South African National Parks (SANParks) has been warned that the scourge of ivory poaching currently affecting the rest of Africa is likely to hit South Africa in 2014 according to Dr Hector Magome, SANParks Managing Executive: Conservation Services.
“At CITES (Convention for The Trade in Endangered Species) held in Bangkok in March we were warned that elephant poaching is going to hit us like an avalanche as early as January next year” says Magome. “As such, at our rhino poaching strategy meeting in September we adopted a dual strategy approach focusing on both rhino and elephant poaching in order to properly prepare.”
The recent cyanide poisoning of elephants in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park has done much to alert the world to out-of-control ivory poaching which is currently killing as many as 100 elephants a day, one ever 15 minutes or and estimated 32 000 elephants per annum. Closer to home, it has placed a huge question mark over the ability of SANParks to adequately protect the elephants in its care from a similar fate, given the rhino losses it is currently experiencing.
Reeling from the onslaught of rhino poaching syndicates, which has seen rhino numbers decimated in its flagship property, the Kruger National Park, SANParks has beefed up its anti-poaching unit in Kruger under the leadership of Major General Johan Jooste. But while the eyes and ears of the park are focussed on protecting rhino, are Kruger’s elephants – among them the last remaining huge tuskers – sitting ducks for ivory poachers
The northern reaches of Kruger abut Zimbabwe and Mozambique, both countries where ivory poaching is out of control. From the Limpopo river down through swathes of seemingly endless mopane to the regional ranger station at the Phalaborwa Gate, there are fewer roads than in the park’s tourist-intensive south, which makes the task of patrolling all the more difficult for Kruger’s custodians.
Crook’s Corner is positioned at the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers, where SA Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet it used to be a haven for gun-runners and poachers at the turn of the 20th century and it was here that legendary ivory poacher Cecil Barnard took refuge from the authorities in the 1920s. Some believe that this is where modern ivory poachers will start targeting the huge elephant herds that often congregate in this part of the Kruger park, as well as along the open border with Mozambique which has proved so problematic in the battle against rhino poaching.
“Our Mozambican counterparts are apparently losing three elephants a day to poachers at the moment,” says Magome, acknowledging that the actual losses could be much higher. “Given what is going on in the rest of Africa, it is inevitable that South Africa’s elephants will eventually be targeted.”
Magome says that there is little to prevent ivory poachers from entering Kruger in search of what he describes as a “double hit” – targeting both elephant and rhino in a single foray. And should poachers resort to using cyanide to poison water sources and salt-licks, particularly in the far north of the park, the consequences would be an ecological disaster of unparalleled proportions. The deadly chemical is not as obvious as a weapon, and may be easier to smuggle into the park as a result.
“We are planning well ahead and are prepared for what may come,” says Magome. “The last thing we want is for Kruger’s elephants to suffer the same fate as those in Hwange.”
Sharon van Wyk is an award-winning conservation writer and wildlife documentary maker and works with the Conservation Action Trust – www.conservationaction.co.za