National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Worsening Rhino war Strains Countries’ Relations




The growing incursion of rhino poachers from Mozambique into South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park is beginning to strain relations between the two countries. South African security operatives trying to stem the relentless killing of the enigmatic animals speak of it as a “border war”. They are getting increasingly fed-up with Mozambique’s security agencies for not doing more to clamp down on the poachers and the rhino-horn smugglers on their side of the boundary.

Major General Johan Jooste, a veteran soldier from southern Africa’s bush-war era who was appointed late last year to head up the military, police and game-ranger units fighting the poachers in the park, reverts to the military terms of “insurgency” and “counter-insurgency” to describe the situation. He says the rhino poaching is one of the worst crises in the more than a century of the park’s existence. 
South African National Parks (SANParks) chief executive David Mabunda has called it a “war situation”, with the   boundary between Kruger and Mozambique proving to be “the weakest line of defence against incursions”.

With between 8,000 and 10,000 white rhinos and about a thousand black rhinos, Kruger National Park is home to the majority of South Africa’s estimated 18,000 white and 2,000 black rhino populations. At the rate that the animals are getting killed it is feared that both types, but in particular the more critically endangered black species, could be headed for extinction in a few decades’ time.
 Already 180 rhinos have been killed in the park since the beginning of the year, against a national total of 249. It is now feared the figure for 2013 could end up even exceeding last year’s horrendous toll of 668, of which Kruger Park accounted for 425.

Poachers Killed in Fire Fights with Rangers

According to SANParks, 30 of the 36 suspected poachers apprehended in Kruger Park so far this year turned out to be Mozambicans. Eleven of the 36 were killed in fire-fights with the security forces and the rest were arrested.

The rising casualty rate bears out the extent to which it is starting to resemble a war situation. Jooste insists the basic purpose remains to arrest suspects, in line with the normal rules of law enforcement. But the poachers generally seem to have military training. They come heavily armed and are quite willing to engage in fire-fights. Unlike the park’s security personnel, they are not bound by any rules of engagement. And that, Jooste says, makes it an unequal and dangerous situation for the rangers.

Further stacking the odds against the anti-poaching units is the vastness of the 20,000-square-kilometer (7,700-square-mile) park and the general lushness of the terrain. There are only 339 rangers doing regular foot patrols. It becomes a matter almost of luck to catch the poachers, who slip back and forth across the border and are able to use the cover of the dense bush as they search for their quarry.

 

Thick bush can often give poachers an advantage against the few hundred rangers who must look after thousands of rhinos in Kruger, a conservation area not much smaller than Massachusetts. Photographed in Kruger National Park, December 2012, by David Braun.
Thick bush can often give poachers an advantage over the few hundred rangers guarding as many as 10,000 rhinos in Kruger, a conservation area not much smaller than Massachusetts. Photographed in Kruger National Park, December 2012, by David Braun.

 

As part of its campaign to alert the public to the growing crisis, SANParks has been taking media parties on excursions in Kruger Park to show them what the terrain looks like in which most of the rhino poaching happens. They also showed how patrols were being carried out by the rangers, all of whom have been combat-trained, much like regular soldiers. 
It was demonstrated how rangers armed with assault rifles and carrying basic survival kits spend up to 14 days at a time on patrol. At night they sleep in the open or in small camouflaged tents.

When poachers are spotted, or a shot is heard, or a spoor or a rhino carcass is found, their reports are assessed back at headquarters in Skukuza , Kruger Park’s main camp, where  geometric wall charts in what resembles a war room map out the different terrains and the poaching hotspots. Back-up units, including dog handlers, get rushed to the scene, some by helicopter, to go after the poachers.

The media groups also saw some sites of rhino killings and how forensic evidence was gathered, including DNA samples of the dead animal for the rhino DNA bank being developed at the University of Pretoria’s veterinary school outside the country’s capital of Pretoria.

Seasoned journalists flinched at the brutality of the scenes. The marks on the ground around the carcasses showed that the downed animals must still have been alive and struggling when their horns were hacked out of their heads. The poachers are said to be reluctant to waste bullets on wounded animals. They want it all done as quickly and quietly as possible.

 

Forensic experts inspect the carcass of a poached rhino in Kruger National Park  for clues that could be of help in prosecutions. Photograph by Leon Marshall
Forensic experts inspect the carcass of a poached rhino in Kruger National Park  for clues that could be of help in prosecutions. Photograph by Leon Marshall

 

The conflict has become a threat as well to the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) which President Nelson Mandela and Mozambique’s President Joaquim Chissano initiated  in the late 1990s and which was signed into existence in 2002. Part of the agreement was to systematically drop the high-security boundary fence separating Kruger Park from Mozambique’s adjoining Limpopo National Park. 
Much of the 375-km boundary fence is still up, but some sections have been taken down and other parts have been allowed to fall into disrepair, all for purposes of allowing the animals to cross back and forth between the parks.

The fence dates back to the anti-colonial and civil wars that raged throughout the region during the latter part of the previous century. The idea behind doing away with it was to create a sprawling wildlife kingdom that would vastly extend the animals’ roaming areas and become a far bigger tourist destiny than Kruger was already offering on its own, with economic benefits in particular for Mozambique and the impoverished communities on its side of the border.

Jooste mentioned that part of the solution to the poaching problem might be to put back the high-security fence to make it less easy for poachers to slip across the boundary and to help prevent Kruger Park’s animals from straying into Mozambique where, it is said, rhinos in particular are dead the moment they do so.

 

A game ranger shows journalists a collapsed portion of the boundary fence between Mozambique and Kruger National Park. Photograph by Leon Marshall
A game ranger shows journalists a collapsed portion of the boundary fence between Mozambique and Kruger National Park. Photograph by Leon Marshall

 

Conscious of the serious implications for the ambitious transboundary conservation scheme, Jooste picked his words carefully. Putting back the fence, he said, was not part of SANParks policy right now. But it might become part of the solution. It would have to be decided what kind of fence it should be and how it would affect the GLTP. It might be put back only in critical areas (where most incursions are happening).

Fencing the Border Counter-Productive

But the Peace Parks Foundation, which South African industrialist and philanthropist Anton Rupert set up in the 1990s, with Mandela and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands as its patrons, to promote transfrontier-park schemes, has warned that putting back the fence would not only destroy the project but indeed be totally counter-productive. 
Its chief executive, Werner Myburgh, has said that communities living in Mozambique’s adjoining Limpopo National Park have just recently agreed, after years of tough negotiations, to be resettled outside the park for purposes of consolidating the transfrontier arrangement.

The relocation is being done with millions in funding from the German and French governments.
 This funding could dry up if a return of the boundary fence is seen as a failure of the project. This would cause the villagers to stay put and perhaps lead to more people moving into the park, thus creating bigger settlements that would offer an even better springboard for the poachers to make their sorties into Kruger.
 Myburgh explained: “We  cannot resort to anti-poaching operations alone. We need to take a more innovative approach. There needs to be a whole suite of actions. A successful transfrontier park where matters like security are co-managed could be a major deterrent also to poaching. We are three to five years away from realising a fantastic dream. Let us not destroy it.”

The situation is a far cry from the relationship of trust that existed between the two countries up till a few years ago when Kruger Park donated more than 3,000 head of game to restock the war-decimated Mozambican park.
 South African officials say arrangements are, however, underway for a high-level meeting between the two governments to try to resolve the situation, which has become so serious that there are even hopes of bringing together the two presidents to see if they can resolve the matter.
 At the recent meeting in Bangkok of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), Mozambique came under strong pressure to account for its failure to contain the poachers and rhino-horn smugglers on its side of the boundary. It was given a year to come up with appropriate action or face trade sanctions.

Under Mozambique’s conservation laws, poaching is still only a misdemeanour, allowing poachers and smugglers to get away with no more than light fines.  The South African media has in recent days been reporting how poachers and their smuggling-syndicate handlers brazenly plan and carry out their sorties from along the Mozambican border area. There have even been accusations of security-force collusion with the syndicates.

Do you have a question for Leon Marshall? Please add them in the comments section below and we’ll get back to you.

 

Vultures await their chance at the site of a dead rhino. Photograph by Leon Marshall
Vultures await their chance at the site of a dead rhino. Photograph by Leon Marshall

Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Cape Town
    July 28, 2013, 8:29 am

    Sadly it’s not the poachers who are soley to blame – it’s the demand created for the horn. Poachers get next to nothing out of the deal, its the “fat cat’s” who do, albeit governments who fail moral governance. South African farmers are farming Rhino to mitigate extinction of the species however, thier farms too are being raped for horn! Sad to say banking DNA may be the only solution for both the black and white Rhino genus.

  2. dawn clark
    worcester, ma
    July 25, 2013, 3:04 pm

    sorry my comment is not related tho I am definitely against the slaughter of all creatures; I was wondering if you know where I could send my 13 year old female macaw to be taught to live in the wild fly free and mate and not be in danger ?

  3. dawn clark
    worcester, mass
    July 25, 2013, 2:56 pm

    Sorry it s not related tho I am definitely against the slaughter of all creatures; I was wondering if you know where I could send my 13 year old female macaw to fly free and mate and not be in danger? Thank you I hope you can help me

  4. David Forbes
    South Africa
    May 20, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Obviously we need a multi-pronged approach. Diplomatic moves between presidents. Force Vietnam to crack down on imports & begin targeted advertising campaign in Vietnamese and Chinese. Use dogs at all border posts. Bring army in with Bushman trackers and fast response teams. Lie-detector tests for all rangers/park personnel and customs personnel. Helicopter gunships for border patrols. Drones. Legalisation will only increase the market. We have to destroy the market by either pricing the horn out of the reach of most Chinese/Vietnamese, or making it inaccessible. Remember that after rhino comes elephant . . .

  5. flberth wlliam ludovick
    Tanzania
    May 4, 2013, 9:26 am

    This is weird since rhino suffer a lot to the wild here in my country most of the black rhino were brought from s.africa so when i look back and see how the number down there declined it seems like in the future this creature wll be exctinct.

  6. Wildlife Margrit
    May 1, 2013, 4:57 pm

    Someone pointed out the other day that if the USA were invaded and our citizens or wildlife were being attacked like the rhino, elephant and other animals and birds are in Africa we’d fight back. Not via the court system, but with our armed forces.
    Sadly in South Africa poachers are (if apprehended) being processed in the courts and frequently given a “slap on the hands”.
    Maybe it’s time for more real action, military action?

  7. David Braun
    May 1, 2013, 10:41 am

    The most viable solution might be to find a way to collapse the market value of rhino horn. There will always be people willing to commit crimes for a lot of money, especially if there is no decent alternative to earn a living. The South AfrIcan government has to use its BRICS leverage to persuade the Asian consumer countries to crack down more effectively on rhino trafficking.

  8. Martha Spencer
    United States
    May 1, 2013, 7:35 am

    A ranger can’t always be there at the border but a fence can. At least it would make it harder to enter or stall poachers enabling game rangers to get there before a killing.

  9. Martha Spencer
    United States
    May 1, 2013, 7:24 am

    You did not mention, but I read, that this week every last rhino of the 300 rhino in Limpopo park on the Mozambique side has been killed by poachers. There are many news articles on this. I also read that the game rangers on the Mozambique side were involved. The last 15 rhinos were betrayed by them, the article read. No wonder there is a strain between the two counties. In my opinion, the fence has to go back up to help the poor defenseless creatures.

    • David Braun
      May 1, 2013, 10:46 am

      Thank you for bringing the latest bit of disturbing news to our attention, Martha.

  10. Anee-marie White
    Hermanus
    May 1, 2013, 6:16 am

    If the fences cannot go back up (which I dispute), then bring the army in. This is a war, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. Our countrry is being violated, our progress in civilisation halted, our beautiful animals desecrated. This is not a pussy foot situation. It calls for practical and no nonsense action. Do it!

  11. cheryl lancellas
    Ballito,KZN
    May 1, 2013, 5:54 am

    Firstly, my partner who has military training is offering his services for 2 weeks each time he returns from offshore work, so would be 2 weeks every 2 months. Will this be possible, he will happily patrol, man office, anything, and we can round up a few more of our friends. Secondly, why do we not adopt a more stringent punishment ? Or a shoot to kill policy seeing as this has now become a war and the anti-poaching unit is under daily risk for their own lives.

  12. Gina Hall
    Midrand, South Africa
    May 1, 2013, 5:43 am

    What about the infusing of rhino’s horns with that parasiticide and pink dye, rendering the horns useless…

  13. paulm
    Australia
    April 30, 2013, 11:06 pm

    As Africa becomes more interested in economic growth with the colonisation of africa by chinese, indian and middle east the time when big game roamed free is sadly coming to an end.
    These countries need to start collecting DNA now from their most treasured wildlife to assist in the diversity of genetic material when most of these creatures are obliterated/sold off for trinkets bush meat and the like so the houses factories and farms can take over. SAD!

  14. Nigel Goodman
    UK
    April 30, 2013, 8:34 pm

    A successful transfrontier park where matters like security are co-managed could be a major deterrent also to poaching. We are three to five years away from realising a fantastic dream. Let us not destroy it.”

    The Rhino in the Kruger wont survive 5 more years at this rate of slaughter. 21 were list in one week. They are gone in MOZ Limpopo. Next the elephants. Why will the poachers living along the border in big houses leave ?

  15. Luca Frasconi
    Italia
    April 30, 2013, 6:10 pm

    Peace Park’ naïve intentions are amply outdated. They have had 10 years to evict the illegal squatters from Limpopo National Park. How many rhinos have to die because these people want to pursue their grandiose schemes? After years and bunches of money spent in the Peace Parks Project it’s time to take stock of it. They failed, in Kruger situation is much worse now than 10 years ago, they brought down a fence before ensuring the protection of Limpopo NP, making room for poaching. PP Project is not a solution, it is the main cause of the current problem.