KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA – “At any given time, there are 12 poaching teams in the park,” my safari guide Mario told me on my “spring break” trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa. Kruger is an expansive park that covers an area of 9,485 square kilometers (7,523 square miles) of land and is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna. While I was most interested in seeing giraffes and leopards, the most objectively coveted animal in the park is the rhinoceros.
Roughly 1100 rhinos are poached per year because of the value of their tusk, which can be sold for $90,000 per kilogram. Locals are often paid some relatively large figure, like R50,000 (roughly $4,165) for a rhino tusk, an amount which can drastically change a life in South Africa. It is this incentive which motivates them to band together, sneak into the park, and hunt illegally.
“Money breeds corruption,” Mario explained. Not only do these large sums of money entice poor locals to engage in crime, but there is a history of park rangers getting involved as well. For example, Mario described a hypothetical situation in which a group of people may enter the park in their own car for a self-guided tour under the guise of casual tourists, but when they leave with a severed tusk in the trunk, they may attempt to bribe the ranger searching their vehicle at the exit. At times, such bribery has worked.
“It’s a huge war here,” Mario said as he explained the physical conflict surrounding poaching. Kruger has taken notable measures to prevent poaching, including the creation of anti-poaching squads. These squads cover the park in myriad forms; trucks, helicopters, rangers and dogs collaborate to survey the park 24/7. These well-equipped and armed squads can be quite threatening to perhaps amateurly trained poachers, which often provokes the poachers to fire on the squads. These military-trained squads naturally retaliate, effectively creating the warfare to which Mario alluded.
Kruger, among other high-poaching parks and areas, has at times attempted more long-term efforts to combat the poaching problem, though few have been successful. For example, at one point, Kruger attempted to make the tusks less attractive. Rangers would humanely sedate rhinos and inject dye into their horn, discoloring it to a pinkish tone. These dyes were aesthetically displeasing and toxic for any kind of human consumption. The immediate effect was a reduction in poaching levels, but they quickly returned to normal because humans have no need to ingest the tusks. Rather, consumers especially in markets in China and Vietnam seek the horns as a status symbol. Jewelry and other goods made of rhino tusks send clear messages of wealth and power, given the supply and regulations surrounding such products.
My trip to Kruger was incredible. I saw all of the “Big Five” game animals (leopard, lion, rhino, elephants, and buffalo) which are recognized as the most difficult large game in Africa to hunt on foot. Getting all five in a few days can be challenging, so that was good fortune! However, my last evening in Kruger was a full moon. “This moon is beautiful, but it is not good for the rhinos,” Mario told us. “It lights up the bush [the plant life/wilderness] like you can’t believe, which let’s the poachers see where they’re going. More rhinos will inevitably be poached tonight.”