By Sheree Bega
Johannesburg - In the war against rhino poachers, Major General Johan Jooste fears losing one of his most important battles: keeping up the sagging morale of the exhausted rangers of the Kruger National Park.
His force of hundreds of rangers and soldiers were on the front line as South Africa recorded its worst year for rhino poaching in recent decades, with over 1 000 of the animals slain last year, more than 600 in the Kruger alone.
Every day was a crime scene, a running battle with ever-daring poaching gangs.
That hasn’t changed.
“There is a feeling of not getting the job done. That we’re failing,” says Jooste. “But it’s up to us as a country – all donors, state departments, conservationists and the public – to back up our rangers.
“We’re saying let’s match the input of the rangers. The pure sacrifice, hardship, the dangers they live with, the threats on their lives. We had 55 firefights last year. Even in the days of the war, that is rare. Every day, there are murders. What goes with that? The impacts on their families, the spotlight on them in police investigations.”
It is a year since Jooste came in from retirement to command the anti-poaching unit in the Kruger. At his age, 61, it’s “about making a difference”. He has experience and “some wisdom” on his side.
“Unfortunately, the days without a casualty or carcass are few and far between. This place (the Kruger) gives new meaning to 24/7. My wife and I visited all the ranger stations over Christmas.
“Ja, you meet a few guys. But for most of them there was no Christmas. It was just another day. We could send a few on leave. So it goes on weekends, day in and day out.”
For Jooste, there are small victories. The projections were that 750 rhino would fall in the Kruger last year, but the final toll was 606. “We didn’t bring numbers down ultimately, but at least the gradient of that graph is more favourable, but the number (of killings) is still going up.”
The carnage continues with more than 20 rhinos slaughtered this year.
Jooste dreams of converting Kruger’s rangers into an anti-poaching force to be reckoned with, the best in Africa. But this will take time.
“We have two to three armed incursions a day on average. You don’t just take people and make them a paramilitary force. It’s a three-year programme. The tracking skills take long to build, the other skills in terms of almost counter-insurgency operations you have to teach the people. We have to improve our reaction capability from the air.
“We want ultimately to have more successes outside the park than in. Once poachers are inside the park, it’s too late… The ultimate victory of this war won’t be determined in the bush, but in the boardroom, in the courtroom.
With most poachers coming from Mozambique, the country needs to rein in the slaughter.
“We have to have police take out the syndicates, we’ve got to be more proactive and have intelligence stepped up outside the park. We are doctoring our symptoms. Poachers – there’s thousands of them waiting to poach. It’s a low-risk crime that pays well.”
The demand for rhino horn to feed black markets in China and Vietnam, where it is used as a status symbol and for its “medicinal” properties, is surging. For South Africa’s rhino, it’s an unfolding disaster. Consider that in 2007, 13 rhino were killed.
Populations of white rhinos are dangerously close to reaching that tipping point “between this year and 2016” where at the current rate of poaching, deaths of rhinos may outstrip births for the first time, warns Dr Mike Knight, the chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group.
“I struggle to sleep thinking about it,” he reveals. “The last thing I want to be doing is seeing the demise of rhinos on my watch. The scary thing is the escalation and why it has come about; primarily because of transnational organised crime.
“But we’re not seeing the Presidency stand up and say this is not only wildlife crime – it’s economic sabotage. Any government should be quivering in its boots.”
It’s an “error” to believe that the Department of Environmental Affairs can solve the crisis alone. “We need greater co-ordination and co-operation between key government departments, such as Safety and Security, Environmental Affairs, Sars, Customs, the NPA and Ports Authority, which is on paper in some places, but not working efficiently.
“We’re not making sure that they are talking to each other and sharing information. Silos do not necessarily make good bread. We have to look at demand reduction (in consumer countries). We’re not getting the information in there fast enough. And we need a form of regulated trade in horn, but the devil is in the details.”
Increasingly, public interest in the plight of the rhino, is fading, he believes: “two years ago rhino poaching was the buzz of the month. It’s almost like the government and the public have become immune. Now, people say, ‘ag, it’s just like the rapes, murders’. People become insensitive. The key is having dedicated people focused on sharing a single goal, to break organised crime.”
Have patience, says Hawks spokesman Colonel Johan Jooste (no relation to the major general).
“We’ve got all the structures in place. Look, there’s always room for improvement with regards to better co-operation and better intelligence. This is rhino crime, but there are also other crimes that need priority attention.
“I think the resources allocated to rhino poaching are reaching their limits, but hopefully with everyone’s personal commitment, we can make a difference. If you look at last year’s convictions, or at how people got fines as penalties in 2008, now they get 6 to 10 years in jail. That’s excellent. We’ve also laid down the foundation for better international co-operation between receiving, and supply countries.”
The Department of Environmental Affairs has its own wishlist for this year: the increased involvement of communities, emphasis on cross- border collaboration; “enhancing actionable intelligence” to enable South Africa to disrupt transnational criminal networks; increasing the conviction rate; converting the present ranger corporations to be the best anti-poaching network and strategic demand reduction initiatives.
It will work this year to understand “mechanisms towards the legal trade in rhino horn” to convince the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2016 to flood the black market with its stock-piled horn.
The department plans to sign memorandums of understanding with Laos, Thailand and Hong Kong this year and with Mozambique later this month.
“These agreements are a good first step but we really need to see action right now,” Dr Jo Shaw, the manager of the rhino programme at WWF-SA (World Wide Fund for Nature) points out. “I think there is growing recognition that what we are dealing with here is transnational syndicated organised crime.
“It’s a new challenge for conservation… We are learning to fight smarter and musn’t give up. What we need to see is a more co-ordinated international approach that focuses on disrupting these syndicates.”
WWF, she says, will start implementing its behaviour change campaigns against rhino horn consumption in countries such as Vietnam this year. It can’t come soon enough.
“We’re getting closer to reaching that tipping point where the deaths of rhino start to exceed the births. This year, may be the year that happens, or it could be the year we start to see a reduction in poaching… SA has brought rhino back from the brink before. We can do it again.”
For Jooste (of SANParks), South Africa will only overcome the onslaught “when we treat our rhino like gold”.
“Right now, rhino horn is the most expensive commodity gram for gram on the planet. Who could have foreseen this demand, five years ago? That 1 000 rhino would be killed?
“The final test will only be numbers coming down. No one is impressed with us right now. This is a relentless scoreboard that is watched nationally and internationally. There is no remarks column.”