Are we winning the battle? “Not yet” says retired Gen Johan Jooste, (SANParks commanding officer special projects), admitting that in face of the increasing number of poached rhino in the Kruger National Park, the end of this battle is not nearly in sight. Yet, there is hope.
At any given time, there is an average of 12 poaching groups active in the KNP, sometimes more, he says, “we are experiencing up to 80 armed incursions per month,” he adds. “At the height of our war in the old days something like this would have been unimaginable.” As the number of rhino poached in Kruger alone this year soars to almost 500, and almost 800 nationally, Jooste says that nobody could have foreseen that it would escalate like this.
The battle to be fought is not easy. “At more than 2 million hectares, the park is massive,” he adds. Internationally, the norm is one ranger per 20 square kilometres, and one per 10 square kilometres if the park is under armed protection. To meet that standard, Kruger would need 2000 rangers. Currently, they already employ around 500 but even if they could train and employ over a 1000 more, where would they stay? “building houses alone would take years”.
The immense task resting on the shoulders of the rangers is also taking its toll. “This is not a nice place for them to be at the moment,” says Jooste. The training and payrolling alone are extremely demanding but the psychological strain is also huge. Rangers have to stalk poachers in the bush and are only allowed to shoot if they are being aimed at first, often with something like a .375 that can shoot through a elephant. Consequently, SANParks has established a rangers’ support group that includes psychologists, for them and their families.
Jooste says the solution is multipronged. Essentially, this is an international problem, he stresses. This is the last cache of these animals in the world, and with a concurrent escalation in international wildlife crime, South Africa, and particularly Kruger, is sitting at the exact point where supply and demand meet. This problem is global, continental and regional and affects all of government and our people, he says. According to him the key is collaboration. “We are talking with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, government, representatives from America and Asian countries, Mozambique, all park neighbours and many more,” he says.
Their five-year plan includes a ranger of elements such as the use of technology, an enlarged task force, creating an intensive protection zone around core areas of the park and managing the rhino population itself. Even though the anticipation was to see an improvement in the poaching numbers after the first year (2013), Jooste says they can only hope that they are putting the right strategies and building blocks in place to see the integral results in four years time. The aim is to then see a 20% decrease in poaching numbers per year.
In order to reach this goal, we need to throw everything into the battle, he says, which means a joint, inter-agency, multinational approach. Vitally, they also need you. “South Africans should match the contributions of the rangers,” he says. While a child can throw R1 in a box, a director general of a department can contribute more. “Now is the time”, he urges.
“We need partners, support and international collaboration.” For the men in the street, the most important is to give their active support to accredited funds, he says. They are placing big hopes on the support from the recently launched Bavaria campaign, one of the first to carry the SANParks seal of approval. This ensures that all money donated goes into a ring-fenced fund to be spent where it is most necessary.
Secondly, people are urged to lobby support. “Wherever you are, please spread awareness of the problem to facilitate widespread support.” Jooste says their fear is that they will only receive the necessary support after the tally has hit 3000 carcasses. “The biggest risk that we are running,” he says, “is that too little would have been done, too late.”