Giraffe and zebra scatter as the shadow of our helicopter passes over Kruger Park. Treetops whip and hornbills fly away. We are low now, and begin to circle as nearby elephants trumpet in defiance. A Ranger called Neels pulls the starboard helo door open and leans out with his gun. Our headsets are full of chatter, and everyone’s in a hurry. It’s been a full hour since a local Ranger reported hearing the shot—a .458, popular among rhino poachers. By now, it’s likely the poachers already have cut the rhino’s face and taken the horn.
And then we see it, between the Ironwood and Marula trees: a mother and calf. The mother is dead, but her horn is intact, the poachers having been scared off before we’d approached. The surviving calf, a young male, nuzzles his dead mother for protection from the helicopter. Rhino calves are known to stay by their mother even as hyenas eat her body from the inside out.
This was at least the fourth such call received today by Rangers at Kruger Operations Center, who oversee the 19,485 square-kilometer Kruger National Park and game reserve in northeastern South Africa. This is a war. And this autumn, while working through EDGE, the counter-poaching and conservation organization that I co-founded in 2017, I got a peek at the front lines.
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Kruger National Park, roughly the size of Israel, is one of the largest and most ecologically diverse parks in the world. On morning drives, we are charged by bull elephants and attacked by baboons. We watch leopards walk up to our car, as rhino and kudu and giraffe pass by. It is truly a kind of paradise, unique even among other African preserves. And so it’s easy to forget that this paradise is also a flash point in the battle against poaching.
The park is maintained and controlled by Rangers, under the direction of Regional Ranger Don English, a true expert. Section Rangers control various parts of the park. And under them operate the Field Rangers, who work in the bush for days at a time, tracking and confronting the poachers. Kruger is losing Rhino at a rate of approximately 10 per week, with other species such as elephant, lion and pangolin (a large anteater, hunted for its meat and unique scales) under attack as well. Since the market for these animals exploded in recent years, the Rangers have struggled to get the upper hand.
As part of these countermeasures, 29-year veteran Bruce Leslie, the park’s Head of Special Operations, has hand-picked 20 Field Rangers to staff a team informally known as the “Lions.” These Special Rangers represent a dramatic evolution in the anti-poaching war. Leslie, whose right hand bears scars from a leopard attack, is training his men in tools and tactics more commonly associated with military warfare: night-vision technology, thermal imaging, intelligence gathering, and the use of Malinois Belgian Shepherds to track and engage poachers (the same breed and capabilities as are used by U.S. Special Operations K9 teams). Like the soldiers who fight drug dealers in Mexico or fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Rangers go by one-word names such as Witness, Wiseman and Present, in order to protect their families from poacher retribution.
Of course, poaching isn’t unique to Africa, or to our time. But poachers’ methods have changed. In the past, parks such as Kruger were a place for what might have been called speculative hunting. Criminals would collect some horn, or lion paws, then try to sell them where they could. Groups such as the Endangered Species Protection Unit ran clandestine stings to capture these fortune hunters.
Things got noticeably worse beginning in 2007, when a more ruthless enterprise to slaughter rhino began targeting Kruger and other areas. In 2003, there were 13 rhino killed in the park. By 2015, that number exploded to over 800. The horns are worth an estimated $60,000 per kg on the black market, where they are ground up into powder and sold to the gullible as pseudo-cures for cancer and impotence. The influx of more money into the criminal trade has brought a new level of sophistication and cruelty. Some poachers, for instance, are known to poison elephant carcasses as a means to kill the vultures who feast on the carcasses—since they know the Rangers rely upon the birds to help spot fallen animals and map the movements of poacher teams.
The men who fight the poachers are inspiringly devoted to their work, despite modest pay. Each one I’ve met has a personal connection to the area and the campaign to protect its animals. Corporal Thomas (I will not use full names) came to the Rangers following the death of his brother, also a ranger, from illness. Another lives in the park with the rhinos full-time, out of fear that he’d be at greater danger beyond the park’s confines.
The poachers, too, are locals. Many are friends and even family of the Rangers. Poverty is rampant in this part of the world. And the offer of what amounts to a year’s salary to hack up a single animal is hard to turn down. Many locals have never seen a rhino, and so feel no emotional connection to its existence.
Behind the poachers lie more sinister foes—the black-market conglomerates that control the trade at a wholesale level, often from bases in southeast Asia. Destitute villagers may split 120,000 Rand (about $8,000) among them for a single horn—minus the cost of the guns they buy to do the job. The horn’s value is many times that when it hits the market, being more valuable, ounce for ounce, than gold.
Some collectors prize an entire horn. But mostly it is ground down and sold as a powder. You could make a similar substance from grinding up your own fingernails—or an ordinary barnyard animal’s hooves—since the structural material in all these things is the same, keratin. It is only medical superstition that vests this common stuff with the artificial value that fuels so much African carnage and despeciation.
The use of middlemen serves to obscure the true operatives from the low-level poachers. Further north, I’m told, there are reports that groups such as Boko Haram get funding from illegal wildlife trade, and that the same trade pipelines are used to traffic sex slaves and weapons— though such reports are disputed and difficult to prove. (For more on this debate, I recommend Keith Somerville’s Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa; and the 2015 documentary film Warlords of Ivory, in which National Geographic’s Bryan Christy tracked the fake-ivory trade to Joseph Kony’s Ugandan child-abduction cult, the Lord’s Resistance Army.)
In 2010, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tasked a fact-finding group with investigating links between poaching and terrorism in South Africa, which involved interviews with Rangers and other park officials. Nothing concrete came of this investigation. But as Congressman Ted Poe of Texas wrote for CNN in 2014, “According to an 18-month investigation commissioned by the Elephant Action League in 2011, the [Somalian] al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab generated between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from tusks. This vast sum of blood money accounted for about 40% of Al-Shabaab’s total operating budget. These terrorist poachers not only kill African Animals, but are accused of murdering 60 Wildlife wardens in 2012 as well.”
Thankfully, anti-poachers are forming their own networks, too: Officials in Kenya, Namibia, Mozambique and other parts of Africa are consulting with Kruger’s Rangers to improve their operations. This is part of the mandate of EDGE, which works in various countries to co-ordinate information and training to assist in developing robust animal security. Co-ordination is critical, including the tracking of emerging market trends. Some items—lion paws, hedgehogs, ivory, pangolin scales— are used by traditional muti doctors to make purported remedies. Lion paws often are boiled or ground down and sold as fake tiger paws in Asia. In some northern areas, elephant ivory is back in demand because the rhino have all been hunted, and so there is no horn to be had. Poachers now are pushing further south, like a wildfire gutting a forest. On every trip to Kruger, Rhinos seem a little harder to find.
Direct engagement is just one tool in the fight against poaching. There are also sting operations used to identify criminals, community education campaigns, animal orphanages and breeding programs, and tourism. The field work of the Rangers is the last line of defense. Before the crack of a rifle betrays the poachers’ presence, the Field Rangers try to find them first—by looking for what they call spoor, a general term describing the footprints, broken thorns and communication symbols (such as tied sticks) left behind by poachers as they sneak through the park.
Though the park is beautiful, it can be just as deadly to the Rangers as the poachers. From the venomous Mamba to the leopards, lions, crocodiles and even poisonous thorns (not to mention the buffalo, which can be surprisingly dangerous), there are many ways to die in the bush. One learns quickly to listen to the warning signs, which may be communicated through the movement of oxtails or the flight path of insects. Native knowledge is paramount in the fight.
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It’s Friday evening. We’re enjoying an evening braai (or barbecue) on the sand along a tributary of the Sabie River. It’s peaceful listening to the birds as the moon makes its appearance in the sky. We cook local meat and listen to astronomy lessons. It’s easy to forget in this natural paradise that we’re in the middle of a combat zone. A Ranger named Sam speculates that poachers in the area may believe the Rangers will take the weekend off since today is payday. But for the Special Rangers, there are no days off. Which is why they are war-weary. You can see it behind their smiles and jokes and texting sessions with girlfriends. A huge weight rests on the shoulders of men who, in most cases, are still in their twenties.
After dinner, as I’m riding shotgun in the helo, we thump over a massive herd of Cape Buffalo. I spot a pride of lion devouring something, possibly a zebra. The sun sets slowly behind us, casting rich gold light on the hills along the Mozambique border just ahead of us. We circle to clear the big game out of our landing area and then set down for the evening mission. I yank the handle to open the front door, and look back to offer good luck to the team as they head into the bush. But they’re already into the tall grass, a dog named Anti pulling hard on the leash, eager to track.
But these men don’t always need canine help to track poachers. They can see things in the landscape that I can only imagine. They know this place. It is their home. And as they ready for a long and dangerous night, they’re determined to defend their birthright. I’m here because I am committed to helping them, along with EDGE, the Honorary Rangers program run by South African National Parks service, and the NGOs that support it.
If you can, please visit Kruger National Park. There’s no place on earth like it. Every rhino sighting is a reward. It’s one of the few places left on earth where, for now, you can be sure to eventually see one. On any morning game drive, in fact, you’ll likely see all of the Big Five—rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo. What you likely won’t see are the officers standing valiantly between the most sought after game and the poachers seeking to kill them.
What the Rangers do they do on behalf of all of us—for every rhino loss is a global loss. If you want to help the Special Rangers, who often need such basic necessities as boots and other outdoor gear, you can contribute directly to SANParks through the Honorary Rangers program, or through the EDGE web site. But whether or not you choose to contribute, please help spread the word about the men who are putting their lives at risk to fight a growing scourge.
Nathan Edmondson is an American writer whose creations include The Punisher and Black Widow. He is the co-founder of EDGE—Ecological Defense Group, an NGO devoted to the innovative conservation of African wildlife.
Featured image: Kruger park Rangers arrive on the scene of a rhino killed by poachers.