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Can cross-border cooperation save the endangered rhino?

May 18, 2014 at 10:30 AM EDT
Only about 29,000 rhinos remain in the wild today -- 73 percent of those wild rhinos are in South Africa -- and most of those live in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Authorities are desperately trying to combat a dramatic increase in poaching. New cooperation with neighboring Mozambique may be key to stopping the slaughter.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The Kruger National Park is enormous, as big as the state of New Jersey, home to the largest population of rhinos on the planet. And they are being poached here at an alarming rate for their horns. Rhino horn is composed of the same material as a finger nail. But it is prized in Asia, especially Vietnam. Some believe it can cure cancer and boost virility So it is more valuable than gold. A pound of rhino horn sells for about $50,000. A typical horn can weigh between two and six pounds.

In Kruger Park last year 606 rhinos were killed for their horns. So far in 2014 the figure stands at 235. Johan Jooste is a former South African general commanding an aggressive anti-poaching unit in Kruger Park.

JOHAN JOOSTE: You’re dealing with armed incursion, you’re a sovereign country you have armed thieves entering your country, armed poachers, illegally. They plunder your resources and they exit illegally again.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The rhinos are defenseless—the poachers relentless, brutal—cruel—rhinos are shot, their horns hacked off whether they are dead or alive. A tourist captured these shocking images of one rhinos suffering.

Learn about international campaigns to save the rhino

Learn about international campaigns to save the rhino

BRUCE LESLIE: I think the worst is when you come across an animal that’s alive that hasn’t been killed humanely and it’s actually bleeding out and it’s on its hindquarters and it’s trying to walk away but it can’t and its whole nasal cavity and horns are removed. Those aren’t easy. Or a calf—I’ve seen a rhino calf of a few weeks that has been shot and killed by poachers and you ask yourself, well why? Why kill the calf it doesn’t make sense. It is a symptom of the level of greed. A calf horn is tiny, but still worth something to the poachers. And poachers will not hesitate to shoot at rangers.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Mbongeni Tukela has been a park ranger for 27 years.

MBONGENI TUKELA: They can be very, very dangerous. Of late they’ve taken to bringing more firearms then you’d expect from a hunting group. They would normally bring a hunting rifle plus a protection firearm, be it a shotgun or be it an automatic weapon like an AK-47. Sometimes they even carry pistols and one group who had a grenade.

JOHAN JOOSTE: Last year we had 60 firefights, six-zero. Killing doesn’t come easy for any civilized person. In those 60 firefights 47 poachers died.

KEN MAGGS: We have 22 sections in the Kruger National Park.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It is a small war and it is run from a tiny operations center in the park. Rangers are deployed at strategic locations across Kruger. At any given time there are between five and 15 groups of armed poachers hunting rhino in Kruger Park. Rangers patrol day and night trying to track them down. It is dangerous and difficult.

RANGER: If we find a track like this and then that is where we get our information that the movement of the poachers, how are they walking here, looking for the rhinos and then from this information is where we can start working on how are we going to get them.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Not easy for a few reasons.

KEN MAGGS: First of all they’re not scared to enter the park, they’re not scared of wild animals, they’re not scared of the dark or the night and they have no rules, absolutely no rules.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Ninety per cent of the poachers cross into the park along South Africa’s porous border with Mozambique. It’s their escape route too. Grant Knight flies support from above but he says they cannot follow the poachers into Mozambique.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Is it frustrating for you when you have to leave them?

GRANT KNIGHT: Oh big time, big time. I mean it’s such a complete barrier that the poachers know it. They know they’ve just got to get over the fence and we cannot carry on into another country and it’s a real barrier for us.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Limpopo National Park on the Mozambican side is a grim testament to the ravages of poaching. There are few animals here and no rhinos because poaching was never illegal in Mozambique. That will change this year. Afonso Madope is a director at Mozambique’s ministry of tourism. He says the laws are about to get a lot tougher.

AFONSO MADOPE: Most of the guys the poachers they were completely free because you know they were convinced that no one can do anything in order to arrest us or make their selves, their lives complicated. From now I’m convinced that will be completely different.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: At the moment though the poachers remain all powerful and they prey on people still living inside Mozambique’s Limpopo Park boundaries. The village of Mavodze in Limpopo Park is only 20 miles from the Kruger Park border. There are several communities like this scattered throughout the park, subsistence farmers and that is an important part of the equation. They don’t have much money and the poachers do. They’ll pay up to $30,000for a pair of rhino horns—huge money for people living on about $6 a day.

ANTHONY ALEXANDER, MANAGER, LIMPOPO PARK, MOZAMBIQUE: If you look at the poacher the poacher is typically 18-25 years old—young. Not many job prospects. But the money is spent at best on a house but generally on alcohol, vehicles, parties, so greed is a huge factor.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: We were told by a park official that these young men were involved in poaching—he warned us not to approach them. The older generation spoke to us but they were nervous. If they knew there were poachers in the village they didn’t say. Amelia has lived here most of her life. I would not show people the way or help them she says. If they came I would not take their money.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Thomas—one of the parks officials says he knows there are people here who do because he says there are many new houses.

THOMAS: Sometimes it’s about poaching, you know.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Yeah. So some of these houses in the village were built with money from poaching?

THOMAS: Yeah, but I don’t know actually who is poaching or not but I see the house. In a few moment I see the house, you know.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Mozambican park rangers have the weapons to prove it—these are from recently arrested poachers.

JOSE SITHOI: Because they are ready to fight.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So, they use the AK-47 to shoot against the rangers, and they use this weapon here?

JOSE SITHOI: For rhinos.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: For the rhinos.

JOSE SITHOI: For the rhinos.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: On the South African side the Kruger rangers are training to fight back. In this simulation “poachers’ are tracked. The ensuing staged firefight involves live ammunition. And it all ends with a capture. South Africa and Mozambique have just signed an agreement of co-operation. Soon rangers from both countries will be free to conduct joint operations and South African rangers will be able to chase poachers into Mozambique.

JOHAN JOOSTE: This agreement has the potential to change it over the next year most definitely. One will be able to pursue with a joint operation across the border. Mozambique park ranger Jose Sithoi says he is looking forward to working with the South Africans.

JOSE SITHOI: South Africa itself cannot fight against poacher alone and Mozambique, too, cannot fight against poacher alone. We are fighting against the same enemy and therefore we have to be united.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It is a significant development—perhaps a turning point in this war because in the last 6 years 1500 rhinos have been slaughtered in Kruger Park alone. The black rhino is now classified as critically endangered, the white rhino near threatened. The frontline rangers in Mozambique and South Africa offer the best hope in this determined effort to save the rhino.

BRUCE LESLIE: We are not going to go away. They need to stop and turn around and walk away because we are not going away. We are here forever and we are going to ensure that the rhino are here forever.