By Tony Carnie
Durban - South Africa’s rhino war for this year is off to another bloody start with seven poachers killed in a series of weekend gunfights with rangers in the Kruger National Park.
Eleven suspected poachers have been killed this month alone in the flagship national park by SA National Parks (SANParks) rangers and members of the SA Defence Force. Most of the gun battles happened at night after poaching gangs crossed the border from Mozambique.
At least 40 rhinos have been shot by poachers inside Kruger this month, with no let-up in the bloody rhino war that led to the record slaughter of 1 004 rhinos nationwide last year.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Officer Commanding the Kruger Rangers Corp, Major-General (Ret) Johan Jooste, revealed that there were “multiple incursions of up to 15 heavily armed (poaching) groups in Kruger at any given time”, especially during the full moon period when poachers were able to stalk rhinos at night in the hope of evading detection from the air and ground by anti-poaching patrols.
“They operate in groups of four to six. They are aggressive and engage and shoot at the rangers on sight, creating a daily, life-threatening situation,” he said.
Jooste said the recent recovery of a handgun at a contact scene suggested elevated levels of aggression from the poaching groups.
The latest deaths happened this weekend when there were four separate engagements between poachers and rangers in different parts of the 2-million hectare park.
SANParks said in a statement it was “appealing to the South African public to support efforts by rangers to stop the massacre of our natural heritage by greedy poachers, who are promised wealth by syndicates”.
Rangers also confiscated four hunting rifles, ammunition, poaching equipment and a pair of horns at the weekend.
The death of the seven latest suspects brings to 11 the number of poachers killed in contacts with SANParks rangers and military units this month.
Jooste said at least 123 rhino poaching suspects had been arrested last year inside Kruger. Nationwide, at least 343 suspects were arrested last year.
“We would like to ask the public, law enforcement agencies and our counterparts in Mozambique, to play their part, match the work that is being done by the rangers and we will reap the rewards and win this war,” he said.
SANParks did not respond to queries on Tuesday on how many suspected poachers had been killed in Kruger last year.
Last week, the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC noted that the death toll of 1 004 rhinos last year was the worst on record.
“The figure is more than 1.5 times the official figure of 668 rhinos killed for their horns in 2012 and brings South Africa’s white rhino population ever closer to the tipping point when deaths will outnumber births and the population will go into serious decline,” it said.
Mozambique was widely seen as both a transit point for rhino horn smuggling activities and an operational base for poachers who cross the border to kill rhinos.
“South Africa and Mozambique must decisively up their game if they hope to stop this blatant robbery of southern Africa’s natural heritage,” Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s rhino expert, said.
This year “must mark the turning point where the world, collectively, says ‘enough is enough’ and brings these criminal networks down. Rhino horn trafficking and consumption are not simply environmental issues, they represent threats to the fabric of society”.