The Lions of Kruger

Photo Credit: Nathan Edmondson

By Nathan Edmondson

Giraffe and zebra scatter as the shadow of our helicopter passes. Treetops whip and hornbills flee; we are low now, and we begin to circle. Neels pulls the starboard helo door open and leans out with his gun. I can hear the chatter through the headsets.

Time is ticking: it’s been an hour since a Section Ranger in this area of Kruger Park reported the shot; a clear .458 rifle round, the choice gun of rhino poachers. Likely the poachers have cut the rhino’s face and taken the horn, and we have little time to catch them.

Elephant are near. One trumpets in defiance. We spiral around them, getting lower and lower until we see it, between the Ironwood and Marula: a mother and calf. The mother is dead.

The poachers have been chased away and we approach the pair. The calf, a young male, nuzzles his mother for protection from the helicopter. Calves are known to stay by their mothers even when hyenas eat her body from the inside out. The mother’s horn is intact.

Photo Credit: Nathan Edmondson

She will be the fourth or fifth call the Kruger Operations Center (MAJOC) will receive today.

This is a war, and this South African autumn while traveling for the Eco Defense Group (EDGE) I got a peek at something extraordinary happening on the front lines.

***

Kruger National Park, at over two million hectares — roughly the size of Israel — is one of the largest and most diverse parks in the world, and it is the epicenter for counter poaching. On morning drives we are charged by bull elephant and attacked by baboons. We watch leopard walk up to our car and rhino and kudu and giraffe pass by. It is truly a kind of paradise, unique the world, unique among even other Africa preserves.

The park is maintained and controlled by Rangers, under direction of expert Regional Ranger Don English. Section Rangers control various parts of the park; under the Section Rangers, Field Rangers work in the bush for up to five nights at a time, tracking and ambushing the poachers that cross the borders.

And poachers cross daily. Kruger is losing Rhino at a rate of approximately 1.5 animals per day, with other species like elephant, pangolin and lion under attack as well. Since the market explosion almost a decade ago, the Rangers in the park have been fighting a war, and it is a war in which they struggle constantly to gain the upper hand.

Which is why 28-year veteran Ranger and Head of Special Operations Bruce Leslie has handpicked twenty top Field Rangers for a unique team of Special Rangers. They call themselves “The Lions.”

These Special Rangers represent a new evolution in the anti-poaching war.
 They are the tip of the spear in the fight, and their training, technology and tactics have made them a razor sharp instrument in an intelligent and evolutionary approach.

Leslie, whose right hand is scarred from a leopard attack, works day and night to turn these select rangers into an entirely new kind of unit. Their training involves advanced firearm and warfare tactics, night vision and thermal imaging training, intelligence gathering and the use of Malinois dogs to track and engage the poachers.

The training is intense, and involves a multi-faceted approach with input from veteran rangers and international experts. The Special Rangers have names like Witness, Wiseman, Present, Sam and Thomas — they use these names to protect their identities, as their families are often targeted by the poachers.

Poaching is not new to the park.

In the past it was a place of speculative hunting; collect some horn, collect lion paws, try to sell them. Groups like the former ESPU (Endangered Species Protection Unit) ran clandestine stings to capture the fortune hunters. The ESPU was quite successful. And then came 2007.

Things got worse in 2007–2008. Mission Area Manager Mbongeni Tukela was a ranger before he was appointed as MAN. He walked up to the first rhino kill in the park. From that moment they knew. Rhino had hit the market, and the prospectors were coming their way. The first rhino killed was a shot that rang out over the park, the first bolt of lightning in a storm that will never stop raging. In 2003, there were 13 rhino killed in the park. That number exploded to over 800 a year by 2015.

The men are inspiringly devoted, and they work for very little. Each has a personal connection to the area and the campaign. Corporal Thomas came to the rangers after his brother, a ranger himself, died of an illness. Another member lives in the park with the rhinos out of fear of his life — he may be hunted in his home. The men are are spiritual, considerate, and in so many ways normal 20 or 30 somethings with their own slices of social lives. They are, too, warriors, and they know the land better than anyone. It is theirs to protect.

It’s night and we are deep in the bush at a special shooting range set up for Ranger training. Lightning flashes around us, defining trees and hills, green in our night vision goggles. The Special Rangers run shooting drills, the same sorts used by elite military units around the world. The training is nonstop, the men are tireless.

Their enemy evolves every day. So must the rangers.

The poachers are locals. They may be — and often are — friends, co-workers, even family of the Rangers. Poverty being rampant in nearby areas, the offer for a year’s salary to hack up an animal that lives in your backyard is hard to turn down. Many locals have never ever seen a rhino.

Behind the poachers lies a more sinister foe. Southeast Asian black market conglomerates and others use middle men to recruit poachers from communities local to the animals in demand. Destitute villagers may split 120,000 Rand between them for one horn, minus the cost of the guns they must buy to do the job. Of course, the value of the horn is five times that when it hits the market. Rhino horn is currently more valuable, ounce for ounce, than diamonds. The horn’s value lies almost entirely in a false belief of its power in aiding virility. Some collectors prize an entire horn, but mostly it is ground down and sold as a powder — powder from the same stuff as human fingernails fuels all this carnage and despeciation.

There is often no way for the poachers to know exactly who finances and who profits from the poaching — as the financiers are removed by several degrees of separation from the poachers themselves. Further north, I’m told of reports that groups like Boko Haram get funding from illegal wildlife trade, and that the same trade piplines are used to traffic sex slaves and weapons — though these reports are disputed. (For more on this debate, I recommend Bryan Christy’s documentary film Warlords of Ivory in which he tracks fake ivory to Joseph Kony, and also Keith Somerville’s in depth book on the subject, Ivory).

In 2010 then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tasked a fact-finding group with finding links between poaching and terrorism in South Africa, and the group consulted with park officials. Clinton herself had asserted there was evidence to link terrorism to ivory especially, and promised money and resources to aid in that fight. Nothing apparently came of this investigation, however. The link is still a question mark, but there are plenty of whispers about it on the ground, and elsewhere the links are obvious — and the international community is aware.

In 2014, Congressman Ted Poe (TX) wrote for CNN: “According to an 18-month investigation commissioned by the Elephant Action League in 2011, the al Qaeda affiliate Al-Shabaab generated between $200,000 and $600,000 a month from tusks. This vast sum of blood money accounted for about 40% of Al-Shabaab’s total operating budget. These terrorist poachers not only kill African Animals, but are accused of murdering 60 Wildlife wardens in 2012 as well.”

(The 18 month investigation he refers to is chronicled here http://elephantleague.org/project/africas-white-gold-of-jihad-al-shabaab-and-conflict- ivory/)

The horror is not limited to the world of the terrorist groups. Family members of Rangers have been murdered, park officials have been slaughtered in the bush, and animals are often mutilated beyond recognition in a manner far beyond what is necessary for the poachers to do their job.

As they decimate the Kenyan populations and those of other East African nations, they are swiftly moving to the abundance of South Africa and Kruger park. Already there are indications, taken primarily from prisoner interrogations, that the terrorists are already piped into Kruger, if several degrees removed from the deed itself.

Fortunately, officials in Kenya, along with those in Namibia, Mozambique and other countries are consulting with the Kruger Rangers to develop their own robust anti-poaching operations. EDGE, for example, works in various countries to coordinate information and training and assist in developing robust animal security.

Coordination is key. The market changes. Other items — lion paws, hedgehogs, ivory, pangolin scales — are used for “Muti,” or witch doctors, or other black market demands (lion paws are often boiled or ground down and sold as tiger paws in Asia). North in Kruger Park, elephant ivory is currently in high demand because the Rhino have all been hunted there.

If you head north on safari, you’re not likely to see rhino anymore — and the poachers now push south, like a wildfire, meaning to eradicate the population.

Indeed, on every trip to Kruger, Rhinos seem harder and harder to find.

__________

Rangers are the force on the ground. Each section of the park has a Section Ranger, and each Section Ranger manages the Field Rangers who disappear into the park to track and ambush poachers. The Field Rangers sometimes spend five nights in the bush, in a tent, looking for “spoor,” or the footprints, broken thorns, tied sticks as secret symbols and other signs left behind by teams of poachers as they sneak through the park. Among the field rangers are the famous all-female group ‘Black Mambas,’ further north.

The land, though beautiful, can be as dangerous as the poachers. From the Mamba to the buffalo to the leopards and lions, there are many ways to die in the bush. Every step requires sharp senses and a quick wit. One learns quickly to listen to the bush — the warning birds, the oxtails, the insects; everything speaks to the Ranger, warning perhaps of large game waiting in a thicket. Then there are deadly snakes, crocodiles, poisonous thorns. Native knowledge is paramount in the fight.

Direct engagement is just one tool of the park’s tools in its adaptive approach to anti-poaching. There are stings, PSYOP campaigns, community education, orphanages and breeding programs, tourism and market-level penetration measures.

Adaptive Conservation means not having an agenda. It means being able to move, dynamically and fluidly responding to and anticipating the evolution of the enemy’s tactics. It means understanding the biosphere, for example understanding that poisoned elephant carcasses — a new occurrence in parts of the park — kills the vultures, which the rangers rely upon to help spot carcasses and map the pathways of poacher teams.

Working outside the park and sometimes within, non-profits from around the world coordinate in conservation. These partners are vital. As extraordinary as Kruger’s program is, and devoted the Special Rangers, no one entity can do it alone — especially when Kruger has thousands of miles bordering other countries, where the rangers have no jurisdiction.

The Kruger Ranger program is a world leader in Adaptive Conservation. _____________________________

In this context, what can Sam, Wiseman, Prison and 20 Special Rangers do?

They can indeed turn the tide of the war. They can change the name of the game. What the Special Rangers, these “Lions” can do, the poachers won’t see what’s coming for them. The 20 Special Rangers represent not simply a step forward in the evolution of Ranger warfare, they are a radical leap.

The Special Rangers, like a Conservation Rainbow Six represent how Kruger authorities recognize the gravity and longevity of the campaign. This is not a battle that can be simply won, a foe that can simply be defeated. It is a campaign.

After that they are an example to the world. What begins in Kruger follows worldwide. Every private preserve takes note of what happens here. It is the tip of the spear, the epicenter for anti-poaching.

Private preserves are often better funded, but arguably nowhere in the world is the fight for the rhino more important than in Kruger; is the war more fiercely fought.

The Special Rangers are the Spartans.

Photo Credit: Nathan Edmondson

It’s evening. We’re enjoying an evening “braai” on the sand in a tributary of the Sabie River. It’s peaceful listening to the Lorries and other birds as the moon rises, we cook local meat and listen to astronomy lessons. It’s easy to forget in this natural paradise that we’re in the middle of a war.

The quiet day is a deception, Bruce tells me. The lull doesn’t mean that the poachers aren’t here. They are sneaking into the park, they are waiting. The poachers believe that the Rangers will take the weekend off as today is payday. For the Special Rangers, there are no days off.

“We will win this fight. We will,” says Chief Helo pilot Grant, still in his pilot’s coveralls, listening to the trees.

Tukela explains “What we need to do this swiftly is a community approach. The poachers come from our communities, and our communities must take ownership of the animals that are their birthright, that give our land identity.”

Bruce Leslie, standing in a sandy riverbed, feeling his scarred hands, tells me “These animals have a right to life, just like we do.”

Every day is different, and every day there is a call.

The mean are war-weary; you can see it on calls, behind their smiles and jokes and texting girlfriends. A huge weight rests on the shoulders of these young men in their twenties. Like any soldiers sent to fight a war, though they fight in their own country, their own home, and much like the preservation of a species is an extraordinary responsibility.

Photo Credit: Nathan Edmondson

I’m riding shotgun in the helo. Behind me are Sam, Corporal Thomas and Wiseman, all with guns ready. Sam’s Malinois “Anti” rests quietly on the floor, his nose on my foot. He watches the bush pass below.

We thump over a massive herd of Cape Buffalo. I spot a pride of lion devouring something, possibly a zebra. The sun sets slowly behind us, casting rich gold light on the hills along the Mozambique border, just ahead of us.

We circle to clear the big game out of our landing area and we set down. I yank the handle to open the front door, and look back to wink “good luck” to the team behind me. They don’t make eye contact. They are immediately out of the bird, into the tall grass, Anti pulling already on the leash, eager to track.

I follow these commandos, unsure of my step and nervous as our pilot Jaco gives me a wave and lifts off to run suppression while we follow the dog. Of course, these men don’t always need the dog to track. They can see things in the landscape that I can only imagine. They know this place, this is their home, and as they ready for a long and dangerous night they are determined to defend their birthright.

Two nights ago at a small restaurant I’m told by a waitress called Patience that “The bible tells us that it is our duty to defend these animals. We must, because what is happening to them is evil. We are called to fight these men.”

Ahead of me, Sam’s young but already seasoned eyes study every blade of grass while he watches the sky for vultures.

There are poachers out there, that is one of two certainties tonight. The other is that the Special Rangers will find them, and will bring them to justice. I’m committing to helping, anywhere in the country, that I can, along with EDGE, The Honorary Rangers and other support NGOs.

When you can, and one day you must, go visit Kruger National Park. There’s no place on earth like it. Every rhino sighting is a reward — and it’s one of the few places left you can be sure to see one.

On any morning game drive you’ll see the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo) — at least for now. Behind the animals, what you won’t see is the men and women, young and old, standing valiant between the rhino and the poacher.

____________________

If you want to help the Special Rangers, who often need necessities as basic as boots, you can contribute directly to SANParks (www.sanparks.org) or through www.ecodefensegroup.org — EDGE continues to support the Special Rangers.