By Christopher Torchia
DINOKENG GAME RESERVE, South Africa — On one side of a major highway lies Hammanskraal, a poor township in South Africa's most populous province. On the other side lies a "big five" park that is home to the lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant — and rhino, one of which was killed by poachers last month in a challenge to the model of conserving wildlife near urban centers.
The 20,000-hectare (50,000-acre) Dinokeng Game Reserve is unusual because, while it features animals most associated with the danger and mystique of the African wild, it also lies close to big cities.
There are concerns that visitors will get out of their cars and be attacked by a beast, but it is the wildlife that is more at risk. In April, poachers killed a rhino with a single bullet from a high-powered rifle and cut off its horns in the first such incident since the reserve officially opened in 2011.
The rhino is one of about 300 to be killed so far this year in South Africa in a surge of poacher activity linked to rising demand for rhino horn in Vietnam and China, where some view it as a status symbol or a cure for serious illness, despite no evidence that the horn is an effective medicine. Many poachers are poor people who sell the horn to international buyers. The price reaches tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram (2.2 pounds) by the time it reaches the consumer, according to conservationists.
The rhino kill in the Dinokeng park is a stark test for a conservation area situated next to communities where many people struggle to make a living. While no arrests have yet been made, the park's general manager, Piet Venter, said it is difficult to protect the animals in the fenced-off reserve because of poverty in the area.
"You can't blame the community for trying to snare animals," he said, referring to a "bush meat industry" in which poachers kill wildlife to stock community butcheries.
A drive on stretches of the park's dirt roads, lined with scrub and occasional herds of antelope and other animals, can make visitors momentarily forget they are in the greater metropolitan area of Pretoria, South Africa's capital, and just over an hour from the main international airport in Johannesburg. There is also a casino in the area. Most of the park lies in Gauteng province, which has more than 12 million people, amounting to nearly one-quarter of the South African population.
Passengers on a boat cruise on a Dinokeng lake can see hippos pop their heads above the surface, as well as egrets, cormorants and other birds perched on tree branches or flitting across the water. And yet, in some parts of the park, highway traffic is audible and the lights of neighboring Hammanskraal are visible at night. The township is a shopping spot and transport hub. A month ago, people demanding better bus service and lower fares clashed with police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at them, according to South African media.
This week, the reserve management said it was trying to resolve a new problem — the occupation by squatters of some of its land.
One Hammanskraal settlement, named after slain anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, consists of government-supplied housing as well as metal shacks and sits at the entrance to the wildlife park. Tour guides bring some park visitors to the settlement's Freedom Walls restaurant, where they sample traditional food such as pap, or porridge, and atchar, a mango-based condiment.
Police are investigating the death of the 8-year-old female rhino, whose carcass was found on April 18. Poachers were not deterred by signs on park fences warning that rhino horns had been injected with a poison that would harm anyone who ingests the horn in a powder form. The park is ramping up armed foot patrols and suspicious vehicles will be searched.
Challenges include limited funding and a dearth of rangers. Two public roads run through the reserve, making it difficult to monitor traffic. Dinokeng is still struggling to educate people not to get out of cars in an area where wildlife roams. Speed bumps slow down vehicles, but a rhino was among a number of animals killed on the roads in past years.
Dinokeng's stakeholders include provincial authorities, the local community and private landowners. Venter, the manager, said the park has 13 elephants but he declined to say how many rhinos there are for fear that poachers could use the information.
Venter said he was very sad to lose the rhino last month, but he was at least thankful that it wasn't pregnant.