What drives a man to partake in a crime where the penalty is death? Are these people that desperate just trying to survive to somehow support their families? Or are they just greedy, motivated by the monetary reward with no regard for the wildlife they destroy?
It's not one world out there. I am not sure I will ever understand.
A field-ranger on an anti-poaching patrol in Kruger National Park, South Africa CREDIT: Getty
Africa’s oldest wildlife sanctuary is struggling to survive as it tries to fend off increasingly sophisticated international poaching networks amid a lack of funds and apathy among impoverished local residents.
Kruger National Park in South Africa was established in 1926 and until Covid-19 lockdowns was reportedly one of the world’s most profitable reserves, attracting more than one million visitors a year to stay in everything from luxury lodges to basic camps.
About the size of Wales, it is home to about 30,000 elephants, 490 different species of birds, including 15 types of eagle, and five million acres of magnificent forests and grasslands.
But tourist numbers have plummeted thanks to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, leaving both rangers and people living on the park’s borders vulnerable to being bribed by poaching syndicates with deep pockets.
These groups are creating ever more complex schemes to get hold of animal parts to illegally ship to buyers in China and Vietnam, with one animal of particular interest: rhinos.
The park's rhino population is in decline CREDIT: WIKUS DE WET /AFP
“We’re doing everything we can, but from a resource point of view we’re overstretched,” Dr Luthando Dziba, head of conservation services for South Africa’s national parks, told local paper The Daily Maverick. “To be honest, it gives us sleepless nights.”
At that rate of depletion, Kruger could have no more rhinos - one of the big five animals that safari parks rely on - within three or four years.
'The consequences are chilling'
“The consequences of that are chilling for the park’s international reputation,” said wildlife writers Don Pinnock and Helen Kriel in a recent report on the issue. “Kruger would no longer be a Big Five game reserve.”
Poaching happens daily in Kruger, with sometimes up to seven groups active there in a day. Since 2014 there have been 19,154 logged poacher incursions, an average of 2,736 a year.
Tip-offs for where to find rhinos and other animals often come from the 2 million or so poor locals who live in the towns around the park. Kruger straddles two largely rural provinces, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, where most residents have never been inside the park.
Many of the communities around the park are poor and vulnerable to bribes CREDIT: Temistocle Lucarelli / Alamy Stock Photo
That means that when poachers come by in expensive cars and offer cash in exchange for information, they find plenty of willing helpers.
Dr Audrey Delsink, wildlife director for the Humane Society International - Africa, said that such crime was “seen as low risk, high reward”.
That’s especially true given the “extensive legal proceedings” and “painfully slow” trials for the few people arrested. A new strategy drafted more than five years ago to improve anti-poaching measures has not yet been approved by the government.
But tip-offs can also come from poorly paid and demoralised rangers - there are currently 82 unfilled posts.
'Until training happens, poaching will continue'
This reliance on inside information is “partly a result of our successes with enforcement actions,” Gareth Coleman, the managing executive of Kruger Park, told The Daily Maverick.
“Just climbing over a fence and going to find a rhino is much more difficult now. So the strategy is moving to [an insider] seeing a rhino, giving the coordinates, and then there’s money in a bank account.”
An army veteran in the area, who asked not to be identified, said that the poachers coming into Kruger were increasingly well armed.
“They are terrorists, and none of the game guards, nor the bosses of Kruger have had military training or experience,” he said. “Until this training happens, poaching will continue.”
The park has seen fewer tourists during the pandemic CREDIT: Shutterstock
These problems are compounded by the park’s financial issues. The lack of visitors during the pandemic has been devastating, and the recent travel ban imposed after the discovery of omicron was a fresh blow. Government loans have now run out.
“We had hoped for a bumper festive season to close the funding shortfall,” said Mr Dziba. “However, the picture has changed since the discovery of the new Covid variant and the closure of borders.”
Kruger’s operating budget has been cut by 66 per cent, while last year SANParks, the company that runs all of South Africa’s national parks, registered a loss of more than R280-million (£13m). In 2019/20, it generated a surplus of R290-million.
It’s a reflection of the broader issues facing the country as it struggles to emerge from the ravages of the pandemic.
“Kruger exists within South Africa and what happens in the park is a microcosm of what happens in the country. I’ve been doing this for 18 months, which is why I have black rings under my eyes,” said Mr Coleman.
He is now working on engaging nearby businesses and meeting locals - which he believes will provide a solution for both the park and its endangered animals.
“How do we turn the economy of Kruger outward so we can ensure the people who are closest to the Park can begin to benefit,” he asked. “How can we put rhinos under the protection of communities?”
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