Inside SA's Rhino poaching war

CSI-like autopsy seeks to unravel clues

Flies climbed over the maggots that writhed in the deep gashes on her face, in her nostrils and in her mouth – which was half opened, like someone exhaling in their sleep.

She had been lying out in the open for five days, with a small hole in her side.

In the sand below her mouth a dirty brown foamy liquid had pooled and mixed with the blood. The same kind of liquid that had spilled out of her ears. She was about 7 years old.

The breeze drifted through the long grass and into the clearing of grey powdery sand where she lay, lifting the stench of rotting animal carcass into the air.

Frikkie Rossouw doesn’t notice. The investigator with the SANParks Environmental Crime Investigation (ECI) unit puts down his backpack and R1 rifle and moves around her quickly and efficiently, like someone who does this often, and who knows he has more to do that day.

“It’s not nice to see. Especially what happens often is some of these animals are pregnant, but you get used to it,” he says.

He’s 13 years from retirement, wiry, balding, with close-cropped hair, a round, tight face with a flattened nose. His eyes match the colour of his faded olive green overall, which has a zipper down the front.

Under his sandy eyebrows his eyes are nothing but two narrow slits when he squints into the light.

This was Monday. They found her the previous day, in the park’s Pretoriuskop section. It takes nearly 40 minutes driving down a rough two-track dirt road, and then a five-minute walk, to get there. She had been killed about five days earlier.

Rossouw had been right when he said it would be a smelly affair, but wrong about her being bloated, because they had sliced her stomach open from between her front legs to her hindquarters. On her back they had peeled back three large flaps of skin like pieces of thick carpet, exposing her spine and the top of her ribcage. The bones were a dirty brown and black, from the tissue covering it that had started to decompose. The vultures had already pecked out the meat. The area where her stomach and intestines would have been was nothing but a mound of dung.

(Dan Calderwood, News24)

Frikkie Rossouw photographs the crime scene before the investigation gets underway. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

“Yes, well, the poachers cut this animal open, cut the skin open, in order for the vultures to quickly get rid of the carcass, to feed on it. But it’s not common that they do it,” he says.

The poachers had shoved a thick branch under her nose, to stop her head from bouncing when they chopped both horns off, hacking deep into the nasal cavity.

“A sharp, big axe. Took them less than a minute,” says one of the field rangers, who has an R5 rifle across his chest, and whose job it is to keep the investigators safe from animals and poachers.

“Yes, they hacked quite deep into the nasal cavity,” Rossouw says.

“If this animal was still alive it probably wouldn’t have survived. And what also happens often is that you will see hack marks on the spine of the animal or the Achilles tendons, which means they shot the animal, but it wasn’t dead when they started hacking the horns off. And then they immobilise it by, you know, hacking the spine.”

They probably came from the park’s western boundary, the South African side, about 8km away.

It’s too late to call in the sniffer dogs since there is no fresh scent and the scavengers have wiped out all other evidence like footprints.

Often carcasses are only found three to four days later. The only thing to do is look for ballistic evidence.

“This is six days later. Dogs won’t be effective here and the suspects have already left the park,” Rossouw says.

Since rhino are not solitary creatures, she had probably been with a sub-adult calf and a bull, who both bolted when she was shot.

WATCH: This animation shows how crime scene analysts figure out how the rhino was killed

Rossouw begins to take photos, disturbing the flies as he goes around the carcass.

He puts a yellow plastic marker with the letter A on it on her side. It slides off. He picks it up and puts it back on, taking another photo.

From a tube in his bag he removes a plastic trajectory rod. He inserts one into the bullet hole. It juts from the hole at an angle, neon pink against the blue sky and yellow grass.

It’s the exit hole, he later guesses, because it’s a bit too big for an entry wound.

“Give me that L-shaped number 1,” he tells his assistant, Thembi. She hands him another yellow marker which he puts next to the rod and the hole and takes a photo.

He puts two knives on her flank. He takes a sharpener, presses it against the rhino’s flank and draws one of the knives through it a few times.

He scans the area around the bullet hole with a metal detector. It crackles and beeps.

“There’s something there,” he says, and slips on his green rubber gloves. The expensive ones keep the stink from clinging to his skin, he points out.

He sticks the knife into her, just behind her left front leg. Using both hands, he begins to saw up, towards the spine. The blade makes a dry, rasping sound, like cutting into a loaf of stale bread. The hide is dark grey on the outside with a layer of white fat underneath. He cuts out a rectangle about the size of a bath towel, with the bullet hole in its centre.

Standing at her spine, using a carving knife, he begins to separate the hide from the tissue below. Once he has some of the hide separated, he pulls a hook through it and hands it to Thembi, who is standing on the other side of the carcass. She pulls it back while he slices at the connective tissue underneath it, exposing pink muscle.

They cut off the flap and lay it on the ground, inside facing up. It has turned sickly green in places. Onto it Rossouw tosses the pieces of meat he carves from the area where he thinks the bullet hole is. Nhlanhla passes the metal detector over them. When the metal detector indicates nothing, they cut the meat into smaller pieces, and scan those.

“Is it complaining?” he asks about the metal detector’s beeping.

“Whatever it is, it’s small.”

They find it, almost by accident.

“It fell out of this piece of meat. Looks like a .375. A fairly popular calibre,” he says. The bronze-coloured, stained slug lies in his hand, the length of about two finger joints.

“It’s a strange shot. It’s funny. Unless there was more than one.”

The bullet he found did not make the hole.

“This wound that we saw here was not from the bullet that we retrieved. So there may have been a second shot.”

He saws through a rib closest to the front leg, down near the chest cavity and has to get his feet out of the way quickly as dark red blood spills out – a lot of it.

“Ja, this went straight through the heart.”

Both shots were fired from the rhino’s right side, the side she fell onto. The first stopped between her ribs, just under the skin. Then they came closer and fired again. That bullet went through.

“Quite often, especially with a .375, which is a high-velocity bullet, it goes straight through, and it’s not a very big animal. And that’s probably the reason why, well that one that we retrieved there, had that much to go and it would have been out,” he says, using his thumb and forefinger to show the distance.

Five or six years ago poachers would use much smaller calibres.

“Especially suspects from Mozambique, you would find them hunting with an AK-47 or the SKS, but that’s not the norm anymore. They all make use of heavy calibre rifles and the norm is either like this, a .375 or a 458. It’s fewer shots, so you’re not detected that easily. Quite often we also find these weapons with silencers on.”

The slug gets measured and photographed and put into a plastic ziplock bag. Rossouw takes his gloves off so he can write on the bag the police station, Skukuza; location, Pretoriuskop, and the date.

They use a small tablet computer to photograph the carcass and capture the latitude and longitude of its location and take a photo of the bag with the bullet.

Samples of tissue and hair are taken to be sent for DNA analysis at Onderstepoort, so the rhino can be linked to her horn “if it’s ever found”.

Rossouw and Thembi cut off pieces of the hair on her tail. Thembi cuts a square of hide from alongside the section that Rossouw sliced off. This goes into a separate jar. And another photo is taken.

“Hmmm, what else? The ear,” Rossouw says.

“Will you go and see if you can get some toenail,” he tells Thembi. She digs her knife in and saws off a piece. It’s dirty on the outside, but as she cuts into it the inside is white.

Each sample goes into its own clear plastic jar with a green lid and gets photographed next to the part of the body it was taken from.

ECI unit understaffed, but coping

The Environmental Crime Investigation unit consists of Rossouw, Thembi and another woman who was busy with studies that day. They have the help of a team of four detectives, but they also have other duties to do. One is off sick and two others are in court on that day.

“And that’s basically the team, but you know, if the frequency of incidents is high, like three or four a day, then you cannot attend to all of those. You have to attend to them as you get time to.”

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It takes Rossouw an hour to inspect the rhino carcass and retrieve all the important information for their investigation. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

Asked whether three or four rhino being poached in a day is the norm, he says: “No it’s not, but it can get up to that, sort of like peak periods. There’s not a norm for what is a peak period or when it’s going to happen, but it happens.”

They’re understaffed, but coping with the help of the police.

“It’s not as if we haven’t got enough people. The job’s not going to come to a complete standstill. With the help of the police currently – after all it is crime so it’s the police’s responsibility, they have to get involved.

“If we can have one or two more teams then we could stay on top of it. But only time and budget will tell.”

Rossouw is a former policeman who later joined SANParks.

“I started off here in Kruger in 1988, way up in the north of the park, when elephant and rhino poaching wasn’t the order of the day. It’s been 28 years of doing this,” he said.

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Rossouw heads back to the ECU headquarters to process the crime scene findings. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

Risky work for rangers

Thembi isn’t her real name. To protect them we’re asked not to name or photograph any of the black rangers who all live near the park.

“People don’t want their families to be threatened, and especially in this section [Pretoriuskop] you have close to about eight people that still live in their communities,” says SANParks spokesperson Ike Phaahla.

“So when they’re off they go there and you don’t know what they do, whether they give information or not, whether it’s been coerced or whether they are volunteering it. So it’s more complex than we think.”

Thembi began her career in the park as a security guard. She took an interest in investigating poaching, asked to become a volunteer, and was taken on courses. After almost a year of helping Rossouw, she’s already doing some of the autopsies and taking samples by herself.

She’s soft-spoken and does not seem to enjoy being the centre of attention.

“It’s not bad when you’re always here. It’s normal,” she says of the smell of a decomposing carcass.

Rossouw hopes she will stay on the team.

“One of our problems is I retire in 13 years time, so do most of the other guys. So we need to find younger people who have a passion for what they’re doing here and then start with the programme, training, mentorship, and so on. So hopefully she also wants to stay with us. We’ll just keep her here,” he laughs.