Buying time for rhinos in 'The Kruger Republic'  

A Kruger Park ranger heads out on patrol.
A Kruger Park ranger heads out on patrol. PHOTO: JULIAN RADEMEYER 

It is a vast wilderness under a vast sky at 19,485 sq km - almost 30 times the size of Singapore and 18 times of Hong Kong. And it is ground zero, the eye of a web of criminal networks whose tentacles from the borderlands of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe reach deep into South East Asia and China. 

 Their targets in South Africa's Kruger National Park are rhinos, whose horns are prized mostly in Vietnam and China as a symbol of status and for their supposed fever-and cancer-killing properties.  Asian rhinos are also poached regularly to supply the trade.

But the belief is bogus; rhino horn is just keratin fibre - the same substance that makes up nails and hair.

There are active campaigns in Vietnam and China to educate people and dissuade them from buying rhino horns, but changing a deeply set cultural belief is a slow process.

  At any time, more than a dozen poaching gangs are operating, sometimes saturating areas where large numbers of rhinos are found in the Kruger, says a new report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC).

 In 2015, it was estimated that at least 7,500 poachers entered the park, a 43-per-cent increase from the previous year, says the report titled "Tipping Point: Transnational organised crime and the 'war' on poaching''. It is written b Mr Julian Rademeyer, journalist and author of the 2012 book "Killing for Profit".

 Poachers earn as little as US$2,000 (S$2,693) to as much as US$20,000 (S$26,933)- a fortune in their circumstances - when they risk their lives to kill a rhino and take its horn which sells for more than its weight in gold in Vietnam and China.

They enter the park in groups of three or four, usually at night under a moon to light their way.

  "One man will carry a rifle fitted with a silencer, a second an axe or machete and a third will have a few supplies - two-litre Coca Cola bottles filled with water from a river, a few tins of fish, and perhaps a loaf of bread crammed into a garishly coloured backpack,'' the report says.

"Sometimes one of them will be armed with an AK-47 assault rifle. In most cases they carry cell phones, but no radios or night vision equipment. They hunt in jeans and t-shirts. Some are barefoot or wear running shoes and sandals instead of boots.''

 On the frontline against the poachers are around 400 field rangers, 22 section rangers and 15 special rangers - roughly one ranger for every 47 sq km - but less than half of them are deployed at any given time.

They are supported by a dozen investigators, four helicopter pilots, a fixed-wing pilot and three Bantam microlight pilots. All this in a park that is so huge that officials jokingly refer to it as the "Republic of Kruger".

 And that it is a state of war is no exaggeration. As many as 200 suspected poachers, several soldiers, two field rangers and a policeman have been killed in recent years.  In 2015, there were 137 armed "contacts" between poachers and rangers, compared to 111 "contacts" in 2014 and 202 arrests.

 The response to poaching has been militaristic. But the report warns that the poaching has its roots in poverty and corruption and the residues of rebel armies and old border wars. The military solution is not working and is unlikely to work when the broader social and economic issues of the trans-boundary zone are not adequately addressed.

"In the 'poaching villages' in and around the Parque Nacional de Limpopo (in  Mozambique) which, together with the Kruger National Park, forms the Limpopo Transfrontier Park, there is deep-seated anger at the deaths and arrests of suspected poachers'' Mr Rademeyer writes in the report.  

 Mr Albert Valoi, from the village of Mavodze, held up his son's identity card and death certificate. The lad was shot dead by rangers during a "contact" with a group of poachers in June 2015.

"South Africa is killing, not arresting" Mr Valoi said. "Why was an animal's life worth more than my son's?''

 The dead are often buried as heroes in dusty graves, with some of their favourite possessions scattered on them,  covered with thorny branches to keep scavengers out. Songs are sometimes written about them. One song, popular in clubs and bars on the border, names rangers and officials in its lyrics and asks: "What is wrong with you?..Our children are dying. You are killing our people."

 General Johan Jooste, head of special projects at SANParks, the South African national parks agency, echoes the sentiments of many wildlife crime experts when he says: "Victory will not occur in the bush. You can do what you will and you can save a lot of rhinos but you're not going to win.''

  "The high demand for rhino horn means poaching cannot be defeated with force on force. The only thing that can make a difference is taking on the crime networks. Victory will only occur in the courts," the report quoted him as saying.

 But that is easier said than done.

"Worryingly there is growing evidence of the involvement of members of Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) in poaching and rhino horn smuggling,'' the report states.

 "Mozambique is beset by many similar problems (and)... is regarded as a regional hub for drug trafficking, money laundering and kidnapping. The vast majority of poachers entering the Kruger National Park are recruited in small towns and villages in Mozambique.

  "Mozambique is also an attractive option for rhino horn and ivory traffickers. Corruption permeates every level of the State and the country's porous ports, airports and borders make it a smuggler's paradise. So do the laws which punish poaching with prison sentences but allow traffickers to escape with a fine,'' the report says.

 In May 2015, a North Korean diplomat and a Taekwondo instructor were arrested in Maputo, Mozambique's capital, with 4.5 kg of rhino horn and US$100,000. Twenty-four hours later, they were released and the vehicle returned to them.

 Days later, Mozambican police made the largest seizure of ivory and rhino horn in the country's history, and arrested two Chinese suspects. But within days, a dozen of the horns had vanished from police custody, and the two were released on bail - and disappeared.

 "If there is to be any credible chance of protecting the dwindling rhino species in Southern Africa, then addressing the legal loopholes and institutional weaknesses that have allowed the trade to flourish in South Africa's neighbours and other range states must be a priority,'' the report concludes.

  "Transnational rhino horn trafficking networks cannot be addressed in isolation in rhino range states or destination and consumer countries. To have real impact, they must be disrupted along the length of the illicit supply chain.''

 Meanwhile everyday in the Kruger, it is a "war of attrition'', General Jooste was quoted as saying. "We are forced into it to buy time.''

  Mr Rademeyer, the report author, wrote to The Straits Times in an email : "The simple fact is that efforts to combat rhino horn trafficking are largely limited to combating low-level poaching syndicates.''

 "Unless rhino horn trafficking can be addressed along the entire supply chain from Africa to Asia, and the transnational syndicates are disrupted and put out of business, these efforts are doomed to fail."

* Nirmal Ghosh is also Network Member of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.