Rhino War Intensifies

In the next few months, Kruger National Park (KNP) staff will fit high-tech tracking devices to a large number of rhinos in Kruger. This is one of many measures that are used in an escalating onslaught on Southern Africa's rhino population.

Twice as many rhino have been killed in the KNP in the last 10 years than the total number for the 80s and 90s. Poachers are not restricting themselves to the KNP - extending the killings to game farms and reserves. More than 250 rhinos have been poached in South Africa in the last five years.

Poachers killed more than 100 rhino in the Kruger National Park (KNP) in the last four years. At the end of October this year 41 had already died, five more than last year. The killing is not confined to the KNP. There is a disturbing increase in the number of rhino that are butchered on South African game farms, public and private nature reserves as well as in neighbouring countries. Almost 140 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2008/9.

While opportunistic killings cannot be ruled out, experts believe syndicates are responsible for most of the illegal rhino deaths. This has become evident from joint investigations by SANParks' environmental crimes investigation (ECI) unit and the South African Police Service (SAPS).

In one operation the task team arrested 21 poachers and confiscated numerous weapons, including firearms and a crossbow, as well as ammunition. In March, ECI and the police arrested Asram Cassin whom they believe has been responsible for 80% of rhino horn out of South Africa last year.

KNP rangers are responsible for the integrity of their sections and are in the front-line where criminals do not hesitate to kill man or beast. The stakes go up with every onslaught. The battle demands vigilance at all levels - and resources. SANParks is spending R5,2 million in training and equipment.

An additional 57 highly trained field rangers have been deployed to areas identified as poaching hot spots in Kruger. One such area is the Malelane / Stoltznek / Pretoriuskop region where the rangers and ECI recently arrested eight suspects and recovered four firearms.

In the next few months, a large number of rhino in this area will be fitted with tracking devices; a daunting tasks which kicked-off with the first four animals done on November 26. Counter-poaching activities are now far more flexible as rangers are no longer bound by office hours, following a revision in their working conditions.

They have received new high-tech night vision equipment and all rangers now have motorbikes. The park has replaced its 4-cylinder Bantam aircraft with a 6-cylinder and a second Bantam aircraft will be based in the northern section of the park. The rangers' communications system is also being upgraded.

The KNP team has arrested more than 30 poachers this year and there seems to be less poaching incidents on the eastern border of the park. However, with a 450 kilometer border and an estimated 12 000 rhinos roaming two million hectares to protect, South Africa's conservation custodians will need all the help they can get.

By Lynette Strauss

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