Rhino poaching: behind the scenes with South African rangers

14 October 2015

By Alex Crawford, special correspondent in South Africa, Sky News

Promising not to give up, the rangers of the Kruger National Park are positive they will win the war against rhino poaching despite the disappointing increase in the number of deaths of these animals. New efforts include using Squirrel helicopters to find the poachers.

British news group Sky News was given exclusive access to South Africa’s new rapid response anti-poaching unit to witness the efforts being made to stem the deaths of rhinos in the country’s largest national park.

The work to stop rhino poaching falls under one of the pillars of the National Development Plan of the South African government, namely to protect and enhance the country’s environmental assets and natural resources.

Winning the war

Despite the increased efforts and extra money being used to fight the rhino wars, the number of rhinos poached is up by nearly 30% in the Kruger National Park alone. But the teams on the frontline insist they are winning.

“We now have four (helicopters) in our fleet to cover an area the size of Israel. It’s a big area to police,” said helicopter pilot Jaco Mol.

The park also has night vision equipment to scour the vast area. It has increased its K9 dog units to strengthen its paramilitary-style approach to poaching, and has raised the number of animals it is relocating to safer, secret locations on private game reserves.

Rangers believe there are between 12 to 15 groups of poachers operating in the Kruger at any one time. They come in groups of about three, armed with hunting rifles, sometimes even silencers to cut down the possibility of being heard.

The rangers need to be quick to catch poachers at work. They could hack off a rhino’s horn within a few minutes “if they’re experienced”, explained section ranger Rob Thomson. Then it’s a mad dash to the park’s border fence, which could take days depending on how far they’ve come into the reserve.

The culprits

Syndicates sell the horn on the Far Eastern black market, where the keratin can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. They recruit poachers from the poor communities along the Kruger boundary fence.

It is suspected that cattle herders are used as “scouts”. They apparently innocently move their livestock along the fence, while also acting as “spotters” of rhinos and the rangers.

“He just needs to phone the poacher when he sees a rhino at the river near the fence, the poacher comes back and next thing, the rhino’s dead,” said Thomson.

How the rangers operate

Rangers are radioed in and follow the poachers’ spoor. Despite co-ordinating ground and air teams, and mobilising a sniffer dog and his handler, the poachers’ track appears several hours old.

During a raid on a group of poachers, ranger Andrew Desmet was shot several times. Determined to combat rhino poaching, however, he was back in the field after his five-week recovery.

Watch how the Kruger National Park teams work:

Orphaned rhino

Operation Save the Rhino also involves rescuing and caring for young rhino orphaned by the killings. Without their mothers’ protection, calves are vulnerable to attacks by other wildlife.

If rangers spot an orphan, they will do their utmost to make sure it is taken to the Care for Wild Africa centre set up to cater for rhino young.

The exact location of the centre is a secret, for the rhinos’ security. Although the orphans are kept under 24-hour guard, one has already been poached. Volunteers – mostly from abroad – pay to help take care of these endangered creatures.

Petronel Nieuwoudt, who runs the non-profit company, warned: “If we don’t do something to save the next generation of rhinos, then the species really will be wiped out.”

Watch Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa speak about the interventions of the South African government to curb rhino poaching:

Source: Sky News