By Dex Kotze
Last week I was invited by SANParks to accompany the international media on a four-day visit to Letaba Rest Camp in Kruger National Park (KNP). The objective was to expose these correspondents to the war on rhino poachers.
Newsrooms from across the world were given insight into the crisis when they were taken to two recently killed rhino in the Letaba region and witnessed an autopsy being performed by Mr Kobus de Wet, head of criminal investigation in the park.
We were driven for 40 minutes from Letaba and walked the last three kilometres to the carcasses. Accompanied by several anti-poaching rangers, we walked in eerie silence in single file for roughly 30 minutes.
Ahead we could see about two dozen vultures circling in the sky. We knew we were close when the nauseating stench of the carcasses, scorching for three days in the sun, assailed our senses.
Only one of the two rhino was dehorned – the anti-poaching unit found the horn early Monday morning while in pursuit of the poachers who had discarded the evidence when they fled back to Mozambique.
De Wet explained that an autopsy was always performed to extract the bullet from the carcass for forensic evidence. The autopsy lasted about two hours and it was found that a bullet from a .458 rifle had penetrated the rhino’s lungs. One female ranger emotionally mentioned that she had been on duty when about 50 rhino were savagely killed this year alone.
Most of the poachers caught were in their late twenties, which proved that they were opportunists and not necessarily old Renamo soldiers who downed their weapons 21 years ago when a peace accord was struck with the Frelimo government.
The next day we attended the handover of a Gazelle military helicopter to SANParks by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation in association with Paramount, a leading African aerospace and defence group. The Gazelle had been configured by Paramount’s Advanced Technology Division to increase areas that could be traversed and also facilitate air support at night. Critical parts of this helicopter’s capabilities are its speed (up to 310km/h) and night-vision-capable cockpit. SANParks promptly held a demonstration of a poaching-gang arrest, using helicopters, automatic rifles and sniffer dogs. More....