Brigadier-General Koos Liebenberg, the SANDFs director of conventional operations, briefs the media on Operation Corona at the Sandriver Base in the Kruger National Park and the armys anti-rhino poaching operations.

A feared explosion in rhino poaching is likely to see horrifically high new records in the slaughter of the endangered animals being reached by the end of the year.

The message, delivered by SANParks in the Kruger National Park (KNP) this week, came as the number of rhinos killed across South Africa in the first half of this year reached 222.

To date 144 rhinos have been killed in the game reserve with 15 poachers shot dead and nine injured in clashes with SANDF troops and rangers deployed to the area, under the military’s Operation Corona and Operation Rhino.

Of the 127 poachers arrested across South Africa, 64 have been captured in KNP.

The operations are part of the SANDF’s strategy to safeguard the country’s borders and include the deployment of troops to the KNP to combat the scourge of poaching, among other tasks.

In total, 20 poachers have been killed and 10 injured in shoot-outs with law enforcement authorities across South Africa.

While a dramatic decline has been experienced in the killing of rhinos, decreasing from 15 to about 10 a month, the fear is that the decline could soon end and the deaths suddenly spike again.

“If it does, and the trend from earlier this year continues, then we are going to see new record highs when it comes to the poaching of rhinos with at least another 200 being killed by the time December arrives,” said SANParks spokesman Reynold Thakhuli.

According to Thakhuli, only four rhinos have been killed since June in the Kruger National Park.

The worst month so far this year for rhino poaching in South Africa was March with more than 50 rhinos killed in the country, 35 of them in the KNP.

The park has to date also been the area with the highest number of poacher arrests – 61.

Mpumalanga and North West nabbed 30 and 15 alleged poachers respectively.

Thakhuli said that since the arrival of South African soldiers in the Kruger National Park, authorities were beginning to notch up major successes against poachers.

“We can only hope that this continues and that the trend from earlier this year does not return,” he said.

Ken Maggs, SANParks environmental crime investigation and air services senior general manager, dubbed poaching “khaki collar crime”. He said that for poaching to be stopped an immediate action plan, which included manpower, resources and political will, was needed along with serious financial backing.

“As well as this, there needs to be the immediate support of a national co-ordinated structure for information management, law enforcement response, investigation and prosecution.

“Proactive security-related measures need to be adopted for future regulated and controlled international trade in the species and any associated by-products,” said Maggs.

Describing poachers crossing South Africa’s borders with paramilitary type weapons as a threat to the country’s sovereignty, Maggs said that if the rate of killings continued unabated the number of rhinos poached would pass 400.

“Seventy percent of South Africa’s poaching occurs in the KNP, with 70 percent of poaching in the game reserve occurring along the KNP’s 4 000km-long border with Mozambique, which is a key factor in the fight against poaching.

“To fight poachers we have to maximise the use of our resources, through the use of special reaction units who deploy paramilitary style tactics in disruptive intelligence-driven cross-border operations in joint co-operation with the SANDF and police.

“If we don’t we will lose this war because poachers, who are operating in large, extremely aggressive groups, armed with military weapons, including hand grenades and AK-47s, are not here just to poach but also to fight,” he said.

Maggs said that while the decline in poaching indicated that they were doing something right, “we are worried that the trend from earlier this year will continue and destroy all our hard work”.

“So far the worst year for rhino poaching was 2010 when 333 rhinos across South Africa were killed, compared to between 2000 and 2007 when we were losing 15 a year,” he said.

Brigadier-General Koos Liebenberg, the SANDF’s director of conventional operations, said their operations in KNP, which was to become its own mission area with a dedicated battalion tactical headquarters, were part of a larger border safeguarding strategy.

“Since our deployment to KNP we have had major successes helping in the arrest of poachers and the seizure of weapons, such as AK-47s and high-calibre hunting rifles.

“Our deployment here has contributed to the decline in poaching from 40 rhinos killed in March to two in June,” he said.

He said that to solve border problems, the defence force, with its limited budget, had to work “smart” to address the situation.

“We are also working with our neighbouring governments,” Liebenberg said. “Our strategy, over the next four years, will involve deploying more troops to the borders to conduct strategic and tactical operations involving quick reaction units to ensure our borders’ safety and combat all forms of threats, including poachers.

“Our troops are being specifically trained and equipped to deal with the situations they will encounter there,” he said.

Poacher profile

* Male

* Paramilitary training

* Excellent marksman and tracker

* Operates both day and night

* Poor – usually from rural areas - Pretoria News