July 6, 2022

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Africa’s oldest wildlife sanctuary is struggling to survive as it tries to fend off increasingly sophisticated international poaching networks amid a lack of funds and apathy among impoverished local residents.
ruger National Park in South Africa was established in 1926 and until the pandemic was one of the world’s most profitable reserves, attracting more than one million visitors a year.
Stretching to about 19,485 sq km, it is home to about 30,000 elephants, 490 different species of birds, including 15 types of eagle, and five-million acres of magnificent forests and grasslands.
But tourist numbers have plummeted thanks to coronavirus travel restrictions, leaving both rangers and people living on the park’s borders significantly more vulnerable to being bribed by poaching syndicates.
These groups are creating ever more complex schemes to get hold of animal parts to illegally ship to buyers in China and Vietnam, with one animal of particular interest: rhinos.
The rhino population fell by nearly 800 to 2,809 last year.
Only 250 deaths are officially poaching-related, but no one can explain what has happened to the others.
“We’re doing everything we can, but from a resource point of view we’re overstretched,” said Dr Luthando Dziba, head of conservation services for South Africa’s national parks. “To be honest, it gives us sleepless nights.”
At that rate of depletion, Kruger could have no more rhinos — one of the Big Five animals that safari parks rely on — within three or four years.
“The consequences of that are chilling for the park’s international reputation,” said wildlife writers Don Pinnock and Helena Kriel in a recent report on the issue. “Kruger would no longer be a Big Five game reserve.”
Poaching happens daily in Kruger, with sometimes up to seven groups active there in a day. Since 2014, there have been 19,154 logged poacher incursions, an average of 2,736 a year.
Tip-offs for where to find rhinos and other animals often come from the two million or so poor locals who live in the towns around the park.
Kruger straddles two largely rural provinces, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, where most residents have never been in the park.
That means that when poachers come by in expensive cars and offer cash in exchange for information, they find plenty of willing helpers.
Dr Audrey Delsink, wildlife director for the Humane Society International: Africa, said that such crime was “seen as low risk, high reward”.
That’s especially true given the “extensive legal proceedings” and “painfully slow” trials for the few people arrested for the crimes.
A new strategy drafted more than five years ago to improve anti-poaching measures has not yet been approved by the government.
But tip-offs can also come from poorly paid and demoralised rangers — there are currently 82 unfilled posts.
This reliance on inside information is “partly a result of our successes with enforcement actions”, said Gareth Coleman, the managing executive of Kruger Park.
“Climbing over a fence and going to find a rhino is more difficult now.
“So the strategy is moving to [an insider] seeing a rhino, giving the co-ordinates, and then there’s money in a bank account.”
An army veteran in the area, who asked not to be identified, said that the poachers coming into Kruger were increasingly well armed.
“They are terrorists, and none of the game guards, nor the bosses of Kruger, has had military training or experience,” he said. Until this training happens, poaching will continue.”
Kruger’s operating budget has been cut by 66pc, while last year SANParks, the company that runs all of South Africa’s national parks, registered a loss of more than R280 million (€15m). In 2019-20, it generated a surplus of R290 million.
It’s a reflection of the issues facing the country as it struggles to emerge from the ravages of the pandemic.
“Kruger exists within South Africa and what happens in the park is a microcosm of what happens in the country,” said Mr Coleman.
“How do we turn the economy of Kruger outward so we can ensure the people who are closest to the park can begin to benefit?
“How can we put rhinos under the protection of communities?”
Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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