The well-heeled tourists filing through the modest airport at Hoedspruit – Afrikaans for Hat Creek – look carefree and expectant. Guides are standing by to transport them to luxurious bush lodges offering spa treatments, campfire dinners and dawn and dusk game drives offering a potential glimpse of Africa’s “big five”.
But something is different from the safaris enjoyed by the privileged generations of the past. At the 36,000-acre Moditlo private game reserve near Kruger national park, for example, the rhinos do not have horns – they have been removed for their own safety. And during night safaris on dirt tracks under the majesty of a star-studded sky visitors are warned not to use torches, lest they be confused with poachers.
When guests – usually affluent and white – gaze from air-conditioned bedrooms into the perfect darkness of the bush, few are likely to consider the murderous chase taking place there between poacher, ranger and rhino. For the poachers – usually poor and black – the risks are immense, but so are the rewards.
“When you look at the impoverished communities around us and the unemployment rate in South Africa, you’d have to be naive to think it’s not going to explode,” said Tim Parker, a warden managing Moditlo and Thornybush Nature Reserve, where anti-poaching costs have gone up 500% in the past three years. “Soon there are going to be gun battles. I can see it coming.”
South Africa has more than four-fifths of the world’s rhino population. Poaching is at an unprecedented level, driven by demand in countries such as Vietnam, where horns, used in traditional medicine or as a middle-class delicacy, fetch up to $65,000 (£42,000) a kilo, more expensive than gold. A record 1,215 rhinos were killed last year, almost treble the 448 lost in 2011. As of late August this year, 749 rhinos were known to have been poached – 544 of them in Kruger park, where officials estimate 6,000 well-armed poachers are at large.
But there is another, less reported death toll. Nearly 500 poachers from neighbouring Mozambique alone have been shot dead by rangers in Kruger park over the past five years, it was claimed recently. Joaquim Chissano, Mozambique’s former president, said 82 alleged poachers from the country were killed in the first half of this year, describing them as “destitute, poor people recruited by crime networks who make the real money … Each of these dead Mozambicans means more poverty for his family, because they can no longer count on him to fight for better living conditions,” Chissano noted.
When Grill and Swedish photographer Toby Selander visited the home of a notorious poaching kingpin, they were taken hostage by an angry mob and felt lucky to escape with their lives. The kingpin, not the police, seemed to be calling the shots.
Poverty is suffocating in Massingir and opportunities are scarce. To young men, killing a rhino and delivering its horn can seem a quick way out, earning them as much as 100,000 rand (£5,000) a kilo. To some communities rhino poachers are role models, according to the US state department, based on interviews with nine focus groups in Massingir and other local communities. “They do good things for their communities – send children to school, build nice houses, drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes,” one interviewee said. The study found how residents help organise poaching raids, and make a substantial profit, “without necessarily feeling … they’re doing anything wrong”. The reality is that if one family says no, the poachers will simply go to the next.
“In one discussion, participants stated they see the parks as being ‘for white people, with jobs going to Boers and Zimbabweans’. Some say their children ‘don’t know the rhino’ and have ‘to pay to see a rhino in our own land’. Such conflict, along with a perceived lack of access to resources and employment, is severely affecting the relationship between the communities and the parks, most notably around Kruger, Sabi Sands and Sabi.”
But the poachers are, in the words of one expert, “cannon fodder” and “nothing more than disposable commodities”. A political activist in Massingir, who did not wish to be named because he feared assassination, said 300 to 400 men in the community had been killed while poaching, while the influx of money had led to an increase in drug use and prostitution. “There is big poverty in Massingir,” he said. “If a gangster comes and says, ‘young man, I can give you 100,000 rand if you go to the bush and bring me a horn’, he will go because of poverty. A lot of young men here don’t respect wildlife. They think poaching is a legal activity; they think it’s a job. But if they die it has a big impact on their families. There was one poacher who had two wives and three children. They will now be in deep poverty because he is no longer alive.”
Back in Hoedspruit, the travellers driven straight from airport to lodge never see poor communities such as Welverdiend, said to be another, increasing source of poachers. The toll of rhinos slaughtered in the Hoedspruit area has soared from just five between 1990 and 2010 to 16 in 2011 and 30 in 2014.
Tumi Morema, a ranger at Protrack, an anti-poaching security company, said of the poachers: “Most of them are not educated. What they know is to go to the bush and track animals like they did with cattle and goats at home. They are easily approached by people with money. They will offer you a ridiculous amount of money. I’ve never been tempted but it’s easy to say yes. We all need money to live.”
Vincent Barkas, Protrack’s MD, sat behind his desk running his fingers over a rhino’s rib disfigured by a bullet hole. The carcass is thought to have lain for six months before its discovery last week. “If you look at the average black South African who grows up here, everybody assumes they want to work on a game reserve. The rhino horn for them has become a way out of poverty and for them to achieve their dreams. They think, ‘If I get this I can buy a taxi, I can start a business.’ It’s the only angle they’ve got to change their lives. It might take years to buy a car; a guy with a rhino horn can do it in 48 hours. In Massingir there’s no future for young people. What do you do if you want a cellphone, if you want a car? Are you going to sell fish or charcoal? If one of us lived like that for two or three months, we’d do exactly the same.”
Poaching gangs often consist of three men: one carrying a rifle, one food and water, one an axe to hack off the horn, aided by moonlight and prepared to spend two or three nights sleeping rough in the bush. But in some cases there are one or two additional armed men ready to wage gun battles against rangers. In others, Barkas has noted poachers entering in pairs in the hope of avoiding detection.
“The way they survive in the bush, you can’t help but have a little bit of respect for them. To go into the park at night with a rifle takes some balls. I don’t like poachers but I respect them..”
As ever in South Africa, race and inequality cannot be ignored. Barkas said: “Wildlife is seen as a rich white man’s thing. A poacher is viewed as a Robin Hood in his community, stealing from the rich. Every time a poacher is killed, you turn more people in that community against conservation.”
But white people are also known to be implicated, some of them as poachers, others as syndicate bosses who profit from supplying the Far East.
Convicted poacher Deon van Deventer, who killed 22 rhinos and spent four years in jail, explained: “That was a thing I never planned to do. It was because of a hunting outfit I used to work for. First of all I said no, then I said yes. But people higher than me made all the money.
“It was not nice to do, but I’m an experienced hunter, so it was easy. I regret it. I lost everything in life, even my wife and kids.”
Van Deventer, 47, added: “Most of the people who do rhino poaching are black guys, but you often get white guys doing the instigating. They want them to do the dirty work.”
White poachers are a minority and can use resources such as helicopters, according to Adam Welz, campaign director of WildAid South Africa. Some black poachers, meanwhile, can be motivated by a belief that muti – traditional African medicine or magical charms – will keep them safe, he continued. “They build shrines and treat the rifle like a totemic object that’s been trusted to them by the kingpin. That’s how some of these gangs keep order and deal with the fact that you may well be killed in Kruger.”
But in general Welz, who has been researching public attitudes, warns against oversimplifying the racial dynamic. “In some areas, people are alienated from national parks, but to say black South Africans are not interested in conservation is a gross generalisation.”
The solutions also are complex, and many believe waging war on poaching is as futile as prohibition of alcohol or the war on drugs. Welz said: “Every poacher who gets shot is a husband, uncle, provider, and we can’t forget that. But at the same time we can’t roll out the red carpet and say, come in. We have to de-escalate the violence.
“Killing poachers is not going to solve the problem, because the poverty is high and the incentives are high. If you kill 10,000 poachers, there will be another 10,000 waiting to take their place, unless we solve the problem of poverty in those communities and the source of demand. People are paying ridiculous amounts of money for horn in other countries.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 18 Oct 2015.
We invite you to share your opinion whether Africa’s poachers should be shot on sight? Please vote and leave your comments at the bottom of this page:
Thank you for voting.