By Kenichi Serino
At Kruger National Park in South Africa, the economy drives rangers to hunt poachers and poachers to hunt for horn
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — Vusi Nyathi went to the bush for rhinos. Not to watch them like some tourist, though. He went for a payday, about $5,000, more than he could make in a lifetime in the small village in Mozambique where he grew up.
Vusi Nyathi went to poach rhinos.
He returned in a body bag of thick black plastic.
Rhino poaching has exploded in recent years, driven by demand in China and Vietnam, where people will pay as much as $65,000 per kilogram for horn — a higher price than for gold.
The demand has resulted in the emergence of syndicates paying hundreds of men, generally poor Africans, to risk their lives and their freedom to kill rhinos and bring back the valuable horns. These men are the foot soldiers in a small-scale bush war pitting them against South African authorities responsible for the largest remaining rhino population in the world.
Ken Maggs, who heads the environmental crimes unit at South Africa National Parks, known as SANParks, says that while South Africa had always experienced poaching, including rhinos, the current spate began after 2007. In that year, 12 rhinos were poached. In 2008 the number leaped to 83.
“For us at the time, it was fairly dramatic, going from losing one animal a month to two or three a month,” Maggs says.
But worse was to come, with rhino poaching increasing exponentially. In 2013 just over a thousand rhinos were killed, and 2014 was expected to be even bloodier.
Maggs has worked on the problems of poaching at Kruger National Park since 1994. There was poaching then, but a ranger’s job entailed mostly aiding conservation and dealing with errant tourists. Today most of the ranger’s efforts are spent in military-style anti-poaching efforts.
More poachers and their unrelenting butchery of the rhinos has changed the nature of a ranger’s work. “It’s escalated to a point where we are spending 80 percent of our time in a pure, almost military-style law enforcement role,” he says.
Despite the demands of the job, few rangers have quit. Maggs is frank about why most stay on: “Employment.”
In the 20 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has struggled with creating jobs, and the official unemployment rate stands at 25.5 percent. This means that many people struggle to find work and that those who succeed are often supporting several dependents.
“You’ll get some individuals that are really heart and soul conservationists, but generally speaking, it is a job, and jobs are not easy to come by,” says Maggs, “To have a job is really important.”
Thomas Shitlhabani knows this. He’s been a ranger for the past eight years, joining up not long after his father died and he needed to find a way to support his family. With his modest salary as a ranger, he provides not only for his wife and small son but also for seven siblings.
He is a member of SANParks’ special operations team, which means he and his partner, Amos Mzimba, often lead the pursuit of poachers. The job is dangerous, as the bush provides cover for poachers who are armed.
“It worries me a lot. If something happens in the bush,” says Shitlhabani, trailing off as he lets out a heavy breath. “You know I fear for my family. It’s stressful. I’m a breadwinner. There’s no one else to support the family. Once I die, it’s over.”
Maggs says rangers like Shitlhabani might have three or four encounters a month, including firefights, with poachers.
“There are some days we will have three contacts or firefights with poaching groups. The poaching groups are relentless. Day or night, it doesn’t stop,” Maggs says. “We are concerned. This intensity, the number of firefights, poachers wounded, poachers killed, near misses are having a psychological impact on not only rangers but their families.”
Maggs says SANParks has contracted with a psychologist to provide its rangers with counseling, which they receive after any contact with poachers. Earlier this year, for the first time, families of rangers received group therapy with a counselor.
That group session included Thomas Shitlhabani’s wife, Yvonne Shitlhabani, who is a cleaner at a Kruger guest lodge. With their son, they stay in a small staff accommodation. Their two-room home is meant for a single man, but they squeeze together by putting a bed in the kitchen.
“Thomas is doing dangerous work. This work is not good, because there is poaching and animals. He is working very hard. I am staying a long time [at home\ when he goes to work. I miss him so much,” says Yvonne Shitlhabani.
Her husband can spend several days at a time in the bush patrolling or pursuing poachers. While he is away, she thinks the worst. “I am thinking sometimes the poachers will kill him,” she says.
What happens in the bush, he keeps to himself. “He doesn’t tell me because he knows I will be afraid,” she says.
Intimidation is another problem. Many rangers come from the same communities as poachers, making the rangers very unpopular. Like one-factory towns, these communities have become dependent on the money the poaching industry brings.
“Such a large amount of money is being generated by rhino poaching that whole villages are being driven and kept afloat by illegal activities, money generated from rhino poaching,” Maggs says. “Some of the rangers worry about going home, because they may be accused of being a sellout — particularly more when you have poaching individuals killed by rangers."
Mzimba has experienced this firsthand. He recently participated in the arrest of his cousin, who was a field guide at Kruger and from the same village. While in jail, his cousin beat a fellow prisoner, knowing the victim would later see Mzimba at court.
“He did it to send me a message, ‘Tell Amos that I am coming,” Mzimba says.
Only one ranger has been killed and another wounded during an anti-poaching operation, both in the same friendly-fire incident. But rangers and their families live in fear nonetheless. While Maggs worries about that as well, he’s also fearful that a ranger will kill a poacher and be convicted of murder. More....