Inside SA's Rhino poaching war

The poachers fear the dogs, and the dogs fear the leopards

De Beer is in charge of the park’s canine unit. He’s tall, burly, and gives orders like he’s used to having them followed. He’s been a police officer for 23 years, 21 of them as a dog handler. When asked if he’s ever been shot at, he pauses, and smiles, almost nostalgically, blushes, and says “ja”, as though savouring the memory.

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De Beer stands next to one of the kennels inside the park’s canine unit. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

He does not want the unit’s location revealed and suggests we say “somewhere in the south of the park”.

And in the park, the poachers fear the dogs, and the dogs fear the leopards. Some of the kennels are still under construction. They all need to have roofs otherwise the leopards will get in at night and kill them.

“If you have a few dogs and one leopard, then they’ve got a chance, but if there’s just one dog, no,” he shakes his head.

“We buy them, already trained, from the suppliers,” he says. They cost R60 000 and their upkeep is about another R1 000 a month.

Killer, a purebred Malinois (Belgian Shepherd), is one of the park’s “target assets”.

He arrests about 80% of poachers in the park. His handler Amos has been placed on leave “because he’s been under a lot of strain”, De Beer says.

Killer is so vicious he recently snuck up behind a SANParks spokesperson and bit him in the back of the thigh, just because he could. And he earned a special mention in the Skukuza Periodical Court during prosecutor Ansie Venter’s arguments in aggravation of sentencing of Elliot Manzini, a Mozambican caught in the park with a hunting rifle in May.

“Women and children, he doesn’t like them,” De Beer warns.

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The dogs are trained closely with one specific handler. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

De Beer estimates that so far this year about 80 poachers have been caught in the park, between 15 and 20 of those with the help of the dogs.

Gladys, who does her duties at the park gates, gets hardly any attention compared to Killer. Johan takes her in his arm, where she wriggles with joy. The 4-year-old black and white Springer Spaniel is small enough to get into and under cars where she can sniff out ammunition and firearms. She was easy to train, but keeping the long hair clean and free of knots is not easy.

The facility’s buildings were sponsored by the US embassy, and the kennels and “other stuff” by the Howard Buffet foundation. There are sleeping facilities for 12 people, kennels, and dog runs.

“She's very fast, she's very accurate at tracking spores”- Allie the dog hunts rhino poachers

The dogs have to be trained to follow human, and not animal scent, and to get into and out of helicopters, otherwise they’ll be distracted for the rest of the day. Factors like rain and temperature affect how long a poacher’s smell remains behind.

“On a hot day the scent evaporates much easier. On a grassy trail the scent sticks much easier. At night it’s cooler, so the scent stays longer.”

The dogs can follow poachers for up to 32km.

“We work some tracks up to 28km, and insert new dogs every 5 to 8km. We can go up to 32km.”

De Beer recalls one case, in December 2013, involving Badger, a German Shepherd Shorthaired Pointer. He got out of the helicopter and began following the spoor of a group of poachers.

“He went straight up to them. They were sleeping. He got a fright. He jumped back and went up to them again. He’s not a biting dog. He’s a tracking dog.

“They were quite surprised,” he recalls of the poachers.

They had shot two rhino and were caught with four horns, a rifle, axes, and food.

Living amongst rhino poachers not easy for field rangers

Bafana has learnt to deal with the rhino poachers in his village by keeping his distance. “You must be safe. Keep a nice distance, because you might end up being tempted, because you will see how easy it is,” the 36-year-old field ranger and dog handler says.

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The bond between Bafana and his dog Ally is even more evident in their downtime between tracking. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

He prefers that we use Bafana, his nickname, instead of his real name, and not show his face in any photographs, as he does not want to attract unwanted attention.

“For the people who don’t know me now, they will start searching for that person. But for the people I’m staying with now, it’s not a problem,” he explains.

“Somebody must do it anyway. If it wasn’t you, somebody else must do it,” he says of his work.

He’s tall, athletic, and good looking. The subject of living amongst the people it is his job to stop makes him uncomfortable.

He nods when asked if he knows people who have poached rhino and taken their horns. His confidence seems to slip. He swallows hard, licks his lips, and adjusts the R1 rifle which is slung across his shoulder.

They have no jobs, they’re young, but suddenly there is the car, he says.

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Ally is a German Shepherd crossed with a Malinois (Belgian Shepherd). (Dan Calderwood, News24)

He’s been a field ranger for 12 years, the last three of them with the dog unit. Ally, his German Shepherd crossed with a Malinois (Belgian Shepherd) for added cleverness and stamina, pants as she sits by his feet.

He explains that he has developed a “mechanism to survive” with the poachers in his village, which is on the outskirts of the park. He will do his job and leave the investigating and arresting to the investigators and police.

“We’ve got units, intelligence, ECI, all those units with Saps. For me to live better I stick to my job… They do understand that I’m just doing my job. I’m not doing somebody else’s job.”

When he goes to his local shebeen and watches a game of pool, he makes sure he doesn’t stay for too long in order to avoid being approached.

“I can’t stay for longer than 30 minutes because every youth is involved. They keep asking me, why can’t you come with a horn?”

And the rangers do find rhino horns. The animals die, they fight. And in 12 years of service he has found many horns. But he says the money does not tempt him.

“It’s painful when you see this very big animal lying down. It’s very painful. Sometimes they shoot the mother and baby, or they take the horn while the animal is still alive.”

He has three children, a daughter, 15, and two boys, aged 12 and 13. They don’t fear for his safety.

“The way we talk they can see me very happy. They just see it as a normal job.”

His father was a field ranger, but later became an ambulance driver before working for Telkom.

“I just liked the job when I was very young. I’m very happy when I’m in the Kruger National Park. I meet a lot of people. I like the way people visit from all over the world.”

And his job? It’s not only about looking for poachers. He needs to look out for sick animals, keep an eye on the availability of water, and look after his dog.

He’s got a good rapport with Ally. He was allowed to choose her and explains what made him choose her.

“She was young, beautiful. She looked very clever. She was always jumping.”

When he’s on leave, he sometimes phones the unit to check on her.

“Too much,” he laughs when asked if he misses her.

“Then they tell me she’s getting fat.”

Nobody is allowed to take her into the bush except him. When he’s away someone else can take her out every morning and evening to feed and briefly exercise her.

He understands when Ally has an off day.

“The dog is not a machine, but an animal with blood, brains and a heart. I can read when she doesn’t want to track.”

“Just make sure that you and the dog are friends.”

Rhino money buys many people

“How aggressive must I look?” Major General Johan Jooste jokes as he poses for a photographer. His boot rests on the skid of one of the green and yellow Airbus AS350 B3e helicopters the Howard G Buffet Foundation donated to the park recently. “They say I mustn’t talk about a war, I must talk about a campaign,” he adds.

(Dan Calderwood, News24)

A relaxed Major General Johan Jooste leans against a SANParks’ helicopter. (Dan Calderwood, News24)

His olive green uniform is slightly faded but neatly ironed, and his brown boots polished to a shine, the result of 35 years of being a soldier – he retired in 2006, and has an MBA.

“Officer commanding, special projects, Kruger National Park,” he says rapidly and firmly when asked for his designation.

He’s used to giving interviews, answers questions with practiced ease, and avoids using the first person.

While the more down-to-earth Rossouw talks of how vultures and hyenas “stuff up the crime scene”, Jooste uses military jargon like “force multipliers”, “air platforms” and “situational awareness”.

“One is really concerned. This is a strategic matter. It’s a matter of national, international interest. People must however not be alarmistic, you know,” he says.

Rhinos will not go extinct, but the onslaught against them is serious and the numbers need to come down.

When asked about solutions, he marches out platitudes like “the communities must partly own the park”, but understands the complexities of the matter and the difficulties facing people living around its 20 000 square kilometres.

If more of the people living next to the park benefited from it, they would not harbour poachers or be lured into the criminal economy around poaching.

“Rhino money buys many people. And if you have no other prospect, a person that ordinarily would not have been – a person that is a normal South African, used to the hardships, used to the poverty – might just consider why not, why not do it once or twice, and your whole life changes.”

His five-year contract ends in 2018, and he is realistic about what he has achieved so far, for the first time speaking about himself in the first person.

“I’m not now lamenting that I haven’t achieved anything. But the numbers are not down, so that’s not good enough for me. One would really, by then [2018] want to see a downward curve. And if we don’t do it by then, you know, crisis becomes catastrophe.”