Lose Kruger, Lose Them All

South Africa is in a low-intensity war in the Kruger National Park. If it loses on that front, we can expect to fight across the rest of our wildlife parks.

The Department of Environmental Affairs reported this month that 428 rhino has been poached so far this year (267 in the Kruger National Park), and 122 poaching-related arrests made. We are well on track to exceed last year’s record of 668 dead rhino, a continual rise since the loss of seven of these beasts at the century’s turn. But there are 3 600 black rhino and 11 300 white rhino in SA, and SA National Parks reports a birthrate of more than 8% a year compared to a current poaching rate of less than 4%.

That’s heartening news but the numbers don’t tell the whole tale. Firstly, bald statistics hide nuance such as rhino producing more male than female births but female mortality exceeding male mortality in poaching. Second, rhino sub-species don’t cross-breed.

In an illegal wildlife industry worth an estimated of R90 billion globally last year, rhino horn fetches US$650 000 a kilogram; and an entire sub-economy on the Mozambique side of the Kruger border has sprung up to benefit from and support this trade.

That particular border is the crux. Former US military attaché to SA, and now head of the Reserve Protection Agency, Major Scott Williams, says that SA is in an undeclared low-intensity war with poachers who are facilitated by the Mozambiquan army, commanded by Vietnamese officers. The Mozambiquans use aggressive tactics and, says Williams, deploy their forces well within SA territory: “This year has already seen more than 100 combat contacts between rangers and poachers in Kruger. For tourism to collapse, we need just one incident of foreigners caught in the crossfire”.

In response, SANParks appointed former SANDF army Major-General Joop Jooste in December to coordinate the counter war. He describes SA as “under attack” in “an undeclared war”. But, despite an announced injection of R53 million from government to help fight this war, this money hasn’t appeared. Government has also announced its intention to re-erect a border fence alongside Mozambique, although a full-scale fence with detection devices would cost around R1 billion, something not being envisaged.

In a country awash with rhino poaching “awareness” fundraising drives, there doesn’t seem to be awareness that what is most needed is military-type equipment. The equipment exists, notably in the US, and includes gyrocopters that can be armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, ground-based mobile radar trucks that detect up to 300 simultaneous land and air targets over 45 000 hectares, and infra-red devices that follow humans over that area. Unmanned drones, says Williams, are less effective than may seem: “Although relatively cheap, using drones over the bush is like looking through a straw and hoping for the best. We need to be far more serious than that”.
He is echoed by renowned conservationist Ian Player who regards Kruger’s war as just the start. If we fail to turn the poaching tide there, it will move onto KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape: “The Kruger Park is the front line. The killing will not stop there. We will lose them all. Kruger is just the buffer”.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 25 June 2013)