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Editor’s Note: This is part 1 in a three-part series on helicopter operations in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Follow the series at verticalmag.com/kruger. Our reporting was made possible with the support of Airbus Helicopters.
As Mbongeni Tukela recalled, it started in 2008.
“One Saturday morning, we lost a rhino.” Then it was another, and another — 11 more that year, he said. By 2009, rhino poaching in Kruger National Park had become an epidemic.
“It was incessant. It just happened every day.” Tukela is a former park ranger who now directs the operations center at Kruger National Park, the sprawling South African wildlife refuge on the border with Mozambique. “We threw everything we had at them,” he said. “We were making arrests, but the poachers never stopped coming.”
Ten years later, the poachers still haven’t stopped coming, and the Kruger remains a central battleground in the fight to save rhinos from extinction. Historically, poaching cycles in Africa have waxed and waned over the decades. No one has pinpointed a single driver for the most recent, sustained wave of poaching, although likely factors are increasing wealth and demand for rhino horn in Asia — where the product is both a status symbol and traditional medicine — as well as poverty and longstanding social resentments in the local communities from which poachers are recruited.
What has made the current cycle of poaching especially pernicious is the widespread involvement of organized criminal networks. Their deep pockets have upped the financial stakes considerably, providing poachers with stronger incentives to undertake their risky work, and more resources to evade prosecution. Conservation organizations like South African National Parks (SANParks), which administers the Kruger, have felt forced to reciprocate.
“We’ve had to throw a lot of technology at it; we’ve had to throw a lot of men at it,” said Tukela. From his office at Skukuza Airport in the south of the park, Tukela monitors anti-poaching operations across the Kruger using customized command-and-control software, which consolidates rangers’ reports and location data onto a single screen. “I can see the activity and understand what’s happening in the entire area,” he said, explaining that this “big picture” helps him decide how to allocate more expensive resources such as K-9 units, and SANParks’ four Airbus H125/AS350 helicopters and two Cessna airplanes.
These investments, supported by benefactors including the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, have made a difference. With helicopter and K-9 support, two suspected poachers were arrested on the morning of our interview with Tukela. As we visited with him, SANParks chief pilot Grant Knight called to report that six additional suspects had been apprehended across three separate operations, with no rhinos lost.
“Not bad for a Monday,” Tukela reflected. Wins like these, he said, help sustain the morale of SANParks rangers, many of whom have “battle fatigue” after a decade of intense anti-poaching ops.
The pressure is unlikely to let up. According to Kobus de Wet, SANParks national head of environmental crime investigations, his Vietnamese informers tell him, “You know when it will stop? When we poach the last rhino.” But SANParks rangers aren’t ready to give up the fight.
“They’re passionate about it,” Tukela said. “They say, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ If the poaching will stop, the rhinos will respond positively.”
There are two species of rhino at Kruger National Park, white and black. Cathy Dreyer is the park’s black rhino surveillance and monitoring coordinator. She explained that visitors to the Kruger are more likely to see white rhinos, both because of their greater numbers and because, as grazers, they prefer open grasslands.
By contrast, the smaller black rhinos are browsers who spend most of their time in dense brush, where they’re harder to spot. “If they are crossing a road, they’re not going to walk slowly across the road like a white rhino. You’re going to get a fleeting view of it, and it’s going to be gone and into the thicket,” she said.
Both species are threatened by poaching, which Dreyer suggested is largely “opportunistic.” However, there are so few black rhinos remaining that every animal lost has a disproportionate impact on the species as a whole. According to the World Wildlife Fund, conservation efforts have helped the global black rhino population double from a historic low 20 years ago. But the species remains critically endangered, with only around 5,000 animals worldwide.
Those staggeringly low numbers are why, in October, SANParks’ veterinary team was making a special effort to save a female black rhino who had been shot in the foot during an unsuccessful poaching attempt. By the time she was discovered by rangers and recovered to a secure boma, or corral, she had worn completely through her sole. The veterinary team had put a cast on her foot, but she kept wearing through that, too. “It’s not like a person who can stay on crutches,” Dreyer said, noting that the rhino was also suffering side effects from the high doses of antibiotics required to prevent infection.
Treatment efforts like these are unusual for the SANParks team, explained Dr. Peter Buss, the Kruger’s veterinary senior manager. While domestic animal veterinarians treat individual animals as a matter of course, wildlife veterinarians are typically “much more interested in populations and in systems,” he said. Indeed, through an initiative called the Black Rhino Guardian Program, most of Dreyer’s work also revolves around systems: collecting data to better describe and manage the black rhino population in Kruger National Park.
However, with fewer than 500 black rhinos remaining in the park, extraordinary measures are sometimes warranted. In October, as she fed the injured rhino segments of the succulent plant called tree euphorbia, Dreyer acknowledged, “We’re not sure if we can get her healed . . . but with the numbers being what they are, we must try.” Dreyer pointed out that even in a worst-case scenario, lessons from the animal’s treatment would be used to refine protocols for treating gunshot wounds in rhinos — which, unfortunately, remain frequent occurrences.
“It’s eight, 10 years down the line now, so a lot of people have just moved on,” she said. “But it’s important for people to know [that] rhino do get shot daily in Kruger, and there are tons of orphans — tons of orphans — that are sometimes hacked with machetes when they’re tiny things, like days old, because they come and try and protect mom when the poachers are busy. So there [are] gory and horrific things, and people still need to know what’s happening.”
Looking back on the surge of poaching that began around 2008, SANParks helicopter pilot Charles Thompson recalled, “We were caught completely by surprise when it started happening. We were just putting out fires.”
Like two of his colleagues in the SANParks Air Wing, pilots Jaco Mol and Grant Knight, Thompson came to flying from a conservation background, not a law enforcement one. “We were game capture pilots — we were really good at catching animals,” he said. When it came to anti-poaching, “we had to quickly learn, and it was trial-and-error.”
In 2008, SANParks was flying two Airbus (formerly Eurocopter) AS350 B3 helicopters, having upgraded from the Eurocopter EC120 in 2006. In 2014 and 2015, funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation allowed SANParks to acquire two additional AS350 B3e (now called H125) models to expand its anti-poaching operations.
Before 2008, SANParks’ helicopters supported conservation projects across South Africa, but in recent years, the scale of poaching in the Kruger has necessitated that all four aircraft be based in the park full-time. Between them, they log around 2,000 flight hours per year and could easily fly more, if SANParks had more than four full-time helicopter pilots.
“For four aircraft, to operate them 24 hours a day, we would require triple the amount of pilots,” explained Mol. “One of our biggest problems is crew availability.”
The helicopters support anti-poaching operations in a number of ways across the Kruger’s 7,500 square miles or 2 million hectares (an area larger than Connecticut). The park relies on rangers to identify incursions and begin tracking suspects; then, helicopters are used to fly in K-9 units and provide top cover when contact is imminent.
“Suspects tends to hide from aircraft, and because they’re hiding, they can’t run,” Mol said.
The flying can be dangerous. Arrests are sometimes preceded by shootouts, and SANParks helicopters have been targeted on multiple occasions. The Air Wing has consequently installed ballistic measures in its helicopters, a highly unusual modification in a civilian aircraft. The armor provides protection, but comes with an increased weight penalty.
“Experienced [poachers], they get to know what our limitations are in the aircraft,” Mol observed. “You see a constant adaptation and change in tactics.”
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game all the time,” echoed Thompson, noting that while poachers may be drawn to the work from poverty, they are formidable adversaries: extremely fit, used to their conditions, and highly driven. “You have to have respect for them,” he said. “If you don’t have respect for them, you will underestimate your enemy, and you will fail.”
No easy solutions
The dynamics of anti-poaching operations — which typically involve deadly weapons in austere environments, with existential stakes for the animals involved — lend themselves naturally to military terminology. That is why it is common to speak of a “war on poaching,” and indeed a handful of conservation groups have embraced an explicitly militarized approach to their work.
For all of its advanced technology, however, SANParks holds the perspective that poaching is essentially a criminal problem, not a military one. Animal lovers on social media may call for poachers to be shot on sight, but SANParks employees understand that such attitudes are fundamentally incompatible with democratic norms (not to mention counterproductive, since even the killing of poachers in self-defense can stoke outrage and resentment in local communities). “We are doing all we can to respect human rights,” said the Kruger’s chief ranger, Nicholas Funda.
Locating and apprehending poachers is therefore only half the job. Rangers must follow correct procedures of arrest and later be prepared to present evidence in court. Meanwhile, SANParks investigators working under de Wet meticulously document each crime scene, collecting evidence including human DNA — which can aid in prosecutions — and rhino DNA, which can link recovered horns to specific poaching incidents within the park.
Investigators also collect information on the crime syndicates that orchestrate the poaching. “This is organized crime, that’s why it’s so difficult to put a lid on it,” said Tukela. Corruption and a lack of international cooperation have made it hard to prosecute high-ranking individuals within these organizations, while many lesser prosecutions are stalled within South Africa’s judicial system, he said.
Like other law enforcement “wars” — such as the war on drugs — the war on poaching presents no easy solutions. Long-term success will require addressing demand for rhino horn in consumer markets. Along the way, greater community engagement might help, as would more vigorous measures against corruption. On a tactical level, the Kruger’s front-line defenders would like to have more money, manpower, and technology to help them solidify the gains they’ve made thus far.
“There’s no silver bullet for any of this. Nothing is going to solve everything,” acknowledged Thompson. But the prospect of a world without rhinos is why so many people are committed to trying something.
“This is basically the last stand of the animals in a wild area . . . it’s a critical period now,” Thompson said. “But there’s a lot of good will out there, and there’s a lot of people who want to help.”