There is great concern that a “white rhino war” is looming in the Kruger National Park (KNP) and surrounding areas.
By Lynette Strauss
Since October 2007, about 20 white rhinos have been killed in and around Kruger, including in neighbouring Mozambique. Eight suspects have been arrested, two of whom were injured in a shoot-out. One alleged poacher has been killed. These incidents occurred in the northern, central and southern parts of Kruger, Mpumalanga as well as in Mozambican territory bordering the park.
In the most recent incident, three carcasses were found in the Mbhatsi area in the Nwanetsi section of Kruger's Nkayeni region on Monday, March 3. A white rhino bull and cow had been shot, while lions caught a calf, believed to have been with the adult rhino at the time of the shooting. It was the sterling work of the Tshokwane section's field rangers, Martin Ndlovu and Difference Mabunda, that set the actions in motion leading to the discovery of these carcasses. The two rangers were on patrol in the north eastern corner of the Tshokwane section close to the Mozambique boundary on Sunday morning March 2, when they heard shots at about 08h30. It sounded to the two Tshokwane field rangers like the shots were much further north in the Nwanetsi section. They alerted Nwanetsi section ranger, Thomas Ramabulani, and set out on a six-kilometre walk towards the Nwanetsi section.
At about 10h30, the field rangers managed to inform Tshokwane section ranger, Steven Whitfiled, who had just returned from a motorcycle patrol. Steven immediately contacted Bruce Leslie of the Corporate Investigation Service (CIS) who, in turn, cautioned the wardens of the adjacent Sabi Game Park, situated in Mozambique, before he left for the area. "As too much time had now elapsed from when the shots had first been heard, I decided to use the Bantam [aircraft] in search of a possible carcass," says Steven. After combing parts of the Nwanetsi section for some time, Steven returned to Tshokwane to collect Bruce. Again they flew over the section, but failed to find anything. "I spent almost seven hours in the air on Sunday," says Steven.
On patrolling the adjacent "Majekejekeni" area in Mozambique, later on Sunday afternoon, the Sabi Game Park team found tracks of a vehicle which had recently entered and also left the area. This is believed to have been the vehicle used by the poachers to access the area in Mozambique adjacent to Kruger before entering Kruger on foot. Early Monday morning, Steven and Bruce set out in the Bantam again while the Tshokwane field rangers were on hand in the Nwanetsi section from 06h30 to assist Thomas on the ground. After again searching the same area as searched on Sunday and finding no signs of a carcass, it was decided to progress further north and also west with the search. It was not long before the Bantam team spotted the fresh carcass of a big white rhino calf lying in the Mbhatsi stream.
The aerial search was then intensified in the vicinity of the calf carcass, and produced the further carcasses of a white rhino bull and cow lying approximately 10 metres apart. Both rhinos' horns had been chopped off, while indications were that lions had killed the accompanying calf after it had been left defenceless after the cow had been shot. This incident took place only about three kilometres southeast from where two other rhino had been shot barely a month prior. When the distance was later measured on a map it turned out that the Tshokwane field rangers had been 14km south of the poachers when they heard the shots on Sunday morning.
More Nwanetsi Rhino Killed
On February 1, field rangers from the Nwanetsi section found a white rhino carcass in the veld less than one kilometre off the tourist road in the park. It was about six kilometres from the Mozambican border. Not sure whether the suspects were "tourists or poachers from Mozambique," Thomas called in the CIS team. As he was investigating the scene, Bruce advised Thomas to search for another carcass, as poachers usually hound more than one animal at a time. On February 6, the rangers discovered a second carcass in the same area. Both rhinos had their horns removed by the poachers. Rangers also found the carcass of a black rhino bull in the same area in March this year.
Not Isolated Incidents
These are not isolated poaching incidents in the Nwanetsi/Tshokwane area. In October last year, while on a routine Bantam patrol, Steven came across the carcass of a young white rhino cow in the Shishingedzeni area, along the Mozambican border. Its horns had not been removed. The post mortem showed the rhino had been shot three times, probably three to seven days before it died. "The fact that the horns were still intact made me suspect that the rhino was either wounded in Mozambique and finally ended up in Kruger, or that it was shot by poachers from the border into the park." Further investigation revealed that four rhinos had been killed in and around the Sabi Game Park in Mozambique. Two suspects, well known poachers Gulum and Vanea Ndlovu, were arrested in Mozambique in connection with these incidents.
They were, however, only in jail in Mozambique for two weeks before being released.
It is speculated that they paid the associated fines for the poaching of these rhinos and were then released, as Mozambique legislation does not allow for jail sentences for environmental crimes. A third suspect, who is well-known for poaching in the area, escaped arrest. This came after Tshokwane field rangers patrolling the Mikhayeni area noticed three armed men on the Mozambican side of the fence. They alerted section ranger Steven Whitfield who in turn liaised with CIS. Using the SANParks helicopter, together with the Mozambican police, they found the poacher's camp and vehicle in Mozambique not far from the fence. Bruce returned to Skukuza and the Mozambican police arrested the two suspects after a successful ambush.
A vehicle, .458, .303 and shotgun, as well as numerous rounds of ammunition and other equipment associated with poaching were recovered. All the rhino in the recent spate of poaching had been shot using either a .458 or .303 as indicated by bullets recovered from the carcasses. While much of the Mozambican land between the Olifants and Crocodile rivers and bordering Kruger has been allocated to concessions such as the Sabi Game Park, there are areas that are not part of this buffer zone. Many of the poaching incidents have been concentrated here, notably the Mbhatsi - Majekejejeni regions, which are historical poaching hot spots. It is believed that security can be stepped up if this land is also incorporated into a concession, be it existing or new.
Nxanatseni and Marula Regions
The poaching war is also waged in the Nxanatseni and Marula regions of the Kruger. On March 18, a Vhembi magistrate granted Sebestioa Ngulele (49) bail of R35 000. He was in possession of two rhino horns when arrested in Nxanatseni's Vlakteplaas section in Kruger in October last year. Ngulele resides in a nearby village in Mozambique. It is feared another rhino could be poached in Kruger to pay Ngulele's bail. In January 2008, Giyani Baloyi, the son of yet another notorious poacher in Mozambique, was arrested in the Mooiplaas section. He was injured in an ambush and is still in custody in Phalaborwa. In the Marula region, one alleged poacher was killed and two others arrested after a shoot out in the Stolznek section in December 2007. Three rhino were also killed on the farm Morrisdale in Mpumalanga.
In KwaZulu Natal, a horse trail group found three white rhino carcasses on March 14, 2008. According to Sapa, Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife park officials say the rhinos had been shot and their horns removed at Lake St Lucia in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.