It’s an ominous sound, and a surprising one: a loud boom on a late Wednesday afternoon that ripples across the vast, quiet grassland next to the Mozambique-South Africa border fence.
The sound, like a small-explosion, is probably that of a high-calibre hunting rifle.
Statistically, one should expect it. In 2007, 37 rhinos were poached in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Last year, that figure stood at 425 – more than one animal a day.
As the rangers guiding the small walking party hurry to seek assistance, the predicament KNP staff find themselves in becomes clear.
Where exactly did the single shot come from? How far away is the group of poachers? How many are there? What weapons are they carrying?
Also, the rhino could have been shot from across the border, one ranger points out. The poachers will then cross into South Africa later that night to secure the horn they so covet. It only takes a few minutes to cut off a rhino horn and disappear into the underbrush, slipping across the border and vanishing back into Mozambique.
With the sun close to setting, the helicopter providing much-needed backup for rangers seeking out poachers will have a hard time proving useful. And already it is probably too late to save the animal’s life.
This is not to say that the KNP, or any other South African conservation area, is helpless when it comes to rhino poaching. However, incidents such as these do highlight that there are major challenges in preventing poaching that cannot be ignored.
Major efforts by the KNP, other wildlife sanctuaries, the private sector and the South African public are seeing an increase in the employment of technology to stop poaching and to secure jail sentences for the perpetrators – not mere fines. These range from the use of DNA to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones). Of course, good old-fashioned skills, such as tracking, are also making a comeback.
PROFILE OF A POACHER
“We have gone from being rangers – conservationists – to playing a paramilitary role,” says SANParks special operations regional ranger Bruce Leslie. “We now stand between the rhino and poachers, and we are losing our focus on other issues of conservation. We are actually here to protect everything in the Kruger.”
Recent events prove this true. In May, a SANParks ranger was shot during an operation to apprehend suspected poachers in the KNP. The poachers managed to escape into the bush and no arrests were made. A .458 heavy-calibre rifle and other poaching equipment were recovered at the scene.
‘Other equipment’ almost always includes the rebel’s stalwart, the AK47, says Leslie.
“The rifle is for the rhino. The AK is for the ranger.”
Killing a rhino with an AK takes a number of shots and attracts unwanted attention. A hunting rifle requires one shot, maybe two.
Poacher groups can vary in size from one to six people. They can kill a rhino and disappear within minutes, or they can roam in the KNP for days, notes Leslie.
When rangers find the spoor of a poacher, they call in Leslie’s reaction unit – a group of well-trained rangers, equipped to track down poachers. Apart from Leslie, the members of his unit remain unnamed and are not photographed in order to protect them from reprisals.
The situation has not always been as violent as is currently the case, notes Leslie; but escalation, as often seen in wars, has been inevitable.
There is a continued evolution in the way poachers hunt rhino, he says. SANParks would retaliate and up their game, and then the poachers would do the same.
Poachers have moved from traditional weapons to AK47s to hunting rifles, often equipped with rifle scopes. The members of special operations carry R1 rifles (for poachers, not animals), night-vision binoculars, trauma packs in case they are wounded, GPS devices and camouflaged tents – among other pieces of equipment. Some even have patrol dogs with them.
“These are all things one expects in a theatre of war,” says Leslie.
He adds that it is best not to provide too much detail, as poachers would then also simply improve their capabilities.
“There is nothing better than a person in the veld, with his ears to the ground, but technology just gives that little bit of an edge over poachers.”
It is clear Leslie is grateful to the South African public for their financial support in the fight against rhino poaching.
The flow of donations has helped KNP rangers to “become better equipped faster – the generosity of the public in this country is quite amazing”.
The alternative would have been to acquire equipment using the limited State budget. A proper pair of night-vision binoculars can cost anything around R70 000, for example.
SANParks environmental crime investigations senior investigator Frik Rossouw echoes Leslie’s sentiment.
“People like Unite Against Poaching (UAP) have donated almost R7-million to the fight. Without them, we cannot buy the fairly expensive equipment we need.”
UAP is a trust between SANPark’s Honorary Rangers and Unitrans Volkswagen.
Rossouw, who spent 15 years in the South African Police Service, also talks of an escalation in hostilities.
It is no longer former Mozambique civil war soldiers poaching rhinos in the KNP as a means of securing an income in a now democratic society, but 18-,19- and 20-year-olds looking to get rich quick. They are often unemployed, looking to earn the R60 000 to R80 000 a kilogram rhino horn can fetch on the illegal market – this up from R6 000 a few years ago.
“Around 75% of our problem comes from Mozambique,” says Rossouw.
Rhino poaching is largely orchestrated by well-oiled syndicates, he adds.
The actual poacher forms level one of the syndicate, with the couriers and middle men at level two and three. Level four and five host the people most difficult to appre-hend – the exporter and importer of rhino horn.
One entire syndicate arrested, from top to bottom, killed 51 rhinos before being apprehended.
They used a crossbow to poach the animals, stocked by only two outlets in South Africa. Identifying the buyer of the crossbow led to the arrest of a number of people, from a Zimbabwean transporting the horns to a Hong Kong resident much higher up in the syndicate.
Leslie is adamant that the protection of the rhino is worth the fight.
“If we do not do this, we’ll lose every rhino in Africa. Our message is that we are not soft. Poachers will have to come through us to kill rhinos.”
Does he have any military experience?
“No,” says Leslie. “I have a pure conservation background.”
TRACKING AND FOXHOUNDS
In order to track down poachers, SANParks has resorted to the age-old technique of tracking – not animal tracking as required by the conservationist part of their job – but human tracking.
Apart from a clandestine advanced ranger course, run by a former Recce and completed by more than 200 rangers by the end of May, there is also the UAP-funded track-a-person programme.
The Southern African Wildlife College’s (SAWC’s) Julie Bryden says human tracking is all about following a suspected poacher – or poachers, who has probably realised that there is a ranger on his trail.
The SAWC is based at KNP.
The course teaches rangers the age of a spoor, how to conceal their own trail, speed up their pursuit, read how many poachers there are in a group, as well as whether they are tall or short, left- or right-handed and the kind or arms they are carrying, among others characteristics.
Yes, it is possible to do all this, confirms Bryden. For example, stride length can betray a person’s length, as does shoe size. Different rifles leave distinct butt prints in the sand, and a left-handed person, for example, would place his water bottle to his left, and not the right.
Once a ranger has tracked a group of poachers, he will call in the necessary support. This can include the use of high-tech gadgets, such as night-vision and thermal imaging equipment.
However, even this can present challenges. For example, the extreme temperatures in the KNP and the subsequent heat signature from rock formations can make it difficult to distinguish human figures from other heat sources when using thermal imaging equipment.
Dogs are also used to track poachers – a project still in its infancy at the KNP.
The part-foxhounds – think traditional British hunting parties – are typically dropped by helicopter to track down poachers by their scent. They have GPS trackers on their collars, enabling the rangers to locate them – and the poachers.
These dogs, however, can only be used when the spoor is fresh, says one KNP section ranger, who preferred not to give his name.
The dogs have names such as Chico and Jetta. Again, this eight-month-old project is sponsored by UAP – which explains the names.
To date, nine hounds have been deployed.
In order to become used to the harsh terrain of the KNP, they stay in stone-chip kennels, ensuring their paws adjust to the surfaces typical of the Kruger.
Thorns remain a problem, however.
DRONES THE ANSWER?
Another way to locate poachers and patrol large tracts of land is to use UAVs.
While the KNP is not yet convinced of its functionality or cost-effectiveness, director Peter Milton thinks it holds many answers.
Spots stands for Strategic Protection of Threatened Species and has three directors, coming largely from a conservation and game capture background.
“We spend around 90% of our time on rhino projects now, even though many more species are endangered as well. But, if we don’t win rhino, what chance do the rest have?” asks Milton.
Realising 18 months ago that South African antipoaching efforts “were short on political will”, Spots worked to come up with a solution to rhino poaching.
The company tried to develop a GPS tracking solution rhinos could carry in their horns, providing live data to game owners.
However, battery life proved a problem.
“Through this process we became aware of UAVs.”
Spots wanted a UAV that could be hand-launched and that did not require a landing strip. Owing to the fact that the UAV might just land in the bush, the air- frame also had to be cheap, but still able to protect the smart stuff inside – the flight controls and imaging equipment.
The imaging equipment comes from US company Flir, says Milton, and is “just incredible”.
The UAV Spots now uses is launched by hand, and can be in the air in three minutes, feeding images and data back to the operator. It can fly on a preprogrammed flight path during the day and at night, recording video (high definition and/or thermal imaging) all able to stand up in court. These images are sent to the pilot, as well as the second station, where it is recorded and available for immediate replay.
Pioneering new hybrid-imaging technology can spot a mute light some 1 000 m away, says Milton.
Stealth mode allows the UAV to travel 200 m above ground, unnoticed.
Milton says practice makes it easier to distinguish between the heat signatures of the landscape, animals and humans.
Spots is currently active on private reserves in the Waterberg area, for example, with trials also under way in the KNP.
“You can only save rhino if you can save Kruger. We have got to win Kruger,” emphasises Milton.
Of the 668 rhinos killed in South Africa in 2012, 425 were slaughtered in the Kruger. This year, KNP hopes to lose ‘only’ one a day, not last year’s 1.6, says Rossouw. (However, this seems unlikely, as the number of rhino poached in the KNP had already reached 267 by June 20, out of a national figure of 428.)
Milton says UAVs have had a high success rate to date.
“At one reserve, the intrusion rate has dropped 82% since we became operational. UAVs act as a deterrent, but, yes, unfortunately, poaching just picks up again as soon as we leave.”
Spots uses several UAVs in its fight against poaching.
The rapid-deployment, electric locally built Air Ranger has a wingspan of 2.5 m, and a 10 km range. Spots has three of these UAVs, built at a cost of around R350 000 each.
The company is also continuing work on the new Air Marshall, which will have longer range than the Air Ranger. It will also fly at a higher altitude and have a bigger wingspan. Unfortunately, this also means it will require a flat landing and take-off area, and probably cost around R450 000.
Another type of UAV Spots is looking into is an ultra-high-altitude drone, flying at 10 000 ft to 15 000 ft, able to patrol the South Africa-Mozambique border. However, the cost of this UAV is between R10-million and R15-million.
Once a rhino has been killed and dehorned, the focus shifts from prevention to prosecution. This presents difficulties all of its own as poaching crime scenes are in the middle of the bush, with the bloody rhino carcass almost immediately attracting the attention of scavengers.
“You need a proper chain of custody to go out and win a court case,” says Rossouw.
However, it is difficult to locate spent cartridges, footprints and DNA at crime scenes in the middle of the African bush.
“You have to search metre by metre, shoulder to shoulder.”
It also means that rangers have to understand and protect crime scenes, as they are often the first on scene.
To make it even more difficult, the stabilisation of Mozambique following its civil war has seen fire arm shops open up, renting out hunting rifles with little in the form of record keeping.
Often these rifles are used to poach rhinos in South Africa.
“Sometimes we can link the firearm to the scene, but not the shooter,” says Rossouw.
These older rifles also often leave poor striation marks on the bullet, making it difficult to match the bullet to a specific firearm.
There is also the question whether some South African farm attacks are not moti- vated by the search for hunting rifles.
Matching a rhino horn back to a poached animal has become increasingly important in ensuring successful prosecution in poaching cases.
Enter Dr Cyndi Harper. She is in charge of the rhino DNA index system (Rhodis), which is used to provide forensic evidence in poaching court cases. The project is being run by the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Science’s Onderstepoort facility.
The facility has developed a DNA profiling technique that can identify individual rhino horns and link recovered horns to specific poaching cases, thereby linking a horn trafficker to a poaching incident, or a poacher caught with horns in his possession to the carcass of an individual rhino.
This assists tremendously in the conviction and sentencing of rhino poaching syndicates.
The database currently contains more than 3 000 rhinos from South Africa, as well as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
In the KNP in 2010, 67 poachers were ‘neutralised’ – arrested or fatally wounded, growing to 82 in 2011, then dipping to 52 in 2012. In 2013, 57 people were arrested in the KNP to June 20.
KILLING THE MARKET
It is a common fallacy that rhino horn is used as an aphrodisiac, says Rossouw. It is actually prescribed in some Asian markets to cure devil possession, hallucinations and fevers, for example, or used to make ceremonial cups or daggers.
None of its medicinal uses have ever been proved, not by foreign or Asian universities, emphasises Rossouw.
Rhino horn is more keratin than compressed hair, as originally thought, and is similar in content to horses’ hooves or turtle beaks.
At the moment, the rhino population in South Africa is still growing. The country has around 19 000 white rhino and 2 000 black rhino remaining.
Africa has 25 000 black and white rhino remaining, which means that South Africa hosts the vast majority of the continent’s rhino population.
However, it is expected that this population will start declining by 2015 –considering the current increased rate of poaching.
Arresting poachers is one cure. Educating the Asian market about the fallacies that rhino horn will cure illnesses –a process that is under way – is another.
Dehorning is believed to be another deterrent – yet dehorned rhino are still poached.
Rossouw says it is “a very costly exercise” to dehorn thousands of rhino.
A KNP ranger, who wants remain anonymous, adds that dehorned rhinos remain targets, as it is impossible to remove the entire horn. Poacher gangs also often become angry at wasting their time tracking a dehorned rhino, and then shoot the animal anyway to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice.
An official dehorning process could mean that thousands of rhino horns will be made available to the market, says Rossouw, perhaps traded legally.
“But how long can we support the market? Does it consume a thousand horns a year? What if the market wants more than what we can offer? What if flooding the market pushes down the price and one buyer acquires it all, hoarding stock, pushing up prices again?”
Another solution to prevent poaching was to refence the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, as Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa suggested in May.
The park joins parts of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe into a single conservation area, including the KNP.
One idea persistently made clear in a number of interviews, even though never for the record, is that Mozambique is a major source of poachers. A number of questions also remain regarding the political will from the South African and Mozambique govern- ments to address the problem.
A bit of maths shows that at a price of R60 000/kg of rhino horn, for an 8 kg rhino horn, and with 425 rhinos poached in the KNP in 2012, and 75% of this problem emanating from Mozambique, South Africa’s neighbour received a multimillion-dollar economic inflow from rhino poaching last year.
NOT ONLY RHINO
The number of animals being poached in Africa is more than alarming. Considering that these animals lure tourists to the continent, the financial impact can hardly be calculated – apart from the loss of life and biodiversity poaching also causes.
In September 2012, The New York Times published an article on 22 dead elephants, many killed by a single bullet to the top of the head. They were probably hunted from a helicopter.
The tusks, more than a million dollars’ worth, had been hacked away, but none of the meat — and “subsistence poachers almost always carve themselves a little meat for the long walk home”.
“Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter,” stated the newspaper.
The vast majority of the illegal ivory – experts say as much as 70% – is flowing to China, with the price of ivory $1 000 a pound on the streets of Beijing, paying for conflicts across the continent.
A new report entitled ‘Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis’, released in March by the United Nations (UN) Environment Programme, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, states that an estimated 25 000 elephants were illegally killed in Africa in 2011, with the mortality rate outstripping the birth rate on many sites.
While trade in rhino horn is strictly prohibited globally, trade in ivory is only mostly illegal.
The same UN report notes that the illegal trade and poaching of wildlife and plants alone are worth $5-billion to $20-billion a year, and that this money is often used to help finance conflicts.
“During the Nepalese civil war (1996–2006), more than half of the rhinoceros population in Bardia National Park was killed by Maoists to finance the conflict,” states the report.
It is not only elephants being targeted, says Milton. He has come across a village where he was told of poaching syndicates offering R24 000 for a pangolin.
“When last did you see a pangolin in the wild?”
Leslie adds that rhinos are currently the most publicised poaching threat, but that other animals are in danger too.
Subsistence poaching is a big problem in the KNP, where animals such as impala or bush-pig are killed for food, often using traditional snares.
Last year, KNP rangers also found eight dead bateleur eagles at Pretoriuskop – they had died after eating poisoned dog bodies.
Certain traditional healers believe muti (‘medicine’), made from vultures and eagles, enables for dreaming that sees into the future.
Pity this future-gazing does not see that one bateleur breeding pair produces only one chick a year. Or that Africa’s wildlife is rapidly running out of air.