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In the Field

In the Field

Jul 2015

Words Braam Malherbe 

In the past, a field ranger was equipped with a .458 rifle and a pair of binoculars. On a field expedition, he might have carried two clips of ammunition, a cooking pot and a stove. Now, he wears full combat chest webbing and a camo net, and carries a semi-automatic with night sight and thermal-imaging equipment.

Rangers sign up to be conservationists, not soldiers. However, poaching has steadily intensified over the past 10 years, and now these conservationists are finding themselves waging war against not only poachers but organised crime as well.

In 2014, 1,215 rhino were killed for their horns by poachers in South Africa, with over 60% killed in the Kruger National Park (KNP). According to Ruben de Kock, manager of the African Field Ranger Training Services division of the Southern African Wildlife College: “Game rangers have become the last line of defence in the bid to protect endangered species from extinction.” 

According to him, ranger training includes a six-week basic training course, plus two weeks of advanced training and possibly two weeks of reaction force ranger (RFR) work. After 10 weeks of training, a field ranger has to be ready to operate in extreme conditions against poaching incursions. 

Ten years ago, the poaching threat was almost non-existent. According to Major General (retired) Johan Jooste, who is head of special projects operating in KNP, now there are 12 to 15 poaching groups in the park at any one time. “Eighty percent of poaching is by Mozambicans, who enter the park south of the Olifants River. It’s happening all over the park, but mostly in the south, because there are more animals there. Poachers will mostly infiltrate at night, walking up to 25 kilometres into the park to find the rhino,” he says.

Kruger has 400 rangers and 150 men in other roles such as protection services, plus an air wing comprising four helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft and three microlights. They are supported by a police contingent and an army complement.

However, the KNP rangers have to be deployed over 20 000 square kilometres. “It’s a daunting task; economical deployment methods have to be practised by the park,” says De Kock. “A two-man observation post is linked to a helicopter or other fast-deployment means, and the rangers proactively watch the common routes into the park, deploying reaction force rangers when suspects are seen.”

Kobus de Wet, SA National Parks environmental crime investigation chief, explains the procedure for rangers in an engagement: “The ranger has to chase down the criminals using the South African Police Services ‘minimum force’ Rules of Engagement. In terms of Article 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977, if the ranger’s life or his colleague’s life is in immediate danger, he can use necessary force to overcome the threat. Minimum force must be used, appropriate to the level of threat. For instance, if the poacher points at the ranger with the firearm or cocks a weapon, that would be considered an immediate threat to the ranger. The ranger may only shoot to neutralise the threat if the situation calls for it—he may not shoot to prevent the suspect getting away.”

According to him, every incident is unique, has its own merits and must be measured as such: “The situation is extremely complex, and advocates are regularly invited to talk to the rangers to educate them on when they can or cannot shoot.” 

According to Major General Jooste, regardless of whether there is an arrest or a fatality in an engagement, the area is declared a crime scene. The police are called in and crime scene management takes place. “It’s very important because we need proof in the court. It must be a very meticulous process. Then it’s in the hands of the police, and it goes into the legal system. Our legal system has improved drastically: We have a better conviction rate, the turnaround time is quicker, and the sentences are harsher.”

The process is very stressful for the rangers, even if their actions are justifiable. But the law must follow its course. 

“In terms of the Criminal Procedures Act, all unnatural deaths require a criminal docket to be opened, and based on statements and information in the course of the investigation received, a magistrate will determine whether there was foul play or not. Of all incidents I know of involving rangers shooting poachers in the past 14 years, none have been found to be foul play,” says De Wet.

According to Braam Malherbe, a director at Accountability Now (formerly the Institute For Accountability in Southern Africa), “The Rules of Engagement need to change, both to deal more effectively with poaching incursions and to protect the rangers. I have delivered a letter asking the Minister of Environmental Affairs to expedite these changes to allow our rangers to ‘do whatever is deemed necessary to apprehend poachers in the KNP’. I believe this is vital if we are to save our rhinos from imminent extinction.”

De Kock agrees: “Poachers are criminals, and rangers need to be empowered to use firearms more freely within the law. In terms of Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, rangers should be able to warn, and then be able to take action accordingly to apprehend the criminal, and there should always be a judicial enquiry before a murder docket is opened.” 

Malherbe adds, “Relaxing the Rules of Engagement would enable rangers to act with confidence and security against poachers, who are not only in the KNP illegally but are also in a foreign country illegally—armed with automatic weapons and acting with criminal intent. In most instances, they have snuck across an international boundary with the sole intent of stealing a rhino horn. If you crossed into the US illegally, carrying an automatic weapon, and stole gold from Fort Knox, you would be shot on sight.”

The current memorandum of understanding between South Africa and Mozambique is largely ineffectual, and improved co-operation between the countries is crucial to stop poaching. If they are to be effective, rangers need standard operational procedures for hot pursuits across the border. 

Mozambican law does not support the extradition of criminals for trial in South Africa, and the punishment for convicted poachers is a minimal offence. “As a result, criminals are flagrant about their activities and have built entire communities and economies around poaching operations, without any action being taken against them,” says De Kock.

Poachers are charging the syndicates over R80 000 per kilogramme, which can earn a team up to R800 000 for a set of horns.

The KNP has prioritised the need for more rangers with specialised anti-poaching skills and the ability to track humans. Highly trained RFRs are being placed across KNP in order to be deployed quickly and effectively by motor vehicle or helicopter if poachers are observed in the park.

Major General Jooste says the rangers are doing an excellent job under difficult conditions: “We are working hard to support them physically, materially and mentally—but it is a protracted, tough war.”

Poachers have also upped their game, becoming more proficient and effective in their methods and, according to De Kock, they are now better equipped with heavy-calibre weapons including firearms such as AK-47s. “If they are spotted, the poaching groups ‘bombshell’ away in all directions to evade capture.”

De Wet explains how rangers proactively respond: “The rangers know how poachers come into the park and their exact entry points, so the field rangers practise waylay tactics and other operations such as tracking to find the poachers on these routes and to intercept them before they can poach rhino.”

He quotes sobering statistics regarding poaching in 2014: “As at 29 October, 625 rhino had been killed; we recorded 82 contacts with poaching groups, 248 crossings into the park, 71 poacher sightings, 1 188 tracks of individual poachers and 144 arrests.

“We see a conviction rate of 85%, but all of this has zero influence on the number of poachers coming into the KNP because the rewards are so high, and most of the poachers are desperate and are recruited out of extreme poverty,” De Wet adds.

In response to the poaching threat, rangers are being taught tactics that involve aggressive offensives and tactical withdrawals. If they catch a poacher, they approach with caution, searching the area for others and looking for concealed weapons and any other intelligence information.

Dogs play an invaluable role in tracking poachers, especially at night. Some dogs can detect explosives and are able to pick up ammunition or weaponry, while others are natural asset detectors trained to pick up animal products, specifically rhino horn. 

Despite the high risks involved, there is no shortage of applications for ranger training. This year there were 480 applications for 30 places in the National Resource Guardianship programme.

“Field rangers are really the saviours of conservation and they need our country’s full support,” says De Kock. “Without them, we would not have a single animal left in many parts of the world. I’ve seen empty national parks, and it’s a devastating sight.

“For too long, people have taken a soft view of poaching, but a poacher is a criminal; the current poaching situation is an act of war, and we need to respond accordingly,” he concludes.

In an effort to boost morale and show support of the good work these rangers are doing, Malherbe - who is the ambassador of the Endangered Wildlife Trust MyPlanet Rhino Fund - is working to initiate a programme that both recognises and financially rewards rangers who have gone beyond the call of duty. “They are demoralised and frustrated, and deserve all the encouragement and help they can get.”

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

Kruger National Park (South and Central)
Kruger National Park (North and Far North)

The Intrepid explorer