The Dark Side of Paradise

I’ve been going to the Kruger National Park with my family since I was a little girl and as I’ve grown older, I have continued to try and go as often as possible. The peace and tranquility when surrounded by nature in the African bush is a feeling beyond what I could ever describe in person or in writing, the early mornings waking up to the chatter of the birds as the glow of the golden sun gently kisses the tops of the trees. The ringing heat of the midday sun and driving around in silence with your eyes peeled looking out of the window in the hopes of finding a swish of a lion’s tail, a herd of ellies or a beautiful little bird keeping watch from the branches of a tree. As the sun dips lower in the sky and the light starts to burn an fiery orange hue, the fire is lit and you listen to it crackle and pop as talk about how remarkable nature was that day.

For many people the bush & particularly the Kruger, has very romanticised notions attached to it & up until last week that had been the case for me too. It was time to explore the darker side.

Our Unfenced Camp

The rhino poaching crisis has horridly escalated within the last five or so years, and the threat of final extinction dawns upon this prehistoric looking species. As a South African, the rhino poaching has obviously been a subject that we hold a lot closer in our hearts as many of us have seen them, they’re a part of our big five & we learn about them from little. I completely understand that as a foreigner, the rhino might be a rather strange & distant animal that is far removed from your immediate worries  and appears as nothing more than a one-horned dinosaur.

The problem is however that this crisis affects us all, not only in terms of the fact that our children might never learn about a rhino because it no longer exists, or that the ecosystem depends on the rhino just as it depends on every other species (even the damn fly), but rather that, for myself at least, it is a shocking insight into how brutal human behaviour can go in exchange for wealth, how far removed we have become from the environment, a place that we constantly place our proverbial crown on top of and claim the rights of the land as if it was there for the taking.

Last week, Ben, SP, Adrian, myself & a few other journalists were lucky enough to be invited to the Kruger National Park for a short stay to learn more about rhino poaching and the current situation thanks to Rhino Tears. We spent 3 days in a beautiful unfenced pop-up camp in the region of the park where the rhino numbers are greatest, therefore targeted by poachers. Despite it being a great experience & experiencing the  beauty of game drives & bush walks, it opened up our minds to the severity of the situation & the amazing work being done by the anti-rhino poaching unit, the rhino’s unsung heroes. The four of us were specifically there to film a short YouTube film documenting how tracking dogs are used to sniff out poachers hiding in the bush and the success of this initiative, so keep your eyes peeled on my Twitter for the announcement of the release.

Ben Brown at sunset

 Lets start off with a little education about the Kruger National Park, the rhino & their horn as well as why it is such a valued commodity.

The Kruger in a nutshell: For those of you who are picturing it being anything like a zoo except on a larger scale, think again. The KNP is roughly 2.2 million hectares which is roughly the size of Wales, and is the last remaining natural wilderness of this size and with thousands of different species that call it home. Only 0.5% of the park is accessible by car and to drive all of the private & public roads in it would take up to a lifetime. It borders South Africa, Mozambique & Zimbabwe and has several SANParks camps throughout it where visitors can stay, as well as luxurious private lodges where you fork out a small fortune to stay in that border it. So yeah…the KNP is pretty much how majority of this region of the African continent would be without human interference.

Statistics: According to Save the Rhino Organisation, 5940 African rhinos have been killed by poachers since 2008, with 1338 rhinos poached last year alone in Africa, 1175 of these took place in South Africa, namely the Kruger National Park. Looking at the Kruger Park alone, 7128 recorded poachers entered the KNP last year, with 2466 incidents.

The problem is that the poaching has spread to other countries such has Zimbabwe & Namibia, with Botswana’s African rhino population under 24 hour armed surveillance due to already losing all of their rhino’s previously & having the Kruger send more over. The fact that the rhinos have 24 hour surveillance indicates not only how serious this crisis is, but how few are actually left in this country for a 24 hour watch to be possible.

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Why & How?

With the rhino horn now being the 4th largest illegal trade in the world and replacing gold & platinum as the highest valued commodity, the most obvious question would be, why? Why is it so expensive & what is meant to do? Who is using it?

The rhino poaching syndicate is a 5 layered design. Level 1 is your poachers on the ground who do the dirty work for the big boss, they come from poorer communities & are often desperate for a form of income which taking down rhino provides them with. The poachers usually leave during the night on foot, are highly skilled in the bush and know important things such as how to disguise their footprints, being silent & stealthy, able to deal with large predators, track spoor (footprints) and  usually travel in groups of 2-4. These guys would get paid roughly R30,000 for a rhino horn. Level 2 is your couriers, level 3 is your buyers, level 4 is your exporters and level 5 is the receiver. Due to the KNP bordering Mozambique, this is where most the poachers enter from, using illegal firearms such has automatic rifles with home-made silencers, and are now going to the heartless extreme of firing one silenced shot to injure the animal and then axing it to death to avoid further noise.

Helicopter Flip

Where does it go?

The current poaching crisis of the rhino’s is attributed to mainly Vietnam & China where almost all of the receivers are based.  The horn is valued at near $100,000/kg. The saddest part of it all is that it is made up of Keratin, the same substance that our fingernails are made from but however the poor rhino’s pointy fingernail is perceived to be so valuable. Despite having no proven medical benefits, the rhino horn is ground up & used as a cure for cancer, hangovers, temperatures and fevers. It is moulded into Libation Cups, used a knives in Yemen and a large percentage of it is used as ornaments & jewellery.

The anti-rhino poaching unit is doing everything in their power to protect these beautiful species, and we were lucky enough to watch professional vets dart a rhino & take samples for their records. These guys are passionate about their work & work all hours of the day in trying to combat the dwindling numbers. Their positivity for the situation seems promising, yet one can feel the sadness in their voice as they describe stumbling across brutally hacked rhinos, some still alive with their horn axed out, and others laying dead. One of the main problems of the situation is the lack of funding and all of these SANParks honorary rangers who dedicate their lives to saving nature, is all unpaid & voluntary. Unfortunately the South African government has other more important things to worry about than the near extinction of rhinos such as building Jacob Zuma a lovely home, etc. So it is up to you & I to take matters into our own hands, and support or help.

The rhino poaching is an intimate system that makes little sense, but unfortunately we are past the stage of the being angry about the stupidity required to believe that Rhino Horn cures things such as cancer etc., and our efforts should be solely focused on now saving the rhinos, being one step ahead, equipping the gas on the ground with everything necessary to put an end to this and educating the Vietnamese & Chinese about the hoax that is rhino horn.

Sunset in Kruger

If you are at all interested in making a donation to the SANPark’s honorary rangers, you can do so by clicking here. Every single cent goes towards conservation, guaranteed.
In other news, stay tuned for next week’s blog post where I explore our visit on a much lighter note & leave the poaching element aside, rather focusing on our experience in the camp & stories from the bush 🙂