The human victims in the fight over rhino poaching in Africa

by @kenichiserino January 7, 2015 5:00AM ET

At Kruger National Park in South Africa, the economy drives rangers to hunt poachers and poachers to hunt for horn

South Africa
A forensic team from Kruger National Park gathers evidence at the site of the killing of two rhinos, a male and a female, Dec. 8, 2014.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

This is the first of two stories on the human toll of poaching.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — Vusi Nyathi went to the bush for rhinos. Not to watch them like some tourist, though. He went for a payday, about $5,000, more than he could make in a lifetime in the small village in Mozambique where he grew up.

Vusi Nyathi went to poach rhinos.

He returned in a body bag of thick black plastic.

Rhino poaching has exploded in recent years, driven by demand in China and Vietnam, where people will pay as much as $65,000 per kilogram for horn — a higher price than for gold.

The demand has resulted in the emergence of syndicates paying hundreds of men, generally poor Africans, to risk their lives and their freedom to kill rhinos and bring back the valuable horns. These men are the foot soldiers in a small-scale bush war pitting them against South African authorities responsible for the largest remaining rhino population in the world.

A ranger at the scene of the killing of two rhinos.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

Ken Maggs, who heads the environmental crimes unit at South Africa National Parks, known as SANParks, says that while South Africa had always experienced poaching, including rhinos, the current spate began after 2007. In that year, 12 rhinos were poached. In 2008 the number leaped to 83.

“For us at the time, it was fairly dramatic, going from losing one animal a month to two or three a month,” Maggs says.

But worse was to come, with rhino poaching increasing exponentially. In 2013 just over a thousand rhinos were killed, and 2014 was expected to be even bloodier.

Maggs has worked on the problems of poaching at Kruger National Park since 1994. There was poaching then, but a ranger’s job entailed mostly aiding conservation and dealing with errant tourists. Today most of the ranger’s efforts are spent in military-style anti-poaching efforts.

More poachers and their unrelenting butchery of the rhinos has changed the nature of a ranger’s work. “It’s escalated to a point where we are spending 80 percent of our time in a pure, almost military-style law enforcement role,” he says.

Despite the demands of the job, few rangers have quit. Maggs is frank about why most stay on: “Employment.”

Visitors to Kruger National Park wait for a rhino to cross the road.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
Poachers take only one thing from their prey: the horn.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

In the 20 years since the end of apartheid, South Africa has struggled with creating jobs, and the official unemployment rate stands at 25.5 percent. This means that many people struggle to find work and that those who succeed are often supporting several dependents.

“You’ll get some individuals that are really heart and soul conservationists, but generally speaking, it is a job, and jobs are not easy to come by,” says Maggs, “To have a job is really important.”

Thomas Shitlhabani knows this. He’s been a ranger for the past eight years, joining up not long after his father died and he needed to find a way to support his family. With his modest salary as a ranger, he provides not only for his wife and small son but also for seven siblings.

He is a member of SANParks’ special operations team, which means he and his partner, Amos Mzimba, often lead the pursuit of poachers. The job is dangerous, as the bush provides cover for poachers who are armed.

“It worries me a lot. If something happens in the bush,” says Shitlhabani, trailing off as he lets out a heavy breath. “You know I fear for my family. It’s stressful. I’m a breadwinner. There’s no one else to support the family. Once I die, it’s over.”

Maggs says rangers like Shitlhabani might have three or four encounters a month, including firefights, with poachers.

“There are some days we will have three contacts or firefights with poaching groups. The poaching groups are relentless. Day or night, it doesn’t stop,” Maggs says. “We are concerned. This intensity, the number of firefights, poachers wounded, poachers killed, near misses are having a psychological impact on not only rangers but their families.”

Maggs says SANParks has contracted with a psychologist to provide its rangers with counseling, which they receive after any contact with poachers. Earlier this year, for the first time, families of rangers received group therapy with a counselor.

Park ranger Thomas Shithlabani and his wife, Yvonne Shitlhabani, at home.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

That group session included Thomas Shitlhabani’s wife, Yvonne Shitlhabani, who is a cleaner at a Kruger guest lodge. With their son, they stay in a small staff accommodation. Their two-room home is meant for a single man, but they squeeze together by putting a bed in the kitchen.

“Thomas is doing dangerous work. This work is not good, because there is poaching and animals. He is working very hard. I am staying a long time [at home] when he goes to work. I miss him so much,” says Yvonne Shitlhabani.

Her husband can spend several days at a time in the bush patrolling or pursuing poachers. While he is away, she thinks the worst. “I am thinking sometimes the poachers will kill him,” she says.

What happens in the bush, he keeps to himself. “He doesn’t tell me because he knows I will be afraid,” she says.

Intimidation is another problem. Many rangers come from the same communities as poachers, making the rangers very unpopular. Like one-factory towns, these communities have become dependent on the money the poaching industry brings.

“Such a large amount of money is being generated by rhino poaching that whole villages are being driven and kept afloat by illegal activities, money generated from rhino poaching,” Maggs says. “Some of the rangers worry about going home, because they may be accused of being a sellout — particularly more when you have poaching individuals killed by rangers."

Park ranger Amos Mzimba with his wife, son and dog. The canine, Killer, has helped him catch 36 poachers.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

Mzimba has experienced this firsthand. He recently participated in the arrest of his cousin, who was a field guide at Kruger and from the same village. While in jail, his cousin beat a fellow prisoner, knowing the victim would later see Mzimba at court.

“He did it to send me a message, ‘Tell Amos that I am coming,” Mzimba says.

Only one ranger has been killed and another wounded during an anti-poaching operation, both in the same friendly-fire incident. But rangers and their families live in fear nonetheless. While Maggs worries about that as well, he’s also fearful that a ranger will kill a poacher and be convicted of murder.

Maggs can envision a ranger making a split-second decision and killing a poacher. And if that ranger goes to trial and is convicted, Maggs will have to struggle to keep up morale among his staff.

His fears may be coming true. All shootings by rangers are investigated by local police. Until recently, no ranger had been accused of murder. That changed in December, when three rangers at a park in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal were charged with the murder of a suspected poacher. Park authorities have denied the accusation.

Accused poachers wait for their cases to be heard at the courthouse in Kruger National Park.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
Men confer with defense lawyers about their cases in a room adjoining the court.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

After poachers are arrested, they end up in a courtroom in Skukuza, a small town inside the park. The courtroom can seat fewer than 40 people and is in session only one day a week, Wednesday, when the judge, prosecutor and public defenders commute from as far as three hours away.

The bulk of the cases are related to poaching. As court begins, the suspected poachers are led from their cells in groups, usually in threes. Poaching gangs usually work in threes: one to track, one to carry supplies and one to shoot. If they’re successful, the porter will get more than $4,000. The shooter, whose skills are more specialized, will probably make closer to $9,000.

The men standing in front of the judge one recent Wednesday weren’t so lucky. They don’t look like the menacing veterans of Africa’s liberation wars, images held in popular myth. They don’t look old enough. Most are in their 20s, and the oldest is probably in his early 30s. They also look as if they just walked out of the house. Instead of the khaki of a military bush uniform, they wear blue jeans and collared shirts. A couple wear soccer jerseys.

Most are indigent and will be represented by a public defender, but a few have managed a private lawyer, the same lawyer who represents several suspected poachers and who is guarded about how their families are paying his fees.

Gen. Johan Jooste, head of Kruger’s anti-poaching efforts, says close to 80 percent of the poachers who strike Kruger come from Mozambique. All are poor.

“These are destitute poor people that are recruited to do this by crime networks who make the real money,” Jooste says.

Ken Maggs, left, the head of Kruger’s environmental crimes unit, and Otch Otto, the mission area manager, look at a map of Kruger National Park.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
The transfrontier park includes national parks in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

SANParks representatives will not say how many poachers are killed in the park. Instead, they use the word “neutralized” to refer to people who have been either arrested or killed. Jooste says more than 300 were neutralized in the area of the park, including 160 inside Kruger. More than 150 firearms were confiscated from the suspected poachers.

The Mozambicans who are arrested or killed come from the small towns and villages that dot the border with South Africa. Kruger National Park is what is known as a transfrontier park, meaning it crosses borders and joins with Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique.

Driving from the South African to the Mozambican side of the park, the contrast is stark. On the South African side are well-maintained roads, either paved or gravel. But in Mozambique the roads are riddled with culverts, and the ride becomes bone-shaking. Animals like zebras and impala, which fill Kruger in South Africa, are fewer and farther between in Mozambique.

Whereas Kruger attracts 1.4 million visitors and provides employment to thousands of South Africans, Limpopo does not appear to be that popular, and locals have not benefited.

A painting of a rhino at a guesthouse in Massingir, a village in Mozambique on the border with South Africa that has become closely associated with rhino poaching. In 2013 rhinos were declared extinct in Mozambique.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

Several villages have been forced to relocate from the park — in part to curb poaching — beyond a fence that marks its borders.

“It’s an old story around the world, but specifically in Africa, of affluence and poverty,” Jooste says. “The fence is seen not to keep the animals in the fence but to keep people out.”

The village of Banga was forced to relocate more than a year ago. It was the land Arnié Ngoveni called her home until the relocation. “They say our space was a space for the park,” she says.

Banga is a few dozen huts, most made with the same reddish-brown earth they are built on. Some livestock wanders the outskirts of the village, cows and goats, and one newborn kid bleats plaintively. About 20 children play, chasing one another and wrapping themselves in colorful lengths of cloth.

Unlike at their previous location, Banga’s residents now have little agricultural land. Their previous source of water was a river, but now they have no supply and must pay for water, further putting pressure on these subsistence farmers.

In dire circumstances like those, young men are ready to be recruited by poaching syndicates. It’s easy to find families who have had men killed while on poaching excursions in the park.

“I don’t like the people who go to poaching. It’s poverty. Mostly young men go because they need money, and they go there to risk their lives. I don’t like poaching because sometimes the men die, and it’s not good for the families,” Ngoveni says.

She knows this firsthand. Her grandson was killed last year. He left behind two wives and nine children.

“The first problem is the poverty, because someone can come here and show a bag of money … They say, ‘If you want this money, you should go to the bush,’” Ngoveni says.

Her granddaughter Norton Mongoe is still angry a year later. “He was there in the bush, the field rangers told him to stop, and he didn’t, and the field rangers shot him dead,” she says of her brother. “There was an investigation … I am angry because they killed him, because they were supposed to arrest him and take him to court.”

On the drive to the next village, the interpreter plays a song by a local DJ. Mozambican state radio won’t play it, but it’s a big hit in clubs and house parties in the border areas. It’s a tune addressed to SANParks rangers. “What is wrong with you? People from SANParks trust you so much, but our children are dying. You are killing our people,” the lyrics go.

Women mourn at the funeral of Vusi Nyathi, a poacher who was shot and killed in Kruger National Park.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America
Nyathi’s grave.
Kate Brooks / Redux Pictures for Al Jazeera America

Vusi Nyathi was only in his 20s when he was killed. His nephew Julio Mabuya didn’t know him that well, but in a few days he’ll be hacking down thorn trees in the bush to clear a path toward Nyathi’s grave.

“The field rangers shot him in the leg and here in his face with bullets,” Mabuya says, moving his hand on the side of his own face. “It feels wrong. I’m angry, but there’s nothing to do, because my uncle is dead.”

Mabuya used to travel to South Africa as a migrant laborer but stopped after his last trip ended without his finding work. Though he has little money, he would never go to the bush to poach, for fear of his life, his wife’s and his baby son’s.

Still, he knows the danger won’t deter others. “The money is there. That’s why you’re forced to go there,” he says.

Meanwhile, Nyathi’s grave is only about a meter deep and is lined with cinderblocks. A few dozen villagers have gathered around it as the workman lays the last three bricks near where his head was laid. These three bricks form a small pyramid without embellishment or adornment. This will be the only headstone he will get.

As the first shovels of dirt hit the thick black plastic, his widow begins to cry out, and she collapses at the gravesite. She is led away by some of the men as shovels of dirt continue to fall in the grave. Halfway through, broken plates and clothes are thrown into the grave, actions prescribed by a local healer or "sangoma.''

More women begin to shout and wail as the men take turns with the shovel, continuing to fill the grave in silence.