The drought hasn’t just caused havoc with South Africa’s water supply, it has also had an effect on poaching.
Game rangers on the front line of the fight to save rhinos and elephants at the Kruger National Park have revealed how the drought has contributed to the increase in poaching – and the devastating part of the job.
“Stress!” – that’s the word a ranger used to describe the race against death.
“When you lose a rhino, it’s very painful. When you see a rhino bleeding ... it’s painful. It’s traumatising,” said Punda Maria section ranger Tinyiko Golele.
“But as a leader, you need to be there for your team. You need to support, motivate and encourage them so that they can continue with the operation and arrest poachers.”
Golele lives at the nature reserve, which is 250km away from her three young children, and only gets to see them once a month.
She started working at the park in 2001, and has been a ranger for nine years.
“My achievement is to save the rhinos and elephants. When we discover a track, I want to see the poachers being arrested by sunset.”
She has witnessed several arrests in the past few years.
“We arrested six people in possession of unlicenced firearms. They came through the Punda Maria gate into the park with an axe and ammunition. They had come to hunt the rhino,” said Golele.
The poachers and evidence were handed over to the police.
Poaching is also a problem in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, which borders the Kruger Park.
Here, drought has forced villagers to turn to “subsistence poaching”.
In 2002, heads of states in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe signed a treaty to help each other with conservation, safety and security. Following the signing of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park deal, part of the border fence between Mozambique and South Africa was removed to allow the animals to roam freely to seek food and water.
Unfortunately, this also allowed poachers to cross the border, and rangers from Mozambique and South Africa must work together to fight poaching.
One of the challenges the Mozambican side faces is that there are still villagers inside the park, but a resettlement programme is dealing with that.
“These are poor people, cattle owners,” said Billy Swanepoel, wildlife manager at Limpopo National Park.
“We’re experiencing a drought at the moment, so we have a huge upscale in meat poaching. A lot of the villages don’t have crops,” said Swanepoel.
“A lot of people are hunting for meat – subsistence poachers, but there are commercial meat poachers as well.”
Rangers from both sides of the fence meet on a monthly basis or when the need arises, said Rendani Nethengwe, section ranger at Shingwedzi, Kruger National Park.
“We have joint operations most of the time; this shows that the relationship among ourselves is very good. Communication is good, we also share intelligence and equipment,” he said.
Nethengwe said they sometimes planned operations together, mostly looking at how to curb poaching.
“Our plan is to have preventative measures; to be proactive rather than reactive; to know who the poachers are – what their plans are, where they are going and what they are doing.”
Swanepoel said that, officially, they had found three carcasses in the Limpopo National Park, but had heard of about nine. He explained that they wouldn’t always get to the carcasses because of infrastructure challenges.
“We’ve got very few roads and it takes a long time to get anywhere. We’ll have information about a carcass, but can’t get to it to inspect the scene,” he said.
Some of the animals are being poached by the villagers. “[This happens] when predators eat the cattle and goats, when elephants and hippo eat their crops,” Swanepoel said.
The most severe drought in years has been experienced in southern Africa, with eight of South Africa’s nine provinces declared a state of disaster.
Scientific Services at the Kruger National Park say drought is a natural phenomenon and is very important.
“Plant-eating animals will suffer. We are going to see mass mortality, we need to expect that. But there are other animal populations that do better in drought,” said Navashni Govender, a programme manager for fire ecology and biogeochemistry at SANParks.
“The prey will take a knock, but the predator population will do very well,” she said.
She said that their data debunked the commonly held belief that there wasn’t enough water for the animals.
“We measure temperature, rainfall and water-related data. We monitor and gather as much information as we can so that we can understand and use this information to influence our management,” Govender said.
“One of the key things is to learn from what we are going through now to prepare for the next drought. It’s going to happen,” she said.