Poachers’ latest target

2017-08-27 05:58
An elephant poached in the Kruger National Kruger National three weeks ago. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

An elephant poached in the Kruger National Kruger National three weeks ago. Picture: Tebogo Letsie

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The stench wafts through thick mopane bush as rangers negotiate their way towards the carcass of an elephant three weeks dead.

Vultures flying overhead point rangers to the remains of the animal, complete with a dismembered trunk and a vast chunk hacked off the front of its head.

Poachers shot the giant dead for only one thing: its precious white tusks.

The crime scene, a few kilometres from the Mozambican border in the northern Kruger National Park, is already old.

The elephant’s back has been ripped open by vultures, its thick spine licked clean, and its chest and stomach cavities cleared by scavengers.

Rangers conduct a preliminary investigation and pick up tracks leading to the Mozambican side of the fence.

They say they have seen many more dead elephants, and the fight is on. The arrest of 90 poachers throughout the park to date has borne testimony to that.

In May 2014, SA National Parks (SanParks) – custodians of the Kruger National Park and other nature reserves – expressed its shock at the discovery of its “first poached elephant in 10 years”.

As was the case with this week’s carcass, tracks were discovered leading to Mozambique.

At the time, news of this wasn’t widely reported because rhinos were poachers’ preferred targets and were being killed by the dozen.

But in recent years, the more the rhino population has been reduced by poachers’ guns, the more they have been forced to move on to their next targets – elephants.

The giants’ tusks are being sold by illegal international trade syndicates, just like rhino horns.

Elephant poaching is now among SanParks’ biggest concerns, after managing to record a 34% decrease in rhino poaching in its reserves between January to June compared with the same period last year.

During a media tour of the northern Kruger National Park this week, SanParks spokesperson Ike Phaahla said 30 elephants had been poached this year, compared with 22 last year.

Intensive protection zone manager Mbangeni Tukela said the northern part of the park, which has the highest elephant population, is now under threat after poachers decimated the area’s rhino population.

Seven elephants were poached last month alone.

Undeterred

Tukela said poachers were not deterred by the challenging task of hunting down an elephant and hacking deep into its skull to remove its tusks.

“It’s easier to hunt rhinos compared with elephants because they are bigger.

“At times, they shoot an elephant and it may fall on its tusks and that would require serious manpower to turn the head around so they can start working on hacking off the tusks,” he said.

How do they do it?

Thomas Ramabulana, a sectional ranger in the Vlakteplaas section north of the Kruger Park, has been part of several operations in which poachers have been arrested.

He said poachers normally work in a group of three to four men.

“In each group, one carries a rifle to take down the targeted animal, while another will carry a bag with food to [sustain] them while on the hunt.

"They also carry tools such as knives and axes for hacking the tusks. Another man would be needed to help carry the loot back to where they came from,” he said.

“Sometimes they carry more than one rifle, which they use to fight back when we apprehend them.”

He said poachers preferred working during a full moon, which lights up the night.

Those arrested have been found wearing different types of shoes to confuse trackers, while others cover their shoes with plastic bags to conceal their tracks.

Rangers say poachers also carry muti, which they believe will direct them to animals during their hunt and make them invisible to wildlife security officials.

Despite lions and other predators roaming the park, poachers are known to stay out in the veld for several days.

They fear rangers more than lions.

Sometimes, after they kill an elephant, they feast on it before leaving the carcass for scavengers.

“We have found scenes where poachers have made fire, cut some meat from the elephant they had just killed, and braaied it while hacking its tusks off,” said Ramabulana.

“Last year, they poisoned a whole carcass, which killed at least two lions and tens of vultures who ate from it.”

Poaching has become a headache for South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, whose parks were integrated to form the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park and Conservation Area through an international treaty signed in 2002.

Joint wildlife policing initiatives were being implemented by the three countries, sharing information and intelligence that has, officials say, led to many arrests and a decrease in rhino poaching.

With around 20 elephants poached in the Kruger this year alone, there were concerns that the park’s 17 000-strong elephant population would be affected by the end of this year.

“Yes, it is a big problem, but some programmes are already being rolled out and [were bearing fruit with] about 90 arrests already made,” Phaahla said.

“The army, police and our rangers have been working together with great success to combat poaching and we continue to develop and better our joint efforts.”

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Read more on:    sanparks  |  poaching

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