Rangers in danger too

11 December 2012 - 02:01 By SCHALK MOUTON
Poachers have slain 395 rhino in the Kruger National Park so far this year. File photo.
Poachers have slain 395 rhino in the Kruger National Park so far this year. File photo.

RANGERS in the Kruger National Park could start dying along with the rhino.

Kenn Maggs, head of the environmental crime investigation unit at the park, says his team frequently gets death threats from poachers.

"They would leave signs in the sand near the border telling a specific ranger, 'We're coming for you'," said Maggs.

"We have to adhere to the rule of the land. They don't."

In Zimbabwe, poachers actively target rangers and, while this has not happened in South Africa yet, Maggs said his team anticipated it would.

The number of rhino killed so far this year in the Kruger National Park is 381. This is 19 more than the 362 the Department of Environmental Affairs listed as killed when it released figures on November 7.

To date, the total number of rhino killed in South Africa this year is 618.

While Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa signed a memorandum of understanding with her Vietnamese counterpart yesterday, Maggs said park rangers were fighting a "low-intensity war".

Prices for rhino horn increased on a daily basis, he said, with poachers becoming more aggressive by the day.

Maggs works with more than 420 rangers, in addition to police and army personnel, but the odds remain heavily stacked against them.

The Kruger National Park is more than 20000km² - the same size as Israel --and the rangers have to cover the area on a regular basis.

"The terrain is hostile, and we almost have to fight the park itself as there are vast areas where there are no roads at all."

Border fences do not keep poachers out, and Maggs believes that there could be as many as 15 groups of poachers operating in the park at any time.

"We are dealing with good bush men, a lot of whom have some kind of military training and belonged to some kind of militia. And they know the bush and how to hide their tracks."

Poachers also boast increasing access to money - which they can use to bribe or recruit people - due to the increasing demand for rhino horn in east Asia .

Rhino horn has become a status symbol among Asians who now enjoy a greater disposable income than previous generations.

"We recently arrested a level 2 poacher [low-level poacher], and we searched his garage.

"In an open trunk in his garage, he had R5.1-million.

"And we had arrested the same guy a month-and-a-half before that and he had R3-million in the trunk of his car," said Maggs.

He believes the demand for rhino horn in Asia needs to be curtailed if poaching is to be stopped.