Rhino poaching decreasing in Kruger


Rhino poaching is on the decrease in the Kruger National Park, partly due to there being fewer rhinos in the park, and partly due to better preparedness and more people on the ground. However, rangers are still fighting what has been termed a war and battle daily incursions by heavily armed poachers.

Frik Rossouw, Senior Investigator for Environmental Crime Investigations with South African National Parks (SANParks), said last week that poaching activity remains high in the Kruger National Park, with four rhinos poached in the last one and a half weeks, and multiple poaching groups entering the park every day.

For example, on 16 August poachers shot and killed a female white rhino in the park near Malelane, and another over a kilometre away. It appears the poachers were dropped off in the park as the kill sites were close to the road. These were the first such incidents in the area in a long time. Rossouw said that while no arrests have yet been made, he was confident the poachers would be apprehended due to evidence found at the scene of the crime.

Officials had made 23 arrests over eleven days, according to Rossouwa and over 360 suspected rhino poachers have in the past six months been handed varying sentences. Sentences can range from four years for intent to poach to five years for unlicensed firearms and eight to ten years for hunting illegally. Of the cases that make it to court, there is a roughly 95% success rate in convictions.

Rossouw said rhino poaching has decreased, partly due to there being fewer rhinos in the park, and partly due to better preparedness and more people on the ground. However, when poaching decreases in the Kruger, other parks tend to get hit.

Rossouw noted that a growing problem is elephant poaching, which has been increasing of late, especially in the north of the park. Whilst rhino poaching is most extant, other animals are poached for their meat, or for the criminal networks that control poaching activity. This includes lion bones, pangolin scales etc.

Rossouw pointed out that poachers are at the lowest level of the poaching chain and make a small percentage of the total profit, typically R100-200 000 per horn. Desmet said most poachers come from Mozambique and grew up around the park with considerable bush skills. “There is an endless supply of poachers,” he said. “They are not always poor, hungry people. Some get used to the lifestyle and start their own poaching groups.”

After the poachers on the ground, the other links in the chain are the couriers, weapons suppliers and buyers, amongst others. Arresting the kingpins takes time, but there have been three recent high-profile arrests in Daveyton and Nelspruit.

National police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo said in a statement recently that of the 365 suspects arrested for poaching in the last six months, 165 remain in custody while court processes unfolded. During this period, six were deported to their countries of origin while 11 received fines and 57 are serving their various jail terms. When they end up in court, poachers face a 95% success rate in convictions.

Law enforcement officials, together with members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), conduct daily operations in the Kruger National Park, as part of their anti-poaching campaign.
“The aim of the operation is to work against the criminality that is taking place. We are verifying the permits of guests, staff and contractors, as well as everyone who has access to the park,” South African National Parks (SANParks) Head of Protection Services, Victor Nxumalo said last week during a SANParks media trip.

He said officials search for contrabands, firearms and any item that can be utilised to do rhino poaching in the park. Trained sniffer dogs are used at the entrances of the park and at roadblocks inside the park.
“We are fighting crime. These operations are generated from the Mission Area Joint Operation Centre (MAJOC) which is the joint operation centre situated in Skukuza. We work with the South African Police Service (SAPS), SANDF and the protection services from the Kruger National Park, as well as traffic officers who work with us to address the violations in the National Road Traffic Act,” he said.

MAJOC co-ordinates operations against rhino poaching by all affected government institutions. These also include the Departments of Environmental Affairs and Provincial Conservation Agencies.

The operations also include the K-9 unit which search for rhino horn, ammunition and explosives that might be brought in by the criminals.
“It’s war. Poachers are coming in armed and they want to get their horn or task. They are willing to risk their lives and if we get in their way, they are willing to end our lives,” said section ranger at the national park Andrew Desmet.

Last month, a Kruger ranger was shot during a shootout with an alleged poaching group and died on the way to hospital. The rangers had been tracking the alleged poachers, supported by the K9 unit.

Another challenge faced by the park is that of rangers who are willing to work with poachers for money.
“The constant battle is the enemy within. The money is so great that there are people who are enticed to follow that route.”

According to Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, South Africa last year experienced “a minor decrease” in the number of rhinos killed for their horns. A thousand and twenty-eight rhinos were poached between January 1 and December 31, 2017, compared to 1 054 in 2016.

The Kruger National Park, which traditionally bears the brunt of poaching, lost 504 rhinos in the 2017 calendar year. This is 24% down on the 2016 figure of 662.