld bush which is the frontline of the battle, the men and women fighting this fight for us, for all South Africans, are not about to throw in the towel...they are taking the fight to the enemy – and risking their lives in the process.
That fight will be fought here, in the tamboeti and leadwood thickets, in our courts and, with a bit of luck, in the backyards of the people who share the misguided belief that rhino horn will cure their ailments.
Bruce Leslie, Regional Ranger: Special Operations and Anti-Poaching in Kruger, won’t make the mistake of under-estimating the capabilities of their foes.
Leslie demonstrates a number of effective small snares, which are the baby steps for a rhino poacher.
“These guys, they can’t go to the nearest shop for their food… even if they did have money, the shop’s three days away. So, they get what they want from the land. And they learn young, as herdboys, when they have hours to perfect their skills and to learn about animal behaviour.”
Most of them are Shangaans from across the border in Mozambique where development has not yet penetrated deep into the interior and where poverty means “a man will do what he has to do – and he will use the skills he has – to take care of his family.”
The rangers of Kruger are also highly skilled in bush craft – but they still have to be trained by experts in war. So, they are being trained by a former highly-decorated Special Forces operator and his team in the deadly business of hunting human beings. Their tracking skills are being sharpened, because following a human being (who is armed and using his own “anti-tracking” skills to throw you off) is not like following a kudu.
Leslie says the anti-poaching patrols are reinforced by the best that technology has to offer: top class radios, the night sights which offer a huge advantage, and GPS systems. Most of those items have come from donations channelled through the volunteer Honorary Rangers organisation in SA National Parks.
The private sector is “coming to the party – big time!” says Honorary Rangers national chairman John Turner.
Turner and his colleagues regularly raise funds to help the conservation work of SANParks.
One of the companies which has been digging deep is the Unitrans Volkswagen group which has committed R500 from the sale of every new and used vehicle to the Honorary Rangers and the anti-poaching projects, and has also set up the Unite Against Poaching organisation to spread the message.
Unitrans VW’s Brent Wilkins says the company believes that “we can’t sit back and say this problem is one which should be sorted out by the government.
“Ordinary citizens need to get involved: help is just as valuable as money…”
Unitrans has donated more than R4,5 million to the anti-poaching cause.
Says Turner: “The money we raise goes direct to where it is needed and we are fully transparent.”
Turner says there is an excellent relationship between corporate supporters, the Honorary Rangers and the people in SANParks.
Kruger’s head of communication, William Mabasa, says the contributions by private individuals are highly valued – as is the opportunity to show people, and journalists, that SANParks, despite often frequent criticism, “is still fully committed to conservation”.
“The poaching is a national crisis – and only by working together can we overcome this,” says Mabasa.
Frikkie Roussouw, a former policeman now with the SANParks Environmental Crimes Investigation section, says demand for rhino horn has ballooned as Asian customers believe it cures many illnesses, including cancer. In 2006, rhino horn fetched around R7 000 a kilogram, but it has spiralled to R80 000 a kg.
“Many organised crime syndicates have shifted their activities from high risk stuff like hijackings to poaching, which is comparatively low risk.”
Arrests have increased every year since then – and says Roussouw, courts are handing down long jail terms to poachers – but it is mainly the foot soldiers and low level couriers who have been picked up. Most of the kingpins have yet to be nailed.
But Roussow adds that the co-operation between all the government and private entities involved in the anti-poaching war has seen the establishment of a formidable machine which can bring people to book and then put them away.
“I know it sometimes looks like it is not something that we are going to win, but people should know that there is a lot happening to stop this.”