RHINO POACHING: THE GRIM STATS
“We’re hunting poachers all the time. If you just sit and wait for gunshots, all you get is carcasses.”
So echoes the words of Mark Preston, a former metal worker from Johannesburg who traded a life in the city for one in the bush more than a decade ago. Now, along with a rag-tag crew of anti-poaching rangers, they fight the ever growing issue of rhino poaching.
What started simply as wildlife conservation, has now become something more militaristic, with Preston and his group resembling an image more closely related to paramilitary soldiers, complete with berets and semi-automatic firearms, to help save rhinos.
However, despite the good fight that these gentlemen campaign with, despite the foot patrols, CCTV cameras, special task forces, and everything else being employed to make sure the job gets done, the Hoedspruit area is still losing rhinos on a daily basis. And this reflects throughout the areas still inhabited by rhinos.
Conservationists and anti-poaching task forces all agree on a frightening new trend that’s rearing its ugly head. It seems clear that more and more poaching operations that used to be based in Mozambique and launched in the eastern side of the eastern side of a private game reserve on the border of the Kruger National Park in South Africa are no more, and that operations are now being set up on the west.
In the Kruger Park alone, 750 rhinos have been poached in 2015 alone. Last year, 1,215 have been slaughtered across the country, which, according to Save The Rhino, equates to about one rhino killed every eight hours.
Working in small groups, poachers, armed with high caliber weapons kill the rhinos, whilst carrying smaller arms to protect themselves from groups of rangers such as Mark’s group.
Also, for many, the prize is worth the cost of death. Rhino horn yields more than its weight in gold in both Vietnam and China, driven by a demand as it’s seen as a sign of wealth and where it’s believed to have medicinal properties.
With rhino horn made from keratin, the same protein one can find in a human fingernail, it can still fetch between US$1,100 and US$5,550 for a single ounce on the black market – that’s roughly a staggering amount of between ZAR14,800 and ZAR74,694.
However, with conservationists and anti-poaching rangers having done everything to stop the slaughter of this beautiful animal – from relocation efforts, to protectively removing and poisoning them – all efforts have still been in vein. Now, private and national nature reserves are now resorting to fighting back hard with military tactics to stop the slaughter once and for all.
Paramilitary anti-poaching groups, who put new recruits through agonizing boot camps, are rushing these men into the field to combat these poachers with necessary might and aggression, and they mean business. In fact, just five years ago, rangers were simply trained on conservationism and tourism. Today, it’s a different story, with rangers being taught how to handle weapons and court cases.
Spending months reading signs of the bushveld, rangers are being trained to call in anything that looks suspect; litter, footprints, broken branches might all seem like tourists who don’t really give a hoot about conservationism, however, with the looming threat of rhino poaching, these signs are a surefire indication of poachers being in the vicinity.
With the good that this could do, this bush war against rhino poaching terrors doesn’t seem to be working either.
Vincent Barkas, owner of Protrack, says that by having boots on the ground with guns is what’s needed, it’s also the problem with fixing the problem, as this militaristic stance creates a resentment towards wildlife and nature conservation. And, given that in an area with high unemployment and historical inequalities, there isn’t much love lost for the private reserve who lose rhinos.
In a game where intelligence is everything, groups, the likes of which led by Preston is sometimes a dead-end game, as the individuals supplying the information could easily be leading them on, as poachers are always able to pay more for the right info, making Mark and other rangers’ lives that much more difficult.