By Kim Helfrich
While it has been declared a national priority crime, the slaughter of rhinos does not appear to be decreasing – the first 21 days of 2014 saw 40 rhinos killed in the Kruger National Park alone.
“To date this year 46 rhino carcasses have been found in Kruger, which is bearing the brunt of the ongoing rhino carnage in South Africa,” SANParks acting head of communications, Reynold Thakhuli, said.
The condition of the carcasses indicates six animals were killed last year - bringing the national 2013 kill toll to 1 010 - with the remaining 40 carcasses all fresher kills.
Proof that the park’s counter-poaching corps, under the leadership of retired SA Army general Johan Jooste, is serious about bringing down poaching incidents by at least 20% in the short term comes with four separate contacts last weekend.
Seven suspected poachers were killed in firefights and four hunting rifles, ammunition, poaching equipment and a pair of rhino horns seized by rangers.
To date this year Kruger counter-poaching operators and soldiers have killed 11 suspects with two arrested and eight firearms in total confiscated.
“Well over 80% of incursions are from the Mozambican side of the border. Multiple incursions of up to 15 heavily armed groups operate in Kruger at any given time especially during the full moon period. They operate in groups of four to six and are aggressive, engaging and shooting at rangers on sight, creating a life threatening situation on a daily basis.
“The recent recovery of a handgun at a contact scene suggests elevated levels of aggression from the poaching groups. This heightens the fear of losing a ranger to a poacher’s bullet,” Thakhuli said.
Soldiers deployed in the game reserve have as their primary task border protection as part of Operation Corona but they work closely with the ranger corps and other law enforcement agencies as part of the national anti-rhino poaching operation. Headquartered at the Sand River base, soldiers are deployed along the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe and also patrol with rangers on counter-poaching duty.
The local defence industry is also supporting counter-poaching with two aircraft - a Seabird Seeker Mk II and in November last year a Gazelle helicopter - coming from the Ichikowitz Family Foundation to boost aerial surveillance capacity. A Seeker UAV supplied by Denel Dynamics is also adding to the surveillance capacity in the park and its use, almost exclusively at night, provides additional real-time information on the movement of suspected poachers.