A war is on in the South African bush for what is on the nose of one of the Big 5 — the horn of the rhino.

After losing more than a thousand rhinos to poachers in the last three-and-a-half years, South Africa has brought in Johan Jooste to fight what the former Major General calls “a full-blown war involving close-combat guerrilla tactics and fights to the death.”

Well-armed, well-funded, well-equipped, and well-informed, rhino poachers have turned South Africa’s Kruger National Park and game reserves into rhino killing fields. With the horn fetching thousands of dollars in East Asian markets, the stakes are very high and poachers utterly ruthless.

As Reynold Ray Thakhuli, General Manager, Media, Events and Stakeholder Relations, South Africa National Parks, repeatedly says: “We are fighting a low-level guerrilla war with a sophisticated enemy who is better armed, uses GPS and insider information to get the horns.” He is pained at the ruthlessness of the poachers who often leave the animal severely maimed. “To see the giant lying in the bush, horribly mutilated is heart rending,” he says.

The major problem is the sheer size of the Kruger National Park. Spread over 2.5 million hectares, it is larger than Israel and, hence, that much more difficult to patrol considering also the terrain and the usual limited resources the government can spare.

Adding to the woes is the long border with Mozambique which, every one is agreed, is the chief staging point for most poacher raids into Kruger. While South Africa has severe laws to deal with poachers, Mozambique lets them off with a rap on the knuckles or a fine. Thakuli speaks with frustration of capturing poachers after a hot chase into Mozambique only to see the offenders being let off with a fine.

But why this chase for the rhino horn? While there has always been a demand for the horn from East Asia for its perceived medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, it gathered feverish momentum after a minister of an East Asian nation went on TV that his wife was cured of cancer by a medicine made of rhino horn. This sent the demand, and the poaching, careening out of control.

Desperate to contain poaching, South Africa has entered into MoUs with some of the East Asian nations including Vietnam, to curb, report and punish horn smuggling. It is also DNA-tagging the horns so that any horn recovered anywhere in the world can be traced back to the rhino. The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa is involved in this effort as also implanting microchips under the skin/horn of a rhino to keep track of the animal.

But the biggest problem is the locals for whom poaching offers a route to quick fortune. As Thakhuli says, the poaching syndicates are well organised with a hierarchy — from foot-soldiers, who actually go after the rhinos, to recruiters and couriers. The organisation is such that many syndicates even send spotters as tourists to various game reserves. These spotters give the GPS co-ordinates of the rhinos to the gang’s headquarters that then send in the raiders.

But with Major Gen Johan Jooste leading the charge, the gloves are coming off. Rangers, hitherto, responsible mainly for the upkeep of Kruger’s flora and fauna, are being re-trained to take on the poachers. They are being better armed and given sophisticated gear, including night-vision goggles and GPS systems.

It is imperative for South Africa to tackle the poaching menace not just to save a prized species but also because otherwise it stands to lose precious tourism revenues.

A recent article in a South African newspaper spoke of Kwazulu-Natal losing out on tourists if the rhino cannot be sighted. After all, Big 4 is not Big 5.

Writing in Durban’s upmarket English newspaper The Mercury, environmentalist and former Director of Natal Parks Board, David Cook, puts the economic value of the horn lost since 2007 from 1,800 rhinos at Rand 3 billion (5,463 kg). And then, he says, there is the cost of future breeding — half-a-billion Rand more. “Any Finance Minister will sit up,” he writes. Most commentators and every one associated with the national parks and game reserves want decisive and harsh action against rhino poaching. Many NGOs are pitching in by raising funds. “We will win this war,” says South Africa National Parks’ Thakhuli with grim determination. More power to the war.

Horn myth

Contrary to the myth that the rhino horn has medicinal properties, it is actually made of keratin — the same material as our hair and nail. Scientific studies of rhino horn powder have shown that it does not cure any disease. Yet, 668 rhinos were killed for their horns last year and 200 so far this year; 196 in the Kruger National Park alone.

A 1,000-km walk for the rhino

Most people any where in the world will be ready to walk that extra mile to save any animal threatened by poaching. But Fritz Breytenbach is walking 1,000 km to create awareness about rhino poaching among the communities living along the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Inspired by the story of a child who walked 1,000 km to save ship-wrecked men, Fritz decided to walk the same length through the bush, blog about it, and make a film. “Filmmaker Steven Lyon and I are making a film about rhino poaching,” says the 30-year-old, who is head guide at Tintswalo Safari Lodge, a private concession bordering the Kruger National Park.

Starting the walk on May 1, Fritz covered 100 km of TREC 1000, despite stumbling on a hippo and a mamba.

Fritz broke off the walk to attend the INDABA 2013 tourism meet in Durban, but is now back in the bush continuing with the walk. Hoping to cover up to 20 km a day, he expects to complete the walk in 6-8 weeks.

(The author visited INDABA 2013 in Durban as a guest of South Africa Tourism.)

(This article was published on May 22, 2013)
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