From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
Rhino poaching keeps taking on such alarming proportions in South Africa that the country’s defence force has now been called in to help fight the ruthless killers who are mostly using assault weapons and often other sophisticated equipment to carry out their crime.
The request has come from South African National Parks (SANParks), which has been engaged in its own growing battle to stem rhino poaching in Kruger National Park, the country’s flagship reserve that is home to about 10,000 white rhinos and 350 black rhinos.
The military have already signalled their willingness to step in. Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said in a statement reported by Sapa (the South African Press Association): “Rhino poaching is a crime we will have to stop immediately. It is cruel and brutal. SANParks has requested us to assist urgently.
“The SANDF has some of the best air to land equipment to perform this function. Denel (South Africa’s state-linked manufacturer of defense equipment) also boasts some of the best air equipment that can help us to stop the poaching. We are working on this matter, it is urgent.”
The involvement of the military in domestic situations is a drastic step, but anti-poaching units set up by the police, the parks authorities and private agencies have repeatedly noted that they are up against operatives using combat-style methods and equipment, including night-vision telescopic rifles and even helicopters, to do their killing and get the animals’ hacked-off horns to their Eastern markets.
A volunteer group called the SANParks Honorary Rangers has launched a raffle to raise money with which they want to buy night-vision binoculars for use by the anti-poaching units. The promotion in which participants stand to win an off-road vehicle is called Own the Night and is done under the auspices of LeadSA, an initiative by South Africa’s Independent Newspapers Company and the local Talk Radio 702 to promote worthy causes.
NGS stock photo of rhinoceros in South Africa by James P. Blair
The call for military intervention has come as a new wave of rhino poaching has swept the northern regions of the country, at a time when the security agencies were hopeful that a series of high-profile arrests carried out recently would put a brake on poaching incidents. Among those apprehended were prominent farmers, veterinarians, a pilot and even individuals involved in wildlife management. They are all out on bail pending their court case, which is set for April next year.
One of the suspects, Tommy Fourie, died a few days ago in what is thought to be a suicide. He was found with a gunshot wound to the forehead and his.38 special revolver lying next to him. The 51-year-old was the manager of a sizeable private nature reserve named Maremani that is owned by the international Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation for nature preservation and wildlife protection. The Danish Trust was so upset about his arrest that it reportedly summarily dismissed him.
Local farmers told reporters that Fourie had been actively involved in border forums and local farming organizations, and that he had played an important role in recent anti-poaching measures.
Police spokesperson Ronel Otto was quoted in news reports as saying: “Fourie’s death is bad news, but our investigations are at an advanced stage and there is a strong possibility that we’ll be able to make more arrests in the near future.”
Such arrests as have been made in respect of the latest round of poaching have pointed at increased involvement of foreigners from South Africa’s neighboring states.
NGS stock photo of rhinos in South Africa by Chris Johns
In a dramatic episode last weekend, a poacher bearing a Mozambique passport was wounded and arrested when farmers, anti-poaching units and the police went in hot pursuit of a gang of four who had shot dead a rhino on a farm in the country’s poaching-plagued Limpopo Province.
The other three poachers split up and made good their escape as night fell and lightning from a thunder storm set off fires on the surrounding mountain. Rain wiped out their tracks, but the police are hopeful that information from their arrested accomplice will help secure more arrests.
Earlier this month three Zimbabweans and a Mozambican were sentenced in a Limpopo court for attempted rhino poaching. They were caught before they could carry out the deed and were found guilty on additional charges of possessing unlicensed firearms. Sentences ranged from three to six years, and a Mercedes-Benz car that was inb their possession was forfeited to the state.
Brazen Attack on Four Rhinos
In a brazen attack on a guest farm called Shingalana north-west of South Africa’s capital of Pretoria, a further two rhinos were killed and two wounded over the weekend.
First the carcass of a breeding bull was found with its horn cut off, its eyes gouged out and Achilles tendons cut. Then a dead rhino cow was found a short distance from the farm’s guest lodge, her horn, too, hacked off.
Another two cows were found injured, one with a shot or blow to the hindquarters, and the other with a shot through the chin and another through the shoulder.
The owners of the rhino, Kobus Jacobs and his wife, Rina, told Johannesburg’s Beeld newspaper they felt unsafe. “These poachers aren’t afraid of us. They come here and poach while we’re at home. We’re scared. We always thought stock thieves and poachers would rather give us a miss because there are often guests on the farm,” they were reported as saying.
Kobus said once they had realized the full extent of the events, they were shocked. Now they’re just despondent. “You spend your whole life building something… I don’t know why they don’t just legalise and regulate hunting for rhino horn. Then, I believe, the animals might at least be spared. It (the poaching) is so incredibly cruel,” Beeld reporters Nicolize van der Walt and Fanie van Rooyen quote him as saying.
In another horrific incident last week, two rhinos were killed and another two wounded on a game farm in North West Province. The one animal killed was a bull used for breeding that was priced at about US$150,000. The other was also a bull, priced at about two thirds less.
The two wounded cows were spotted from a helicopter. One was in such a bad state that the owner thought she might have to be put down.
Robbery of Seven Rhino Horns
The recent robbery of seven rhino horns from a farm, also in Limpopo, has given rise to suspicions that government officials might be involved. The owners were allowed by the provincial authorities to keep the horns in a safe on the farm after these had been cut off to prevent the animals from being poached.
The Thaba Manzi farm’s marketing manager, Johan Pretorius, has voiced his suspicions through the media. He alleged government officials were the only outsiders who knew where the horns were. The robbers held up the farm’s veterinarians in the farmstead and demanded the horns.
More than twenty people have been arrested in separate rhino poaching cases. These include the recent high-profile arrests in Limpopo.
Also included are four people who were stopped on the highway between Johannesburg and Durban and found in possession of rhino horn. This followed a tip-off after a dead rhino had been found in KwaZulu-Natal Province’s Hluhluwe Game Reserve, site of the species’ rescue from extinction just more than fifty years ago.
The number of rhino killings for the year was already put at about 230 two months ago. The then minister of environmental affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, at the time expressed fears that the toll could rise to 300 by the end of the year unless something drastic was done.
She said this when she announced the establishment of a National Wildlife Crime Reaction Unit that includes specialists from various law-enforcement agencies and wildlife-conservation sectors to ensure more arrests and convictions.
Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.
Related reports from the rhino war zone:
NGS stock photo of South African poster by Steve Raymer
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