Feature: No golden bullet to eliminate poaching in the Kruger National Park


In spite of a drop in rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park, South African National Parks (SANParks) officials have cautioned that there is no single solution to eliminate wildlife poaching and a wide variety of tools are needed to address the problem.

Speaking to the media during a recent anti-poaching trip to Skukuza, Nicolus Funda, chief ranger in the Kruger National Park, said they have a whole toolbox available with many different tools, but no single one is effective by itself.

This was echoed by Thumelo Matjekame, special projects manager at SANParks and the man in charge of counter-poaching activity who said there is no one thing that can eliminate poaching but technology assists and many of the projects in the Kruger are the first such systems in the world and undergoing constant refinement.

He was making particular reference to the Meerkat wide area surveillance system introduced into the Park in December 2016 and which has seen poachers arrested and dozens of poaching attempts thwarted. Meerkat, funded by the Dutch Postcode lottery, uses radar and day and night cameras to detect poachers. Additional systems are on their way to the Kruger National Park.

Rangers are also having success with anti-poaching dogs, which have more than an 80% success rate in apprehending poachers when they are deployed against them. There are over 50 dogs in the Kruger National Park, with some canine units stationed at the gates to sniff out weapons and animal products.

The Kruger National Park is in the process of implementing additional security at the gates. Electronic gate access control systems will be completed in the next month and these will scan vehicle’s number plates and check their license disks to ensure they are not stolen. The system will also monitor the time of visits and passengers – Matjekame said that sometimes poachers will drive into the Park and make drop-offs and the access control system will try and control this. For such drop-offs, it is impossible to track spoor until the poachers disembark.

He said around R8 million has been budgeted for adding access control systems to the southern gates, as this is where most poaching activity is found. Five gates are being modified in the first phase of the project, with the northern gates earmarked for future upgrade.

Another important piece of technology is the Cmore situational awareness system developed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). All SANParks parks are linked to the Cmore system and this allows the exchange of information across services and sensors, such as detection systems and various other tracking systems – Kruger is even experimenting with adding tracking systems linked to Cmore to its dogs. Cmore also allows for the secure distribution of information with the ability to share and collaborate with users from anywhere in the world. Cmore has been instrumental in promoting cohesiveness between various counter-poaching forces, according to the CSIR.

According to According to Mark McGill, technical operations manager at SANParks, anti-poaching deployments in the Kruger are planned via Cmore information (history and trends of poaching), moon phases, preferred areas, direction of movement, whether its day or night, ranger input and input from technology like the Meerkat system. Other technologies include magnetic, acoustic and seismic surveillance technology and perimeter surveillance.

Operations are co-ordinated through the Park’s Mission Area Joint Operations Centre (Majoc), which is the heart its anti-poaching response network. Information from the Meerkat system, the location of rangers, heat maps and information from the Cmore system is displayed at Majoc.

When suspicious activity is detected, the personnel at Majoc then call on the various personnel and assets, including aircraft, vehicles and dogs, to respond. The Kruger National Park has 711 SANParks personnel, including field rangers, special rangers, air wing and protection services members, with around 400 of these in the field. Its aerial assets include four Squirrel helicopters, two Cessna fixed wing aircraft and four Bantam/Bat Hawk ultralights. Flying for Freedom SA also contributes a Bell 206 Jet Ranger and the Park may also in the near future receive a Bell 407GT from Rhino 911.

In addition, the Park can call on some 175 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) personnel. These include soldiers, military police and air force members. Added to this are 32 police in the park, plus police outside the park and this includes a headquarters support team, Special Task Force, canine unit, National Intervention Unit and detectives.

Glen Phillips, Kruger National Park manager, said people are the most important asset in fighting poaching in the Kruger, as no technology in the world would be able to replace a ranger and his gut feeling and experience. However, he said there are just not enough people to cover the whole park – at 19 000 square kilometres in size the park is almost the size of Israel. Sam Ferreira, a large mammal ecologist with SANParks, said if you told 400 rangers to protect Israel they would tell you that you are crazy. Nevertheless, the Park is using technology as a force multiplier to make up for this and prevent poachers from entering the park in the first place.

Although people are the best assets to fight rhino poaching, they are sometimes also the weakest link, with a number of inside jobs occurring. “We definitely have a problem with ‘snakes’ in the park,” Phillip said. Consequently Kruger requests its rangers to take a polygraph test – so far no-one has refused. If people fail the first polygraph test, a second one is undertaken. If they fail that too, then a full investigation is carried out, including a lifestyle audit.

SANParks has recognised the fact that it needs of the support of communities surrounding its parks in order to ensure conservation of animals and other natural resources is successful. Various SANParks officials emphasised the importance of getting support from the outside community to combat poaching. Ferreira pointed out that Kruger is not isolated, with borders with Mozambique. Rangers are doing well in stopping poachers from killing animals in the park, but assistance is needed in stopping them coming into the park, he said.

According to the Protected Areas Act of 2003, protected areas need to contribute to human, social, cultural, spiritual and economic development. This is particularly important considering most poachers come from economically challenged areas surrounding wildlife reserves. Supporting local communities is important, especially with the recent drought, which meant that people living around the park (there are around two million people surrounding Kruger) were hit hard and as a result more likely to enter into crime.

According to a SANParks presentation on strategies to curb wildlife crime on 31 January 2017 by Fundisile Mketeni, CEO of SANParks, an integrated approach is being taken to combat poaching. This involves pro-active anti-poaching measures, efforts to increase rhino numbers (relocation, sanctuaries, breeding), educating communities, creating sustainable demand, using game-changing technology and disrupting organised crime networks.

In the presentation Mketeni stated SANParks is not winning yet because only the symptoms of wildlife crime are being addressed. Victory will come when a whole of government approach is implemented. Important is removing the root cause of poaching and eliminating the middlemen that interface between poachers and end users.

In addition to the SANDF and SAPS, SANParks also collaborates with the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). Advocate Anthony Mosing at the NPA, said there is progress regarding anti-poaching. “We as a country need to act harshly when it comes to these offences.” In terms of penalties, this can amount to a ten year sentence for hunting rhinos. Trespassing with the intent to poach goes from a misdemeanour to a sentence longer than a year.

Mosing said that wildlife crime hotspots are KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Kruger, but Gauteng is the financial and organisational hotspot. He said tightening up on organised crime is key to assisting with poaching convictions.

The NPA has a regional office to address poaching as well as the link between organised crime and environmental crimes. It has specialised prosecutors in hotspot areas where rhino crimes are prevalent such as Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Gauteng. The authority also works with other stakeholders such as the South African Police Service, Departments of Environmental Affairs, Justice and Home Affairs as well as foreign embassies. The latter is quite important in tracing horn seized in foreign countries as SANParks has a DNA database of rhinos, and also for repatriation of seized animal products.

South Africa recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Mozambique on criminal cooperation. Until 2014 poaching was not considered to be a crime in Mozambique and this change has made some difference in deterring potential poachers. Although there is some talk of repatriation, foreign poachers, mostly from Mozambique, who are caught in South Africa are sentenced and held locally.

Because Kruger is pioneering many anti-poaching activities and technologies, it has attracted interest from other countries and parks, such as Namibia and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries that want to learn from South Africa.

The interventions by SANParks to combat rhino poaching are slowly bearing fruit, with it becoming harder for poachers to successfully poach an animal in Kruger. According to statistics provided by SANParks, in 2012 a total of 425 rhinos were poached while there were 876 incidents of poaching activity. In 2015 when 826 rhinos were killed but poaching activity increased to 2 466 incidents. Poaching declined further in 2016 with 662 rhinos poached but poaching activity increased to an all-time high of 2 883 incidents in the Park.

For rhinos that fall victim to poachers’ rifles, the Kruger National Park has a rhino sanctuary that looks after injured and orphaned animals and presently has eight calves, two surrogate mothers and a bull. After around a year or more the calves are released back into the wild. Rhinos are also sent to zoos and other parks – they have been taken to Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia, amongst others, according to Marcus Hofmeyer, head of veterinary wildlife services at the KNP. He said it costs between R80 and R150 000 to rehabilitate a rhino.

SANParks experts say that although there is a perception rhinos may go extinct in a short space of time, this is unlikely since rhino populations grow quickly if they are given a chance.

Apart from rhinos, poachers are increasingly turning to poaching elephants in Kruger and this is a growing concern. For the first time in a decade, poachers killed an elephant in the Kruger in 2014, and killed around 20 of the animals for their tusks in 2015 and around 40 in 2016. There are about 18 000 elephants in the Kruger National Park – it counted 17 086 in 2015 but it is difficult to get a precise number as there is a wide margin of error in counts.