There’s a small sign above Major-General Johan Jooste’s desk at his office in Skukuza, the headquarters of Kruger National Park. It says: “Think Big, Start Small, Act Now”.
It’s an apt credo for the man in charge of anti-poaching at South African National Parks. The 61-year-old ex-army general joined the organization in 2013, and has been tasked with one of the country’s biggest, most immediate challenges: combatting the scourge of rhino poaching.
Last year, 606 rhino were killed in Kruger, out of a total number in South Africa of 1004. This year 433 rhino have been killed in Kruger so far.
“We are fighting a war,” says Jooste, who retired from the army in 2006 after 35 years of service, but also has an MBA and has worked in business development in the arms industry.
I spent this past Saturday flying with General Jooste in one of the anti-poaching helicopters, visiting the various section rangers that are based across the vastness of Kruger’s 20 000 square kilometres. We spoke about what he and his team of rangers are doing to fight the poachers, the strategy behind moving 500 rhinos out of Kruger, and the looming threat of elephant poaching.
Scott Ramsay: What is your exact role?
Johan Jooste: I was contracted for five years beginning of 2013 to head up anti-poaching within South African National Parks. For now my job is all about Kruger and its rhino. I know there are other parks and other animals – not the least of which is elephant – but for now it’s Kruger and the rhinos. That’s the battle we have to win now, without being shortsighted.
SR: What are you dealing with in Kruger?
JJ: We are fighting a war. These rhinos in Kruger are the most valuable cache of environmental assets in the world. Rhino horn is more valuable than gold or platinum. Gram for gram, it’s the most expensive commodity on the planet.
Throughout Africa, rangers are performing military roles to battle poachers. We have to militarise our ranger corps. This problem will not go away. Supply meets demand in Africa. Poaching of rhino is low-risk criminal activity (compared to a cash-in-transit heist), it requires few logistics and it’s relatively easy. A poacher can easily carry a set of horns between 6 and 9 kgs and he earn millions of rand ultimately.
SR: How many men do you supervise?
JJ: I have about 400 rangers, and about 150 other men, including special rangers, as well as an airwing, comprising two helicopters, two fixed wing aircraft and two microlights. I also have a small contingent of police and I have joint command with an army company.
SR: Where is poaching mostly taking place in Kruger?
JJ: 80% of poaching is by Mozambicans, who enter the park south of the Olifants River. It’s happening all over the park, but recently mostly in the south, because there is more rhino in the south. Since we’ve tightened up security on the borders, poachers will infiltrate at night, walking up to 25kms into the park to poach. We’ve recently put pressure on the east, and since then the poaching from the west of Kruger has also picked up.
SR: How many poachers are operating in the park at any one time?
JJ: A conservative estimate is about a dozen groups of three poachers each at any time, so about 36 to 40 poachers. There are about three groups entering and exiting the park every day. A poaching group can spend up to four or five days in the park.
SR: So the poachers are spread out all over the park?
JJ: Yes, but sometimes over full moon they will concentrate in one area, knowing that the rules of engagement favour them, and puts us on the back foot. We have to arrest them, and we’re not allowed to kill them intentionally. And they know this, so their theory is “let them chase us”, and they will come into the park in such numbers that we can just not plug all the holes.
SR: Who is your typical poacher?
JJ: They are young men, in their 20s, recruited from poverty, but who later become greedy. They are uneducated and they have very few opportunities to get a job. The rifle handlers are selected well, because the .458 and .375 rifles are high-value assets. The navigator is also important because he’s the guy who knows the park, has been in before, and can guide them at night. The third guy caries the knives and axe, food and water. As much as I despise them, the poachers can survive well in the bush, and their bushcraft is remarkable. Their tracking is good, and their resilience is of note. They are a formidable opponent with no rules.
SR: What are the main measures you have taken to reduce poaching?
JJ: A variety of measures. When I arrived, we had to unify command. We had to group all the enforcement agencies – the airwing, the army, the rangers – into one cohesive force. We had to set up a nerve centre, the joint operational centre.
We then consolidated the state of the rangers – the preparedness and the sustainability of the rangers as a force. We then expanded the corps, to include an airwing, canine units and special rangers.
We concurrently worked on an alliance with all our neighbours, in Mozambique and locally, with parks, concessions and communities, so that we have a buffer zone, so that intelligence is shared and joint action is taking place.
Then we have technology. By October 2013, we knew which technologies would work here, and by end of next year, we will be using an array of sensors that will allow early detection of the poachers.
We also set up designated protection zones. We have an intensive protection zone in the south, a joint protection zone in the centre, and a composite protection zone in the far north.
In the south of Kruger is a quarter of the world’s rhino, with one rhino for every square kilometre. As much as we believe we must solve the problem mainly on the outside of the park, a lot of technology will be deployed in the south to intensively protect this rhino.
SR: What technology is going to be deployed?
JJ: We will be using detection and early-warning technology. We have to react to what we detect, so the operation nerve centre will grow, and will allow us to allocate accurate resources.
We are retraining the reaction forces in the south. A dedicated helicopter will used in the south, to ensure a sub-15 min reaction time to poachers, and will be able to fly at night so we’re not restricted to daytime air responses.
SR: What about the rest of Kruger’s rhinos?
JJ: Don’t get me wrong, we are not neglecting the rest of the park’s rhinos, but we have to dig in our heals and focus our priorities. 60% of the park’s rhinos are in the south, on 20% of the surface area of the park.
While the government and public are working to reduce demand from Vietnam and Thailand, while we’re working to involve communities, and while diplomats are working with Mozambique to sort their own problems out, we have to create a safe haven, a bastion, a fortress to make sure that we safeguard this core population. If poachers get in here in numbers, they will kill as much as they can.
SR: Recently, the new dog teams have made a big difference?
JJ: We’ve expanded the dog teams, not only with special rangers, but also with section rangers and their teams, and we’re aiming to place dogs at all the gates.
One of the dogs is an explosive detector, so the dog can pick up ammunition or weaponry, while the other is a natural asset detector, trained to pick up animal products, specifically rhino horn. We have just under 20 dogs currently, but we need a minimum of 50 dogs.
SR: What happens to the poachers when they are caught?
JJ: It’s a crime scene immediately, whether there’s an arrest or fatality. The police are called in. 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 turn-around time is quicker, and the sentences are harsh.
SR: Bail and fines are being paid for poachers. Where does this money come from?
JJ: We must not forget that what we are dealing with here is international organized crime, backed up by foreign criminals. These syndicates are so wealthy that they could be a Fortune 500 company on their own. They don’t have any conscience, laws or rules and they have good intelligence, and they have unlimited resources. So they will help poachers out, there will be bail and then legal defence. Every time we have a crime scene, we have to be very careful to manage it carefully so we have the proof to get a conviction.
SR: Shoot to kill. What is your view?
JJ: It will improve our success rate, and it will be a deterrent, but it won’t stop the poaching. In this park, which is 20 000 square kilometres of thick bushveld, it is too difficult to detect people, so the risk is low, and poachers know this.
SR: How may poachers have you apprehended?
JJ: In 2013, we neutralized 133 poachers, of which 47 were killed. This year so far we have neutralized 76, of which about 20 have been killed.
SR: What are the poachers on the ground being paid?
JJ: It varies, but one can safely say that a group of three poachers can earn more than R100 000 for one poaching excursion. Sometimes they will get paid per kilogram, so they can earn over R200 000. But they will earn more than R100 000, or about R30 000 each for two or three days work.
If you’ve grown up in destitute poverty, that changes your life. And if you do it a few times, your life is changed forever. It’s the powerful social force that we are dealing with. The adjacent communities don’t own the park. It has never been theirs. If you’re living in an adjacent community, you’re going to ask: “What do I get from that park? A few of my community work there, but most of us, what do we get?”
SR: What do you need to reduce poaching to acceptable levels?
JJ: We need national, regional and global involvement. National – the whole government, the police, the army, SARS must play their role. Regional – we have to solve the Mozambique problem. What we are doing now is barely keeping it in check. The growth in poaching is slowing down, but poaching is not decreasing. To bring the number down will require a national, regional and global solution, of which demand reduction is critical.
SR: What do you need on the ground to do more?
JJ: In an ideal world, we need more men. The norm is one ranger for every 10 square kms. In Kruger we have 1 ranger for every 50 square kilometre.
We could have 2 000 rangers, and a fortified boundary of 1 000kms around the park, with helicopters and technology. We have 400 rangers at the moment, we probably need five times that.
But we must be careful because this is a tourist destination, and not an army base, so do we really want those numbers of enforcement staff? And with all the extra people comes risk too, because there are far more people entering and leaving the park.
And there’s also logistical costs of hiring 1500 extra staff: housing, offices, management, equipment, vehicles, fuel, food and services, all of which can swallow up budget that could be spent more accurately.
SR: So what is that “more accurate” solution?
JJ: The philosophy will always be to clear the park from the outside. We have to work the problem in Mozambique, work on reducing demand in Vietnam and China, and work on the crime networks.
In an ideal world, we could have far more staff, but I’d rather have intelligence agencies outside, that disrupt the networks and focus on nailing the Mozambican middlemen who are the conduits for the money.
SR: What about putting the fence back up between Mozambique and Kruger?
JJ: Yes, we will be putting up a fortified, monitored fence in the south, on the east of the intensive protection zone, from the southern boundary of the park to a latitude north of Skukuza.
A fence is part of the overall solution. A fence itself that is not monitored regularly is useless, and means nothing. The world over, people can get through fences. But a physical obstacle along with surveillance can work.
SR: The Mozambican middlemen, many of them in the town of Massingir, are conduits of the money. What is being done about them?
JJ: Yes, if we can get rid of them, it will change the game and stop most of the poaching. That is the most logical thing to do. But up until recently, it was not illegal to poach in Mozambique. Amazingly, there are still no laws against poaching wildlife. A new bill was recently gazetted in April, but it still has be passed into law. So that will help a bit.
SR: But even if they have the new law, will they enforce it? Can South African rangers or police not arrest these middlemen in Massingir?
JJ: Trust me, it’s enormously tempting for my teams to go across the border and bring them back here, but we can’t do that. It’s actually so unacceptable that nothing is happening in Mozambique about these middlemen, but that’s not under my control.
We are fighting a war here. Mozambicans are making armed, illegal incursions into South Africa, another sovereign country, plundering our resources, and exiting with our resources. We have on average 3 armed incursions by poachers every day, about 90 per month. To me, that’s an act of war.
We know many of the “level 2” bosses, who are living in Massingir. 80% of the solution lies in taking these guys out.
SR: But why is that not happening yet?
JJ: Probably because there is lots of politics that has to happen first. As I said, that’s out of my control.
SR: So the elimination of the Mozambican middlemen is the answer?
JJ: Yes, there’s no denying it. There’s no doubt about it. We are hopeful that some of the pressure to remove the middlemen will materialize soon, now that Lieutenant-General Vineshkumar Moonoo, the police’s head of detectives, has joined the government’s rhino poaching task force. We will expect that soon we will have the ability to work with the Mozambican police to pursue the middlemen.
SR: What about corruption in the police force in Mozambique? Do you trust them?
JJ: There is no such thing as a perfect police force, so you have to choose your champions there carefully and work with them as close as possible.
SR: What about intelligence gathering and informers?
JJ: We have informer networks outside the park, in co-operation with the police, and although we can’t go into Mozambique ourselves, we have good contacts there. We have a standing reward for information that leads to a conviction, but the big flaw is that up till now, convictions can take three or four years.
SR: Elephant poaching that has ravaged East Africa is coming to South Africa. Already two elephants have been killed for ivory in the north of the park. What are you doing about that?
JJ: Yes, it’s coming. We can’t wait for another rhino situation with our elephants. Everything that we are doing now as a team is aimed at making our rangers better at anti-poaching, so we don’t just deal with rhinos, but also elephants and other animals.
But we must also look at asset protection as a region. If we don’t have a regional task force, even a continental task force, we have no chance. We have to reduce demand and we have to nail the syndicates.
SR: Environment minister Edna Molewa announced recently that a few hundred rhino would be moved from Kruger to other protected areas – what’s the strategy there?
JJ: I head up the rhino steering committee for Kruger, and we have a holistic approach to our rhino problem. What are our options? We need law-enforcement, we need intelligence, we need demand reduction, but we also have to decide what we do with our current rhinos. Do we dehorn them? Do we move them? And we decided that relocating them is part of the solution to protecting them for the future.
SR: How many will be moved and to where?
JJ: Initially, about 260 rhinos, but ultimately about 500. There are various venues, but in the short term mostly the Northern Cape. Other countries are not excluded.
SR: There’s been a public uproar about the sale of the rhinos to private game farms that offer hunting. Are the Kruger rhinos going to be hunted?
JJ: No, they are being sent to private game reserves or state protected areas to be conserved. The rhinos Kruger sells to these places are not allowed to be hunted. That’s in the contracts.
SR: How much is the revenue from the sale of the rhino, and what’s happening to the revenue of the sale of the rhinos?
JJ: It’s about R300 000 per animal [so about R80 million – SR]. It’s coming back to SANParks, and most of it will come to conservation, and my team will benefit directly from that.
SR: Rhino horn trade. Should there be trade? What’s your opinion?
JJ: This is my personal opinion. I’ve read so much about it, and I’m not sure what the long-term effect will be. Will legal trade help in the short-term, or will it put pressure on us in the long-term. Can it solve the problem? It’s very hard to tell so I’m not sure. But on the other hand, what options do we have? This problem does not have a single, lasting solution. We need a set of solutions that evolves. There are no easy answers.
SR: So what are the long-term solutions to stopping the poaching of Africa’s wildlife?
JJ: There are only two long-term solutions. Giving ownership of Africa’s parks to surrounding communities, so they take responsibility themselves for their wildlife, so they feel a strong sense of ownership in the wellbeing of their wildlife. And second, we have to reduce demand in Vietnam, Thailand and China.
SR: Last question. Are you and your team in Kruger going to win this war?
For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.
Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.