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International park becomes frontier in Southern Africa’s rhino war

By Leon Marshall

Johannesburg, South Africa–Rampant rhino poaching is casting a dark shadow over the pride of southern Africa’s ambitious transfrontier-park program. Rhino killers are ruthlessly exploiting the open international boundary running through what is known as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park to carry out their dirty work.

Poachers typically down a rhino in South Africa’s flagship Kruger National Park and then hotfoot it back into Mozambique’s adjacent Limpopo National Park. The horn, sawed or hacked from the quarry, eventually passes through conduits to syndicates back in South Africa and on to markets in Asia.

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NGS stock photo of rhinoceros in South Africa by James P. Blair

Such cross-border poaching has become a major concern to conservationists and security operatives, already struggling to put a brake on the alarming increase in rhino killings in public and private parks around southern Africa. More than 150 rhinos have been killed this year in South Africa, compared with 122 killed in all of 2009 and 83 in all of 2008. (South Africa battles to save rhinos from high-tech poachers

It is also bearing out long-held concerns within South Africa’s security establishment that the dropping of fences along international boundaries, particularly fences with Mozambique, would make not only poaching but also smuggling of stolen vehicles and other contraband easier.

Law-enforcement officials cautioned against the overhasty removal of the high-security fence, a relic from the sub-continent’s era of anti-colonial and civil wars. The fence was reinforced with steel cables and razor wire, and along some sections sharp pegs were welded on to posts to stop Kruger Park’s elephants from pushing them over as they attempted to walk ancient migration routes into Mozambique.

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Rhino country: The Oliphants River in Kruger National Park near the border with Mozambique.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The fence has been partly removed in terms of the transboundary-park agreements between the two countries. Where it has been washed away by rivers it has not been repaired, allowing Kruger Park’s animals to cross of their own accord into the Mozambican park, which had been left practically denuded of game by that country’s conflicts that started in the 1970s and lasted till the 1990s.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park straddling the international border between South Africa and Mozambique was set up in 2002. It was supposed to also include Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park, but that link-up still has to made. The larger park has been delayed by Zimbabwe’s chaotic politics and by complicated negotiations involving communities situated between the 1,930-square-mile (5,000-square-kilometer) Gonarezhou and the two other countries’ parks.

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NGS stock photo of rhinos in South Africa by Chris Johns

In the beginning, many animals were relocated by truck from the 7,722-square-mile (20,000-square-kilometer) Kruger Park to the 3,861-square-mile (10,000-square-kilometer) Limpopo Park. But now the animals are allowed to migrate at will.

Unfortunately, the openings in the fence are also being exploited by criminals who use the public entrances to get into Kruger Park with four-wheel-drive vehicles stolen or hijacked in South Africa and who then cross into Mozambique, avoiding the Giryondo border gate between the two countries where passport controls apply.

International protocols make it difficult for South African security personnel to go in hot pursuit of the criminals, while the Mozambican security agencies seem not to be sufficiently equipped to deal with the problem on their side of the border.

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NGS stock photo of rhinos in South Africa by Chris Johns

The agreements governing the transfrontier-park arrangement between the two countries allow for joint security action, and people involved say there have been some successful operations against poachers.

However, a complicating factor is the presence of about 6,000 people still living in six villages inside the Mozambican park. It makes it hard to track and arrest suspected poachers. The hope is that, with help from foreign donors, the villagers can be persuaded to move to locations prepared for them outside the park. By isolating offenders from these communities, it should be easier to catch them.

An instance of the transboundary poaching was reported in The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg two days ago. Reporter De Wet Potgieter wrote that marks at the site of a killing showed that a rhino was shot on the South African side of the border and then dragged across to the Mozambique side where the horn was cut off.

He says about 60 of the rhinos poached so far this year were killed along the border, leading the authorities to regard it as a hot zone in their battle against the poachers. The report also implicates Mozambican conservation officials in the killings, adding a further dimension to the poaching epidemic in which helicopter pilots, veterinarians and even members of conservation agencies have already been implicated.

Potgieter quotes an undercover operative as saying: “The Mozambicans have got to do something about it. They have to clamp down on corrupt officials and start securing the transfrontier park on their side.”

Rhino Hotline: 082 404 2128

Meanwhile, one of South Africa’s leading conservation organizations, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), has set up a rhino hotline number as part of a project to strengthen the security of the animals.

EWT’s Rhino Security Project is addressing rhino security concerns on privately owned game farms as well as in formally protected areas. It does so by improving communication between rhino owners and relevant government officials, supporting investigations into cases of rhino poaching, working with relevant bodies to identify causes and drivers of the trade in rhino horn, and enhancing current knowledge of, and information on, rhino populations in collaboration with other initiatives.

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NGS stock photo of rhino in South Africa by Chris Johns

In a statement issued today, EWT notes that through the Rhino Security Project it has become evident that members of the public often become aware of information about poaching incidents or the sale of rhino horns, which should be reported to the authorities for action.

EWT has set up a Rhino Poaching Hotline (082 404 2128) to which information can be submitted for appropriate action by the enforcement agencies or other bodies.

“We call on every person who becomes aware of any illegal, or suspicious activities concerning rhino poaching or the sale, movement and/or trade in their horns, to please make use of this number in order to get the information to the relevant enforcement agencies.

“Other relevant information is knowledge of pilots or veterinarians involved in poaching through the use of aircraft and scheduled drugs and the unethical conduct of any professional hunters or outfitters to obtain rhino horn for the trade” EWT added.

All information will be channeled through the EWT’s Rhino Security Project’s lines of communication to the authorities for investigation. Any person who wishes to stay anonymous may do so and details of callers will be protected,” EWT says.

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Nat Geo News Watch contributing editor Leon Marshall is an environmental writer in South Africa. A leading political journalist and executive editor for Africa’s largest newspaper group for years, he has won numerous awards, including a 2004 Reuters-IUCN Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. Leon has covered climate change from a global and African perspective, having attended conferences on the issue in many parts of the world. He has written extensively on the ambitious transfrontier-parks program of the sub-continent and is now writing a book on the subject.

Leon Marshall’s blog posts >>

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NGS stock photo of rhino in South Africa by Chris Johns